Storyfied Marketing: Show, Don’t Tell


One of the cardinal rules of persuasion and storytelling is show, don’t tell. Advertising tells; stories show. And that’s why they’re good for business.

Do you remember the first Super Bowl you watched? I didn’t know what the Super Bowl was until I was invited to a Super Bowl party in 1st grade. You see, my family was nerds. It was 1991. I don’t remember a single play or either quarterback’s name. I only remember thinking commercials were ridiculously entertaining.

I ate Fritos, drank a root beer, laughed at commercials.  

You may still watch the Super Bowl for the commercials, but are you generally a fan of advertising? Hell no! Why?

  1. First, everyone has bought a product that didn’t work as advertised. Buyers—and particularly millennials—ignore claims that appear self-promoting.
  2. At the same time, we’re bombarded with information more frequently and from more sources than ever before. Smartphone alerts, emails, pop up ads, calls to action, sponsored content on news sites, banner ads—in addition to traditional, non-digital media. It’s a barrage. It often becomes overwhelming and annoying.

You might take some satisfaction in knowing, then, that

Traditional advertising is screwed.

Millions of people now have the means to ignore ads with options such as TiVo, subscription services like Netflix and ad-blocking software. Trust issues aside, they want to go out and find their own solutions.

Stories, not promotions, provide reference points that influence our decisions.


If a brand interrupts something we’re doing to pitch a solution to a problem we don’t have, we feel annoyed. In many cases, we even feel alienated. This can be something as simple as seeing an ad for Carl’s Junior when you’re not hungry. So even a well-crafted ad can backfire if it gets in front of the wrong person at the wrong time.


In the book Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World, authors Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace point out a number of trends in supporting this. For instance:

  • TV networks have subtly sped up the pace of television shows to create more time for ads, causing actors’ performances to suffer. Why? Because advertisers aren’t bidding nearly as high for air time. They know it’s less effective, so TV networks need to sell more of it to maintain profitability.
  • Ad-blocking software adoption is also growing at about 40 percent a year.

We have more distractions and more choice over what we view than ever before, so our patience for disruptive advertising is paper thin.

For these reasons marketing has evolved into more of a conversation than a pitch. It’s about content. There are different facets of content marketing and I’ve made no secret about having a favorite: Storified Marketing.

Why do stories resonate with people while advertising falls flat?

Stories unite people across cultures, continents and generations because we are literally wired to love them.  

McKee and Gerace explain why this is. They also explain why:

  • Stories, whether fictional or based on real events, provide reference points that influence our decisions.
  • Stories embed themselves in our memories far more than hard facts, numbers and logical arguments.
  • When we recall well-told stories we feel as if we were actually there witnessing or experiencing them.

The explanation encompasses evolution, history, neurobiology and psychology. This statement from Storynomics sums it up:

“The mind builds stories to bridge the gap between itself and the universe, between itself and the past, present, and future. Story form imposes order on chaos; it penetrates the enigma of the seems to express the cause and effect of the is; it unifies events to bring meaning out of meaninglessness. Knowledge expressed in story form gathers other human beings around its themes, uniting communities and building cultures.”  (emphasis added)

What is a story, anyway?

We know them when we see them, but without understanding what makes a story a story—as opposed to a narrative or chronology or something else—it’s hard to tell them.

For instance, all stories are narratives, but not all narratives are stories. As McKee and Gerace explain, “[S]tories progress with emotional dynamics; narratives repeat emotionless facts.”

By the authors’ definition, a story is

“a dynamic escalation of conflict-driven events that cause meaningful change in a character’s life.”

Or, in a nutshell, “Conflict Changes Life.”

What do you need to make a story not suck?

All stories have two key ingredients: empathy and intrigue. Here’s a super-simple formula to keep in mind:

Curiosity + Empathy = Suspense

Stories evoke curiosity about how protagonists will navigate obstacles to achieving their desires or fulfilling needs. The protagonist in every decent story is an underdog with vulnerabilities that inspire some empathy among the audience. This is true of even the cockiest, most swashbuckling action hero. Every hero has to reveal some

Storynomics_Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World
“Knowledge expressed in story form gathers other human beings around its themes, uniting communities and building cultures.”

vulnerabilities and limitations, has to face a strong possibility or likelihood of failure at some point. Otherwise, the whole show is an insult to the audience’s intelligence and a waste of time. It’s annoying!

Are stories namby-pamby?

Okay, stories are great, but does this all apply to business settings? Aren’t stories best left to daydreamy artists and, in some cases, marketing departments?

We don’t always recognize it, but we all make story-driven choices in our relationships, the way we vote, and the way we do business. If stories are namby-pamby, so are we all.

Whatever impression you may have based on us writers, stories are BAD ASS!

We don’t often have the opportunity to save a child from drowning in a river or foil terrorist plots, but in business, we help people solve problems every day. A proficiency in storyfied marketing techniques allows you to churn out tons of stories that people will appreciate for their authenticity and entertainment value.

If you want people to remember and relate to you (that’s basically another way of saying, “If you want to make money.”), start small.

  1. Start with authentic, empathic characters.
  2. Describe what you do at a scale where the listeners can imagine themselves right there beside those characters.
  3. Then you can zoom out and place those snapshots of your impact in a larger context, discussing things like product features and customer satisfaction ratings if you want to.

10 years from now people may still look forward to Super Bowl commercials, but we will by then have almost completely screened traditional advertising out of our daily lives.

One of the cardinal rules of persuasion and storytelling is show, don’t tell. Advertising tells; stories show, and that’s why they’re good for business.

“[M]arketers who make Storynomics work have an extraordinary opportunity: Instead of wasting millions on interrupt advertising, what if you could thrive in your business and at the same time do good in this wanting world? Suppose you were to stop bragging about your products and promising fictional futures, and instead tell stories that enrich your audiences with humanistic insight?”

– Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace, Storynomics

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Posted on: December 4, 2018