In my two earlier posts on using stories to enhance your marketing and sales efforts, we explored the psychological and evolutionary reasons that stories resonate with us, and we reviewed a summary of my simple story formula.
In this post, we will dive deeper into the story formula to help you gain familiarity with it and learn how to use it to tell stories that sell.
Although some successful stories don’t follow established formats, many do. If you do any research on story, you will very quickly run into Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey, in which Campbell identifies 17 stages that are common to many great “quest” stories.
This story archetype has been used in some of the greatest stories ever told. From Appolonius of Rhodes (Jason and the Argonauts) to Andy Wachowski (The Matrix), these authors’ stories involve a hero on a quest.
George Lucas’ Star Wars is often cited as a perfect example of this genre, and Lucas himself has admitted that he used Campbell’s tome while writing the screenplay.
Our hero Luke Skywalker leaves behind his simple life and enters a new reality where he must face down the enemy. In the process, battles are won and lost, mentors are introduced, and in the end of the original trilogy, he and the Rebels emerge victorious.
Although there is nothing wrong with using this archetype in all its glory in your story, it is generally too involved for most stories that sell. After all, our intent isn’t to win an Oscar or the Pulitzer prize, but to create a marketing message that incites action and turns into business.
A common base story that works for selling products and services involves your customer or prospect (a.k.a. the hero) who has a goal.
- In order to attain their goal, obstacles must be overcome.
- You and your firm are the mentor.
- Your hard work in learning how to solve the problem and your creation of the solution is of value to the customer.
In this story form, you and your product or service help the hero overcome their obstacles and attain their goals.
If we think of a story as a living being, then the eleven steps make up our formula and provide these characteristics:
- Three Part Foundation: These are the bones in the skeleton of any story. If any of these are missing, your story collapses faster than a manikin made of gelatin.
- Five Plot Features: These are akin to skin and hair. They differentiate one story from another.
- Three Elements of Dynamic Story Movement: These are the muscles which drive the story forward, the order in which you tell your story, the pacing and suspense keep the reader engaged.
You don’t necessarily need to use all eleven of these elements, but a good story that sells will contain many of them.
We’ve now explored how we as humans are wired to latch onto story, and gotten an overview of how the 11 step 3-5-3 Story Formula works. Next we’re going to dive into the story formula in depth.
The three component parts that every good story share are the context of the story, the action that takes place, and the conclusion, where the story gets tied up into a neat bow.
The context for the story is the situation or scene where the characters will engage with each other. Depending upon your audience, you may need to explicitly describe the context, or your audience may be so familiar with what you are describing that you only have to provide brief reference to it.
If you were going to create a story based upon one of the niches where you have seen some previous sales success, perhaps with the owners of watercraft, you might need to provide quite a bit of background in order to paint the picture so that your prospects and customers understand that you are speaking directly to them.
The action refers to those elements of the story that make your point. The number of action elements that you include will be determined by the medium you are using and the amount of time your audience will spend with you. Note that with video, 35% of watchers quit before they’ve seen 3/4 of the video.
Shorter is better.
If I was going to write a story centered around the objectives of my target group of prospects, say recreational boat owners, my story could have the following action items:
- Using the boat while on a fun family vacation
- The family’s reliance on the boat owner
- The potential unknowns involved in the boat owning experience
- Ways to make sure that the boat was ready to run before the vacation started
- Safety items that a responsible boat owner should own
- Tips on trailering and storage
Obviously we are only touching the surface of all of the items that we could include. As we develop the story, we will edit this list down to the final action components that will make up our story.
The conclusion is an often overlooked part of many stories that sell (or more accurately don’t sell). The conclusion of your marketing story should hit the high points, and contain your call to action. How did the client benefit; what did you learn that will help your client achieve their goals?
Don’t forget the call to action: “Download our 12 point checklist for a safe boating season.”
Now that we have our foundation, we determine the plot features. These five features make our story unique, but also provide the initial levels of detail and color that allow our story to come to life and speak directly to our customers and prospects.
Your message will have more impact if you can make your customer the hero of your story Everybody wants to identify with hero in the story. If your audience can assume the role of the hero, psychologically they will internalize your message much more readily.
The hero in our story is the boat owner, or even the prospective boat owner.
Your hero has an objective or goal that she is trying to solve. The better you understand your hero, the more accurately you will be able to identify their goals. Our boaters want to make sure that their vacation is an idyllic getaway, and that their boat operates flawlessly.
The obstacle that must be overcome is the crux of the problem. If a well functioning boat is required in order for the vacation to be a success, then an unanticipated problem or breakdown is to be avoided at all costs.
In order to achieve the goal of a fantastic vacation, all of the details need to be taken care of in advance: licensing, fuel, supplies, maintenance, appropriate equipment, and of course, adequate insurance coverage.
In the same way that Morpheus is mentor to Neo in The Matrix, your story should have a mentor to help your hero. In the Stories That Sell model we are discussing, you and your firm are the mentor. You will use the experience you have worked hard to develop to assist the hero and help her achieve her goal.
You now explain how you have had experience with others with this same objective and how your guidance ensured that their vacation was a success.
The moral of the story is suggested implicitly or explicitly, and moral is one of the secrets that makes storytelling such a powerful selling technique. When your audience grasps your moral, they naturally internalize the lesson. Later, that neural link subliminally helps make decisions, and brings you business.
When your boat has been properly equipped and outfitted, your odds of a successful voyage and a memorable vacation increase exponentially. Therefore you must prepare now in order to enjoy your boat during your vacation.
Finally, we determine what parts of our story we will include, in what order we will tell them, and how we can pace the story to keep our audience’s attention.
The most straight forward type of story is when the action elements take place in chronological order, that is, in calendar order, oldest to newest. This order is the easiest for the audience to follow, and for our purposes, is the most utilized.
In some instances, the story can start with the ending, and then you go back and fill in the missing details.
“Hey Jim!” Sally exclaimed. “You sure got some sun while you were gone last week.”
“Yeah,” Jim replied. “We spent the week at the lake, and the kids were so excited about the new boat, they wouldn’t let us off the water until the sun went down every day. We had the best vacation we’ve had in a long time. To think, just a month ago all I was concerned with whether or not the boat would be reliable…”
If the story line is too simple, we quickly get bored. The best stories have unexpected events and potential pitfalls around the corner. That tension of wondering whether the unexpected will create turmoil keeps the audience engaged.
In our story, perhaps Jim took the boat in for a tune-up, but there was some question as to whether the ordered parts would arrive before the family was ready to leave on vacation.
11) Emotional Roller Coaster
The third principle of story movement can be difficult to achieve in a short format, but is highly effective. If the hero’s progression is a straight line from a bad situation to a perfect conclusion, there is no tension.
Are you going to buy tickets to my blockbuster movie?
- Man and woman meet
- Mutual attraction
- They live happily ever after
Probably not. It is TOO predictable.
A much better option is to have the journey contain one or more reversals.
In the Star Wars Trilogy, the first movie ends with a rousing victory. The death star has been destroyed, and our intrepid group (including androids) are welcomed as heroes. But immediately in the sequel, The Empire Strikes Back.
The easy visualization for this is a roller coaster track, with it’s series of ups and downs. The hero has some success, and the roller coaster is going up. Then there are setbacks, and the coaster goes down.
In our story, Jeff’s boat parts arrive in time, but upon installation, they only solve part of the problem. A new crisis erases all of the relief, and sets another obstacle in the way of achieving the final goal.
Long Story Short
Over the past few posts, we have explored the psychology and mechanics behind why stories are effective marketing and sales tools. Contrary to what many believe, using stories in your marketing efforts doesn’t have to be as complex or daunting as it may seem to the uninitiated.
Using the Simple Story Formula, even busy professionals that don’t think they are writers can develop stories that grab and hold audiences. Because we are wired to internalize stories, using engaging stories in your marketing and sales efforts prompt better awareness, retention and potentially sharing activities.