Storytelling – Is It All Just Buzz?

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In this guest post, Aussie writer, film director and content creator at Taste Creative, Genevieve Clay-Smith (pictured below), takes a look at storytelling that works and explains the reasons why…

Storytelling has become the new on-trend buzzword in advertising and marketing because advertisers and marketeers know that everyone loves stories. It’s part of our DNA, and as humans we’ve been telling stories to pass on culture and educate the next generation for thousands of years. Just look at cave paintings and oral histories.

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But in the flux of storytelling that has been widespread across our media platforms, not all have worked, gone viral and been loved. Some have flopped. This is because storytelling is an art form. Check out Joseph Campbell’s the Power of Myth, or Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales and you’ll see that stories require skill, understanding, knowledge and profound purpose.

It’s our belief at Taste that stories are powerful for the reason that when told well and with purpose, they have the ability to reshape people’s attitudes, perspectives and understanding. Whatever Hollywood movie you decide to watch this weekend there are messages that you will subconsciously consume. These messages will either challenge or maintain the status quo. They will confirm our cultural identities, or shift them. They present us with a view of the world that has the ability to profoundly influence our thinking, whether we realise it or not. Think of that when watching the next Disney-Pixar film!

So if this is the case, how can we best use storytelling for the purposes of advertising and marketing?

One of the best examples of storytelling I’ve seen in advertising is the Wells Fargo commercial ‘Learning Sign Language’…

This ad went viral with over a million hits, earned amazing PR, and raised the profile of the bank dramatically.

So why did this ad become so popular and go viral, as opposed to something like NAB’S current More than Money films?

Understanding that storytelling is an artform and a learned craft skill is a very important first step in grasping what makes a story work. Here are a few craft skills implemented in the Well Fargo advertisement that has helped ensure its success:

1. The film explores zeitgeist issues.
In this story the zeitgeist issues explored are marriage equality, diversity, inclusion and adoption. The Wells Fargo advertisement aligns itself with these issues, and obviously understands its customers, in this case celebrating its LGBTIQ customer segment. It’s celebrating diversity and adoption as being good and worthy of support.

Using a zeitgeist immediately elevates the story to a higher realm of engagement, meaning it becomes relevant to real time issues we are facing in our society today and thus immediately transcends mediocrity. This story has something powerful to say about the issues of our times, without being didactic.

Framing any story around a zeitgeist issue is a tool of storytelling that engages and emotionally connects with audiences.

2. Universal themes
This story deals with the universal theme of ‘belonging. This is a powerful theme that every human being will emotionally engage with and question. Everyone wants to belong, it’s a universal need that digs deep into the human condition and draws to attention inherent human questions we’ll all consider while alive. Because of this, themes such as belonging drives emotional connection  –  it’s something we can all relate to.

3. Stakes
Every successful story has stakes. The stakes give us the reason as to why we should care about this story; because there is something to lose. The stakes should be something that we can all understand and inherently fear experiencing.

So what is at stake here?

It’s the pain of rejection, happiness, being a complete and whole family  –  the mothers may not get the family they are dreaming of. If they can’t communicate with their daughter, they may not win her love… we watch them practice and do their very best to learn sign language in order to belong, find happiness and be a complete family. We can all relate to the fear of losing our family and being alone, at the end of the day that’s why they’re learning sign language  –  to create a family and belong to one another and that’s what’s at stake.

4. Journey
There is a clear sense of journey in this story. Every story needs a sense of journey  –  when you watch a film, you expect to go on an adventure, to be taken through varied emotional landscapes of uncertainty, curiosity, elevation, excitement, and revelation.

Now, ‘journey’ is its own lecture, there are many elements within ‘journey’ and depending on the length of the story you are telling, you won’t be able to fit them all in. For this story, two of the key elements used are ‘a dramatic question’ or throughline and a ‘revelation’.

We, as an audience need a dramatic question to sustain us. The reason we sit through a story or watch a movie is to find out what’s going to happen to the characters. In this story we are held by the dramatic question of ‘why are the women so passionately learning sign language?’ We are intrigued by the unbridled dedication and the anxiety they show about getting it right. This dramatic question is answered through a very clever ‘reveal’ when the little girl is introduced to them as her two new mothers. The dramatic question and the reveal, create a wonderful journey which engages us and makes us go ‘WOW’.

So the next time you watch a brand story, or a story used in advertisements, look at it through the lens of craft skills. Great stories are not accidental, they are strategised and executed with a detailed understanding and knowledge of the craft skills used to tell them. Great stories will be memorable and give you a visceral experience. When you implement a great idea with solid craft skills it’s a winning combination which can create a profound impact.

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