What is storytelling? Is storytelling simply the culmination of facts and sequential events, or do stories require more depth?

Let’s take a look at exactly what storytelling is. But first, let’s look at what storytelling isn’t.

The debate of story vs. stats is all well and good until somebody’s life is on the line–then it’s simply about results. In 2014, we got the opportunity to do a spot for a cancer hospital. The in-house filmmaker had come to one of our workshops and loved our approach, so he referred Stillmotion to the agency who was tackling the campaign.

It appeared as though they too really enjoyed what we did, and we were excited to help create this film. We all wanted to tell a powerful story to help people see how they could get better cancer care if they went to this one place.

At least, that’s what we thought. We crafted what we felt was a very emotional story led by one woman and her story of surviving cancer. It had all the elements of a really powerful story (which we’ll dive into below).

Yet when we sent the first draft to the client, alarm bells started going off. It wasn’t anywhere close to what they wanted and this was a big campaign with the clock ticking.

As we tried to work through their concerns one thing became super clear: we were operating on two totally different understandings of what the word story means.

If you asked us both to define the word and then you compared the two, they’d likely be far more disparate than similar. And so we had a bunch of creative challenges. On top of that, we felt horribly. We felt like we weren’t delivering. We’d worked so hard yet we were far from making the client happy and they were starting to have some real concerns.

All of us—the entire team at Stillmotion and our client—wanted to achieve the same great results. And we both believed that story was the way to get there, but it occurred to us that our client would have a completely different answer to the question, “What is storytelling?”

They believed that, if we told a story, we would be able to stir their audience into action and deliver the results they wanted to achieve. They weren’t wrong. Storytelling is the most effective way to stir emotion and connect with an audience.

But what they wanted us to deliver wasn’t actually a story at all. And we weren’t going to be able to give them what they had in mind AND deliver a story.

You see, what they wanted was more a blanket of facts. It’s not their fault. They, like most people, have been lied to about what storytelling truly is.

Storytelling is a highly influential means of communication and so much more than a form of entertainment. It’s incredibly effective at driving action, changing beliefs, building communities and brands, and spreading ideas. Story is powerful—so powerful that it has garnered a lot of attention in recent years and storytelling has become a buzzword. It gets thrown around, used, and abused.

From yogis and advertisers to business developers and data analysts, people in every industry are trying to brand themselves as storytellers. And sometimes, they might do incredibly well at capturing the essence of an experience and retelling it, but sadly, this is not always (or even usually) the case.

The problem is, most people have been misled as to what a story actually is; they’ve been led to believe that everything is story.

To be fair, the word story is often defined as the retelling of events. But such “stories” don’t always connect with audiences. An effective storyteller will reach people on an emotional level and their stories will be remembered. A good story needs to be so much more than the culmination of facts or a sequence of events. It needs to take the audience on a journey.

Let’s look at the example of the data analyst. She might claim to be a storyteller, suggesting numbers are the footprints along the path of a business’s target market. And while these numbers might very well be telling of the results of an individual’s actions, they certainly don’t capture the emotional core needed to engage an audience.

So, now that we’ve explored what storytelling isn’t. Let’s look at what storytelling is.

WHAT IS STORYTELLING?

We made this short animated video to explore that question. It looks at what story isn’t, but it also shares the critical elements that nearly every strong story has (nearly, because there are exceptions to every rule).

You’ll see the story being built in front of you, and as the elements change, you can see how it becomes a much stronger story.

 

A strong story moves your audience emotionally, it’s remembered, and it generates results. But a strong story needs to be so much more than the simple retelling of events.

A strong story moves your audience emotionally, is remembered and generates results. Click To Tweet

Strong storytelling needs to revolve around a singular character (whom we refer to as the Heart of your story). This person needs to have a strong desire. It’s this desire that allows audiences to fall in love with the character–they see that desire and we want it for them.

what-is-storytelling-03

More than just desire, we also need conflict. Conflict pulls the audience in and presents a challenge for the Heart to overcome. It tests the depths of his desire.

These three things—the Heart, desire, and conflict—are critical in telling stories that connect with audiences and drive the preferred reactions.

So you see, not everything is a story. And, to be fair, not everything needs to be story. But if you arm yourself with the knowledge of what strong storytelling IS and what it ISN’T, you will be far more likely to reach your audience effectively.

Here are three helpful ways to apply these ideas to what you do:

  1. Make sure you and your client are clear on what “story” truly is and that that’s what you want to create together. This animation is a perfect thing to share to help your clients gain a deeper understanding. As you look to build out your story, always ask yourself who is the Heart of this story?
  2. Search for that singular person with strong desire that can connect your audience. Inside Muse, our storytelling process, we take this a step further and share the Big 3 Things that every strong character needs.
  3. Look to find a conflict that got in the way of the Heart’s desire. This can be harder to find as it may have happened in the past. And your client may shy away from it because it feels negative. But again, it’s critical that you help explain the role of each of these elements in creating a strong story and getting the results they want.

We want to hear from you.

Has there ever been a time when your client said they wanted a story but was caught off-guard when what you delivered was an emotional, character- and conflict-driven story? If so, share your story below. We can form a little support group of sorts to help each other.

10 Comments

Patrick Moreau

Director, educator, and student of human life. An architect of meaningful connections–to story, to self, and to others via story.

  • Mike Schreurs

    Love the short and love the article. I love this approach and secretly this is what I have always wanted to tell and teach my clients. I’ll be joining in a few days when I get the cash! So excited.

  • Dan Herrick

    Here is a video I created to help tell the story of Cancer patients and to help my client raise awareness of the services they provide in my Rural community. I tried to tell a story instead of just laying out the “facts” as you call them in your article. It was difficult to film for sure. Capturing hope as well as all that pain and uncertainty was difficult both personally and technically. I can say that creating it changed my life. I always keep my Stillmotion KNOW field guide close by! Thanks again for some critical insight! https://youtu.be/1g9CVHItLBY

  • Brian Artka

    This post could not have come at the most perfect time 😉

    This past December a foundation hired me to tell a story about how there investments into specific non profit organizations has helped people. We got a pile of stats, facts, the usual spiel. I sold them on telling a specific story on a specific person to garner more emotional connection to the audience they were wanting to make the film for. The original meeting went very well, the top brass was on board and we moved forward with the story.

    We drove down to Memphis (from Milwaukee), met the heart, the helpers, and spent the next two days capturing the story. We were able to get most of the big three things(still working on this, its not easy sometimes) and I edited a piece that really tugs at you, gets you vested into the heart of the story and the message.

    My contacts loved it. They showed it to their families and friends.. some said they were crying a little (I always count that as a bonus). It was a piece I felt really really good about (I will say EVO PDX had alot to do with how I worked on this one, thanks guys and gals!). After a few minor revisions from my contacts, they showed the top brass…

    They seemed to like it…. but it was not what they expected (even though they approved it before hand). My heart dropped. We tried adding more “facts” and “stats” to the piece, basically “power-pointing” it. It didn’t feel right at all. I tried to keep the original edit as much as possible.

    Second showing, they still did not like. The top brass actually wanted to move in a different direction this time, even though this entire story was finished and ready to go. So.. they did. Business is business, I still got paid in full, but as a passionate filmmaker, I did not want to let this story I edited go to waste.

    I was able to convince my client to let me use my edit for the organization we had captured the story with. This is probably pretty rare, but I did not let up. I recently worked with that organization making a few revisions tailored to them, and they loved it. My contact has told me it has been shown in important meetings to share what this specific part of the organization does, and over the past two weeks has reached 83,000 people with 36,000 views, 619 likes and 18 comments(facebook stats, not sure how to interpret that into ROI, but engagement seems pretty good).

    My name is Brian Artka, and that was my latest story.. happy to be a part of the support group 😉

    • Mary L.

      So glad you shared this, Brian. Love the idea of overcoming obstacles (client vetoes, but lets the nonprofit use it)—and those are some pretty inspiring numbers. Thank you.

  • Tom Bradley

    So how did this turn out with your client? Did they come to understand the value of your first delivery or did you have to change it into the facts and figures version they wanted?

  • So uh, what happened? I got wrapped up in the story about you and your client and you left me hanging haha. How did you resolve this with the client?

  • Adam

    Thanks for sharing this Patrick. Were you able to get the client to see the benefit of the approach or did you part ways knowing what they wanted wasn’t what Stillmotion creates?

  • I think that there is a balance at times. This is a great reminder to help us focus on the emotional aspects of story. However, there are times that in order to tell the “story” of the organization some of the facts and stats might be necessary. They help make up the desire (mission) and obstacles (what leads to their features) and also helps get us to the resolution (the value proposition). They can be engaging as well, but they have to be linked to human story… I am thinking of something like this jimmy johns commercial…

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WjUl-ZX8pII&list=PLdb8iSeXm3BQnPfphWgYLvYvDv1BwtJ0C

    This centers around some stats that are closely aligned to their main brand proposition. The stats help set the conflict and the solution. But the spot only works because of the micro stories they use to emotionally connect you the stats. (the b-roll that pulls you through the voice over)

    I am also thinking about telling the story of say a non profit… looking to fundraise. To be sure we need to engage them with story… but there may be a time in the video that we need to slingshot the one story into a broader sense of the need. Because that is the story of the non profit… If you can do that while connecting the emotional reality, you would help connect people not just to the one case but to the mission of the non-profit.

    So perhaps stats and facts are not story by themselves but, I think, they can at times be used as story elements…

    • Jim Barkley

      Tory:

      Great observation, and very applicable to my current situation where a non-profit says “I want story” for their annual video, but then says they also want to “fit in” seven important steps in their process to educate the viewer. They equate story with a procedural video, and your perspective gives me some tools to help bridge the (wide) gap here at this point in the planning phase. I need to remain open to solutions, and I’m starting to see a path through.

  • Mary L.

    Laura emailed me her comment and question directly. They’re questions that would be great for others in our community to weigh in on, if time allows. Thanks!

    “Great article Patrick! We have had this happen as well — delivering a story we think is great only to find that we have not fully met the client’s expectations. It’s so important with any project, that both the creative and the client are on the same page. And sometimes it takes a bit of education to ensure the storytelling strategy is understood.

    I’m curious how Still Motion (and others) approach “fixing” that deliverable when a client isn’t fully satisfied. Do you continue to push for the power of true storytelling, in other words, get them to see the value in the story you have produced? Or do you proceed with re-edits or even re-shoots if necessary? And if you do go down that path of redoing the work, should the client be responsible for the associated costs, or is this something creatives should pay for since its our responsibility to deliver and satisfy the client? Just curious how others have handled the issue of overall client satisfaction.

    Thank you, and great article!

    -Laura”