Brands have more opportunities, venues, and mediums than they ever have to tell their stories. This is fantastic, but it also presents a challenge—how do you tell a great story? Amongst the vast amount of them being told these days, what makes one stand out? As a journalist, a short story writer, and a content creator for brands, I’ve long pursued the great story. And when it comes down to it, the core principles are the same. Here’s just a few to keep in mind when crafting brand stories.
Identify the goal
People who teach storytelling often start with this point—that at the center of every great story, somebody wants something. Robert McKee, the world’s most famous screenwriting instructor, makes a big deal out of this in his seminars and in his book Story. In fact, McKee explains that the best films consist only of a protagonist’s path towards achieving his set goal and never introduce details of his life unless it can be tied into that quest. The question the viewer is then constantly on the edge of her seat asking is, “Will the protagonist reach his goal?” It seems kind of obvious once you think about it, but the fact is, many people who start writing stories don’t start with somebody—or a group of somebodies—who want something. Usually, later into the writing, they become frustrated and stop but don’t know why. The reason is that this wanting—this desire—is what propels a story forward.
What did you want to achieve when you started your business? Or what do you want to achieve now? Also, what does the brand itself want? The answer to that last question should articulate one aspect of your brand’s positioning or core values. For instance: In this digital era of prolific brand storytelling, Parcel wants yours to stand out as being authentic and inspiring. That’s one of our own brand’s values. So then, if I was telling that story right now, I’d explain the obstacles that we come across in that pursuit. Or I’d talk about the obstacles that a client faced in telling its story. This goal that Parcel wants to achieve also sets up an ongoing structure for our own storytelling: We faced X brand storytelling challenge but were able to do Y to achieve a great brand story.
When beginning to write a story—especially when introducing the history of something—people have a tendency to speak in vast generalizations. For instance: “I always wanted to be a writer, and I spent many afternoons of my youth crouched over a typewriter.” While some generalizations like this are necessary to describe long-term activities and patterns, the fact is, everything happens one at a time and each of those events possesses unique qualities that are the real force behind a story. And so describing one moment in detail has a much greater ability to connect with readers. “The day I first dragged out the 1952 Remington Quiet-Riter with which I would spend many afternoons of my youth, it was 1983 and I used it to plagiarize a Tom and Jerry cartoon.” This gets across the same message as the previous beginning, but you can see much more—or even hear more or smell more—because it sets a scene. Continuing along these lines, I could talk about my emerging interest in writing all through this one day.
So before you start encapsulating your brand’s history in sweeping statements, take time to think about what landmark days, moments, and events you could describe. Set the scene. Use dialogue. The best stories from any time take place right now in present tense.
Have you ever noticed how it’s slightly annoying when someone tells you a one-note story about how amazing something they did is or how happy they are? You may not want to admit you’re annoyed—even to yourself—because it makes you feel like a grump. But it’s a completely valid response to this type of story, because the teller is cheating by leaving something out. Everyone struggles against obstacles in life, and this ever-present conflict is part of what makes the amazingness and the success worth it. Brands that only tell the bright side of their history or business need to rethink their storytelling. How can you use vulnerability—or even mistakes made—to bring out the conflict and tension in your story?
One CEO of a B2B company I once worked with explained how a defect in a cheaper part he’d purchased resulted in one of his products breaking down on a mass level. He’d made a mistake and his company’s reputation was at stake because of it. He responded to this terrible error by offering to send out repair teams to every single company and individual whose product had failed. He suffered a financial loss during this time, but that decision meant he stayed true to one of his steadfast principles—fairness. As he shares this story, he admits that he makes mistakes along the way, but shows his character and one of his brand’s core values by how his company moved through a moment like that.
And again, if you’ve defined your brand’s market positioning and core values as discussed above, the conflict is tied into that. If your story is about building an accessible product, then your struggle is resourcing, engineering, and whatever else you can do to lower the cost. If your story is about making a great advance in design, then your conflict is with the model or technology that currently rules and with consumers’ reluctance to change. Try this out with your own brand values, and you’ll likely see how conflict already informs the best stories you’re telling about them.