I originally wrote this post for publishing on a conference blog at my university. I’m not that happy with how it turned out, but in the interest of writing more consistently, and learning from my mistakes, I figured I’d share it anyways. Enjoy!
When Leonardo DiCaprio said, “sell me this pen” in the iconic scene from Wolf of Wall Street, he wasn’t looking for a list of attributes. Nor was he looking for an expert opinion, or a factually sound argument to explain why the pen was worth every penny.
“Write your name down for me, will you?”
This was the response that went down in film – and business – history. In eight words, the statement illustrated a scenario where the listener is the hero, writing their name is their challenge, and the speaker asking for a favour is the emotional connection. Boom. A story is born, and history is made.
From sales and branding, to conflict resolution, to well-executed pitches, and all the way down to everyday interactions, mastering the art of the story is crucial. Not only are they entertaining, relatable, memorable, and often more clear, they make listening to you an excitement rather than a chore.
Below are 5 elements and techniques to incorporate in stories, with real-life examples of exceptional storytelling from brands and individuals.
identify a problem belonging to your audience (or someone they care about)
Huggies used 200 studies, citing the importance of hugging for a baby’s development, to launch their campaign, “No Baby Unhugged”. Their focus was to educate families about the benefits of a hug and to make sure that every hospital has the resources necessary to ensure no baby is left unhugged. Once they identified this problem – which not only drives their storytelling, but provides them with a strong mission – Huggies then began to reach out to real moms and dads. They authentically identified and brought to light the struggles of individual babies left unhugged, which was a very successful and moving campaign because it took their brand from product status to problem-solving, story-telling status.
make your listener the hero
Google’s Year in Search Videos are released each year and are always wildly successful. What’s special about them is that Google makes its users the heroes of their own story. Using data about which messages will resonate best with its audience, Google’s Year in Search evokes emotion and nostalgia about memories that we can all feel collective ownership of.
rather than explain what you’re going to do, actually do something that proves your grit
When Richard Branson first launched his Virgin Airlines company, he also launched one of the strangest press strategies ever. He and his team determined that they would break the speed-record for a boat across the Atlantic. After getting caught in and rescued out of a massive storm on the third day, they tried again the following year and succeeded. Although nothing to do with his airline, this story made headlines and proved just how determined, daring, and resilient the leaders at Virgin Airlines were, catapulting their company to success.
craft a cliffhanger: set an ambitious goal that will make people want to watch
Elon Musk, the man behind PayPal and Tesla, is known for saying, “I would like to die on Mars. Just not on impact.” This 11-word statement tells a story. He didn’t just say “I want to get humans on Mars within the next 50 years.” He imagined a future that was personal, not just corporate. Dying on Mars implies a lifetime of adventure, thrill, challenge – a lifetime worth hearing about. Humorous, while still inspiring, that short statement turned SpaceX into not just another space exploration company, but a company that will be part of a movement.
juxtapose what could be with what is currently being done
No one did this better than Steve Jobs in his world-renowned speech for Apple’s launch of the iPhone in 2007. Speech-analyst Nancy Duarte identified that his talk followed a very distinct pattern. She says,
“So it’s like, you know, here’s the past, here’s the present, but look at our future. Here’s a problem, but look at that problem removed. Here’s a roadblock, let’s annihilate the roadblock. You need to really amplify that gap. This would be like the inciting incident in a movie.”
The result? Despite little diversity in intonation or vocal strategies, Steve Jobs had his audience – and YouTube viewers years later – on the edge of their seats in excitement and anticipation.
Watch Nancy Duarte explain this in her TED Talk, “The Secret Structure of Great Talks”.
Whether you’re in an interview, pitching the world’s next great idea, or enthusiastically telling your friends about last night’s adventures, keep these strategies and examples in mind to craft the perfect story for your message!
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