“Storytelling is a word that has been co-opted by lazy marketers”
- Chris Donaldson
What makes a story a story? After producing one hundred and fifty podcast episodes and sitting in on countless marketing meetings. I’ve noticed this trend where the word story gets casually thrown around the marketing department with no consideration as to what actually constitutes a story.
I’d like to re-examine how and when we use the word story. I believe the word is only worthy of a medium that checks the box on multiple points of criteria and if we did an audit of all types of media in the outdoor industry only a fraction of it would pass. I think most marketers are guilty of misusing the word and the majority of the “stories” that marketing departments think they’re telling are really just communication content dressed up with a bow. So, what makes a story a story? Here are some criteria that might help us answer this question.
1. Story Has a Structure
Every story starts with structure. The beginning, middle, and end otherwise known as Act One, Act Two, and Act Three. Aristotle is credited with devising these three sections to every story in his book Poetics. Most stories follow a three-act structure because it’s a format that allows the storyteller to build the setup, establish the confrontation, and then bring the audience through to the resolution.
"If you string together a set of speeches expressive of a character, and well finished in point of diction or thought, you will not produce the essential tragic effect with a play which has a plot and artistically constructed incidents."
2. Story Follows a Plot
What’s the difference between story structure and plot? Structure is the overall layout of the story whereas plot is the series of events that make up the story. Throughout the history of storytelling, most stories fall into one of seven plot types.
- Overcoming the Monster: The protagonist must defeat an antagonist (usually an individual, force, or entity) that threatens them and the wider world.
- Rags to Riches: The protagonist achieves something they lack, loses what they’ve gained, and then gets it back again.
- The Quest: The protagonist must set out in pursuit of a treasure, place, or other goal, overcoming challenges along the way.
- Voyage and Return: The protagonist travels to a strange new place, experiences hardships, makes discoveries, and then returns home with the lessons they have learned.
- Comedy: The protagonist experiences a series of lighthearted or confusing events, before the story resolves into a happy ending.
- Tragedy: The protagonist has a central trait or flaw or makes a mistake, which results in catastrophe.
- Rebirth: The protagonist undergoes a transformation, and often ends up a better person as a result.
3. Story has Five Elements
A story generally has five elements: Plot, characters, point of view, conflict, and setting. As the saying goes, once you understand the rules break them, and often times it’s these five elements that are pushed and re-imagined.
- Plot: We discussed the plot above, but the plot drives the sequence of events
- Character: Your character can take many forms but they need to be compelling. The audience has to have empathy for the characters and care about their journey. If the audience doesn’t care then you need to re-think your character choice or how you’re presenting your character.
- Setting: Where does your story take place? What are the rules of this location? The setting is necessary to understand because it provides context to your character's journey and allows us to understand how the character interacts with the world.
- Point of View: Is your story being told through the first person, second person, or third person perspective?
- Conflict: A story without conflict is flat, and a story that’s flat isn’t entertaining. Conflict is critical to a story because it forces our characters to react, make decisions, and respond to their world.
Storytelling is a blend of art and science. If you look closely, you’ll realize that most stories follow the exact same recipe. But how can you determine the quality of the story without dissecting it? Listen to your heart. Did the story move you? Did it make you feel something? If not, I’d question whether or not the article, photo or video truly has earned the title of story. Sure, not every story resonates with everyone, but a good story moves us emotionally and it’s up to the artist to use the science, art, and tools at their disposal to craft an emotional response.
Next time you’re sitting in a marketing meeting, and the word story gets brought up, ask yourself is this really a story? If not, let’s call it what it really is. Story has earned its place in the history of human culture and it’s our job as marketers to uphold the honor of telling good stories.