What is storytelling?
The boring but neccessary theory.

Most storytelling approaches state that the one essential element for the story to be a story is “The three acts” structure. You know that setup, confrontation and resolution, which tend to be clearly delimited in mass-media complex or long stories like movies, books, series… E.g. An aspiring writer moves with his family to an isolated Hotel to be the off-season caretakers; he chases his family with an axe when is possesed by some evil ghosts; he gets a bit frozen but his family can happily escape ever after. Three acts, right? But… why three acts? Can they have more? And less? And what about a photo or a picture? And ads? Are they stories?

The boring (but necessary) theory:

So, what makes a story a story? Well, there are many theories about narratives and storytelling. Laying aside more theoretical explanations, most of them converge on the (just apparently) simple idea that a story is just “The communication of an act”: e.g. “I fell off my bike”, “She killed Jabba”, “He recovered the Ark”, etc. But this short sentence implies a lot of things:

  • The “Communication” of something: First, every communication needs a message (the story), a sender (the narrator), a receiver (the audience), a context and a channel (the telly, the book, the painting, the air…). So first, you need a narrator and an audience. You obviously could tell stories to yourself and you’d be both the narrator and the audience, but.. if you are an adult and you do it very often, you might need some kind of help. However, do you remember when you used to play with Barbies, G.I.-Joes, Playmobiles, etc. and created stories with them even when you were alone…? These were stories too. Back to adulthood, in the 99,999… % of the cases, the story exists because the narrator feels the need of telling something to somebody else. This also implies a form of communication which allows you to explain complex concepts. As a narrator, you need a kind of a language. A language shared with your audience, otherwise, they won’t get what you are telling. But this language can be verbal, written, visual, musical…
  • That something is an “Act”: And the act has also its own elements: Every act needs an object and a subject. Something or somebody that acts on something or somebody. They can be the same (you can slap yourself in the face… although if you do it very often … Ok, you get it). We could call them “Characters”. And if there is an act, then there is a “before” and an “after” of that act. The situation can change after the act… or not, but they are there. This Before-Act-After structure is extremely important for us because is related to how our brain decodes the reality and how we learn. This is the base of “causality” and I will write another post about why Storytelling is so powerful covering this. But also, if you think of this structure of before, act, after… you’ll see that it’s just another way to say “Setup”, “Confrontation” and “Resolution”.

This might sound quite simple and boring, and if you are still reading this text you might be thinking “a raw act is not the kind of story I’d like to watch” and “how can that relate to marketing or creativity or… anything interesting?”. Well, this is just the basics. In terms of structure, you can complicate it to the infinite and beyond, adding nested sub-stories, secondary plots, etc… And you can make it more interesting making them more relevant to your audience.

The relevance of the story. Feelings and emotions.

How do we transform that “communication of an act” into something captivating, compelling, riveting and fascinating? That will obviously depend on what and how we tell it, but also whom. Because whatever you tell, it must be interesting and relevant for the audience, not only for you. That’s how you connect with them. So, first practical lesson: this is not about you, this is about them. You need to know the audience if you want to make your story relevant to them. The good news: we all are humans and we love and fear similar things. And if you analyse even the most complicated or fantastic stories, they base their main plot in our more basic and primitive feelings. And this is the second lesson: Feelings are what drives the stories. The story about a banker sentenced to a life sentence in a corrupted prison for a crime he didn’t commit, and how he befriends a smuggler to end up escaping to the Mexican town of Zihuatanejo, it’s, in fact, a story about hope and friendship.

If you don’t think feelings are related to your marketing strategy then you might be doing something wrong. The emotional Marketing is one of the key tools that a marketer can use. It doesn’t matter if you sell manufacturing machinery (B2B), or hand-knitted jumpers for cats (B2weirdC), you are always selling something to other humans. And humans have feelings and emotions. Unless your potential customers are half Vulcan, then forget about feelings, show your product on a white background and just list its key features.

Truncated stories

So, can we then have stories with just one or two steps? Well, yes and no. The reality is that if you have told a story to somebody with just two steps, but you have given them enough information, their brain will fill the gaps and create the rest of the story. This is exactly what happens when we see a story told in just one still frame, be a photo, a painting or a sculpture. If we got the info, we create the story in our minds. And this is kind of magical because, somehow, we’re telling the rest of the story to ourselves. We got even more involved in the story because we use our own knowledge, experiences and feelings to fill these gaps. Think, for example, of an image of a high-society funeral under a big tree. Everybody is crying, except for one woman, who is evilly smiling while she looks at the flamboyant coffin. Your brain is filling the gaps now and you might be building your own story. Of course, the storyteller must have the talent to find the balance between the information that is given and the information you must complete. If we are not given the right information or if we’re not able to decode it, we may feel that something is missing or may get to the wrong conclusion. By the way, that woman was just the coffin designer who had sold that horrible one to that family.

In any story, everything is part of the story, so be thorough:

Each element of the communication affects the story. This means that apart from the Sender, the Receiver, Channel, and specially Context, can modify and add meaning to the story. Just think of listening a ghost story in a sunny day at the beach or in a cementery during Friday the 13th’s night. According to Paul Watzlawick’s and other members of the Palo Alto Group’s theories, everything is communication. One cannot not communicate. So, if you are presenting in front of an audience, your speech may be your main message, but your gestures, your facial expression, the distance to the others, your tone of voice… but also how you are dressed, your body shape, your hair (or the lack of it), how fast you are breathing, your smell or even how your skin is reflecting the sunlight… are communicating things to others too (if you are now afraid of your next presentation, sorry). And this is because the people who are listening to you are seeing and decoding, conscious or unconsciously, all these “messages”. We’re programmed for that. If you were as lucky I was, you may have somebody who told you bedtime stories and tales. My father not only used to read me books but also make up the stories himself. I don’t know for you, but for me, the last important thing was the story’s plot itself. His presence, the light, his voice, the way he made funny voices, his gestures… were what made each story so unique and amazing.

And this, applied to Marketing is either an advantage and a terrifying thing. You probably understand now why, for “just” a tv advert, there are “directors” for each of its aspects from light to sound, including casting, art, script, etc. If you can control it all, is an amazing and compelling tool. If not, it may become a problem.

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