Tell your story

‘Storytelling’ is a word that gets thrown around a lot lately. But what exactly is a story — and what makes a good one?

I’ve always been a storyteller, from the time I was a kid writing detective novels on my dad’s massive laptop. This continued through my undergrad studies and into my graduate degree, when I studied storytelling for my capstone project. I had noticed a sudden prevalence of the word ‘storytelling’ in marketing circles, and not always in a way that made sense to me. So I investigated.

Despite what you may have learned in high school English class, there is no universally accepted definition of ‘story’ or criteria for what constitutes a story. But there is general consensus that ‘proper’ stories — or narratives — have the following elements:

Characters engaged in actions to achieve goals (i.e. there should be a “valued end point” that the character[s] is/are working towards).
Insight into what the characters are thinking and feeling
Observable personal evolution or change in the life of a character
Causality – an understanding of why things happened the way they did
A well-delineated beginning (initial event), middle (crisis or turning point), and ending (conclusion)
A focus on specific, particular events rather than on generalizations or abstractions

The ‘best’ stories, research has suggested, have all of the above elements. In my experience, this isn’t always the case (take this beautiful video from UPS – its narrative score would be low, but it still feels like a well-developed, delightful story). And then there are videos like this year’s Sainsbury’s Christmas ad, which proves that the age-old story formula works. The ad ticks all the boxes of great storytelling – and adds up to more than the sum of its parts.

Check back for more posts about storytelling in the new year.