Sometimes, reading the storytelling gurus can make the humble marketer feel a tad inadequate.

‘I thought our marketing materials weren’t too bad,’ he or she might think to themselves, ‘but we haven’t made a single reference to the Jungian trickster archetype in any of our white papers! The narrative arc of our email newsletter lacks any sense of a Falling Action! And how has the company even managed to survive this long without working the three-act structure into any of our Facebook campaigns!’

Storytelling is many things to many people, and one can go quietly mad trying to piece them all these theories and techniques together into a coherent, er, story.

So perhaps a better way to approach the topic is to simply see storytelling as a collection of tactics that we can dip into and make use of as suits each of us best. Here are six narrative nuggets for starters…

A protagonist we can care about

We begin with our hero. ‘The protagonist is the person around who the story revolves. […] It’s Batman, it’s James Bond, it’s Indiana Jones. […],’ writes scriptwriting guru John Yorke in his excellent Into the Woods. ‘It will always be (at least when it’s working) the person the audience cares most about.’

In marketing, this figure could be the customer, perhaps a potential idealised one such as Rex of Rexstar, ‘a supplier of spare parts ot the shipping industry’ (ShipServ), or Bob, who runs his own space robot company’ (Noodle Live).

Or it could be an actual customer or end-user, such as sportscaster Daniel Jeremiah (Mircosoft; blink and you’ll miss the subtle Surface Pro 3 product placement).

It could be the brand, especially as embodied by an inspirational founder or leader such as Martha Lane Fox at Go ON UK or even an agency team welcoming a new client on board (Brand24).

Or it could be the sort of person that the organisation is trying to support or encourage, such as these case studies of people who decided to run a post office or these stories of people who have been supported by Macmillan.

A touch of suspense

‘Story is simply a way of structuring information in order to create context and relevance, engage listeners, be more memorable, and generate some nugget of meaning,’ write Karin Dietz and Lori Silverman in Business Storytelling for Dummies.  

Engagement, at its most basic level, is suspense. We have to want to know: ‘What happens next?’ Will an Apple Watch blend, for instance? (Blendtech) What does it take to crush a skateboard wheel? (GE)

Of course, there is such a thing as suspense marketing, in which you build up to the launch of a new product or movie through a carefully paced campaign of orchestrated teases and promises.

But at a more fundamental level, all marketing writing should make us want to keep on reading. Take a look at these two introductory paras here about Saga’s Healthcare service

Assuming that the topic is of interest to you (and why else would you be on this page?), see how the first para sets out a situation the audience can relate to, with an empathetic resolution that changing circumstances shouldn’t have to mean missing out on quality of life.

With our interest piqued, we experience a modest feeling of suspense as we are moved to read on to the second para to find out what Saga proposes as a solution to the challenge it has outlined.

Problem – solution. Challenge – outcome. Desire – satisfaction. This basic 1-2 narrative structure is at the heart of much marketing content. And where marketing falls down it’s often because:

·         we haven’t told a credible story in the first place, so the prospect doesn’t recognise the pain point or the set-up feels completely contrived merely as a means to shout about your product

·         we start with the product and forget the story which would explain why anyone would care about it  

Admittedly, healthcare isn’t The Hobbit, but suspense is basically how all reading works. Every sentence is a potential story, with characters and actions. And every good sentence should make us want to move on to the next one.

An appeal to the emotions 

Said Maya Angelou: ‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’

This oft-quoted maxim worries me slightly, since I’d kind of like it if they remembered a teensy bit of substance along with the sentiment, but you get the idea. It’s an idea whose time has certainly come in b2b, where appeals to emotion are at last being seen as a vital part of the marketing arsenal.

B2bers are people too, after all, just people at work, with all sorts of feelings and psychological drivers we can play to, such as:

•       I’m ambitious: I want to look good / to out-perform my colleagues.

•       I want to grow and excel: I want to develop my understanding / be seen as a thought leader / present myself as an agent of change. 

•       I’m greedy for success: I want to see us win in the market.

•       I’m confused: I need some answers – fast.

•       I’m afraid: Things are changing fast and we’re getting left behind…

•       I’m worried: There are risks here and we don’t have the facts. If I make the wrong decision, my job’s on the line…  

We can appeal to emotion in our marketing in all sorts of ways, for instance when we empathise by dramatising an all-too-familiar pain point (interCall), inspire awe or admiration because we do something that’s very clever or difficult (BAE Systems), play on a well-founded fear (Cisco), or just make our prospects laugh (Cisco again).

Personify an abstract idea (allegory)

In this break-up video we see a woman trying to end a relationship with a man who’s been taking her for granted and whose self-absorbed patter has finally worn thin. Only she’s actually not a real person, so much as a stand-in for all consumers, and he is not so much a crap date as an avatar representing direct marketing (or one take on it).

The whole thing turns out to be a story by Google, which of course has another suggestion for how best to promote your wares. The tactic here is to personify an abstract or complex scenario by turning the key concepts into characters. It’s Pilgrim’s Progress, basically.

Show don’t tell

‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining;’ wrote Anton Chekhov. ‘Show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ 

The idea of showing not telling is related to the Kuleshov Effect, which is a fancy way of saying that when you juxtapose two or more elements without spelling out the connection, your audience are hard-wired to look for their own connection and tell their own story.

Content marketing, with its emphasis on user involvement rather than top-down promotion, is all about showing rather than telling. Red Bull, for instance, tells lots of stories of adrenaline-fuelled adventure and lets you fill in the dots about the connection between such a lifestyle and its energy drink.

Similarly Regus, purveyor of flexible workspaces, blogs about things like maximising productivity and the future of work, and the implicit connection between services and topics is not hard to make.

The story engine

Scriptwriters refer to a long-running series with a rich set of characters and set-up as having a ‘good story engine’. In ER or Casualty, for instance, you have the ideal foundation for a long-running series – every injury or accident or patient provides a story to propel a new episode, plus there are all the office politics of a busy workplace and all the relationships and back-stories of a well-drawn cast of key characters to explore too.

In content marketing terms, a strong story engine means coming up with a well-deined subject-niche you can credibly own, which both speaks to your business goals and appeals to your (potential) audiences.

Although this niche will be aligned with what you do – and informed by the knowledge and expertise of your people – it needs to look beyond products and services. It needs to be something you can return to again and again for new ideas and angles and stories. ‘Adrenaline’ and ‘the future of work’ are much stronger story engines or content brand promises, for instance, than ‘energy drinks’ or ‘flexible workspace’.

ASICS has a great story engine that’s based around the idea of optimising performance for people who are pretty serious about their sport or exercise.

The site’s running performance advice area, for instance, shows just how much material can be gleaned from a well-planned editorial calendar featuring granular, expert advice focused around a well-chosen theme.

The secret is in the specifics – from Tapering off your marathon training to Should I run with a cold? to Running after giving birth, this is one content hub that will run and run.