The ladder

A simple device to remember how to tell an effective story is to think of a ladder. In fact you don’t even need to think of a ladder, there’s one right here…

At the top of the ladder are abstract ideas: love, ambition, hope, happiness.

At the bottom of the ladder are concrete examples: physical evidence of the above abstractions.

Businesses often get stuck in the middle of the ladder, blurting out pat phrases like ‘good customer service’ and ‘work smarter, not harder’ that sound like a mixture of practical and aspirational without really being either.

The best communication goes up and down the ladder, backing up aspirational slogans, with concrete examples.

A classic example of this is Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech.

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

‘I have a dream’ is at the top of the ladder; it’s intangible, it’s abstract.

‘Former slaves and… slave owners… sit down together at the table’ is at the bottom of the ladder; it’s practical, it’s achievable, it brings weight and recognition to the idea at the top of the ladder.

Add meaning to abstract sayings with concrete examples.

Significant Objects

Significant Objects is an incredibly successful example of telling stories to give once worthless products a value.

This was an experiment devised by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, where they bought hundreds of thrift-store items, purchased for an average price of $1.25 each, asked 200 writers including Meg Cabot, Jonathan Lethem and William Gibson to contribute fictional narratives to the items and auctioned them off on ebay.

Significant Objects raised nearly $8,000, making a 2,700% profit.

For more information on the project, check out our previous article here.


Dove’s marketing director Stacie Bright had a moral problem in 2006.

After years of marketing Dove’s products using what the mainstream considers ‘beautiful’ models Bright realised this was affecting her own daughter’s self-esteem, and therefore affecting the self-esteem of everybody’s daughter subjected to this advertising.

Rather than quitting her job immediately, Bright created a mock-up advert using all of the company directors’ own daughters. with text alongside each image saying how these girls believed they weren’t beautiful.

Bright and her team showed it to the executives, confident that this was a risky but worthwhile move.

The risk worked. The Dove executives were of course deeply affected, said a resounding yes through their tears, and completely overhauled Dove’s marketing strategy, which has continued to this day.

Dove doubled profits from £1bn to £2bn and turned the business of selling soap into a moral campaign.

The cynical can take from this what they will, but the campaign genuinely came for a place that wished for change; using stories to make a culturally positive difference.


American fashion retailer Nordstrom began collecting examples of great customer service from its employees. They called them Nordy stories.

For example, a customer comes into the store, laden with items already purchased from rival store Macy’s. The customer shops in Nordstrom, comes to the till and takes advantage of Nordtrom’s free giftwrap service.

The Nordstrom employee obliges and then, to the surprise and delight of the customer, offers to wrap the Macy’s gifts too for no extra charge.

In another example a customer comes into Nordstrom wishing to return a $17 tyre iron. They don’t have a receipt. Nordstrom doesn’t sell tyre irons. The employee gives the customer a full refund.

That employee knows full well that the Nordstrom customer has an average lifetime spend of $8,000. What’s $17 compared to that?

By publishing these stories, Nordstrom not only gives concrete examples of how great their service is to customers, but also to new employees as well.

Your employee handbook might say ‘give great customer service’ but to the average employee that basically just says ‘smile, make eye contact and tuck in your shirt’.

Nordy stories give concrete examples to the employees to show them exactly how good customer service is given.


GE took off all the text-heavy mission statements from its website and replaced them with videos of examples of the company’s work instead.

These videos achieved 2m views. It’s a simple application of persuasive web design at work. The human brain processes visuals 50 times faster than text.

John Lewis

Who remembers last year’s Debenhams Christmas advert? Anybody? No?

Who remembers last year’s John Lewis Christmas ad? Yeah, thought so.

The John Lewis Christmas advert has so far achieved 3.5m views. Debenhams achieved a tenth of that.

John Lewis tells an extraordinarily simple story about a snowman going to the shops, Debenhams showed a parade of well-shot products. Which one do you remember? The one with the narrative.

It’s also incredible when you realise that of all the thousands of expensive products sold in John Lewis, the only products shown here are a hat and scarf. The meaning behind these products suddenly has a value far higher than their actual worth, much like the Significant Objects mentioned earlier. 3.5m people voluntarily watched this advert on Youtube.

The John Lewis advert is also a perfect example of The Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey

American mythologist and writer Joseph Campbell studied the power of myth throughout many different cultures and ages, and discovered that many of these stories were similar.

All mythic narratives are variations of a single great story. The Hero’s Journey…

This narrative journey, which has been told for as long as stories have been told, can be found everywhere from Star Wars to The Lion King to Lord of the Rings to the Bible to… yes… the John Lewis advert.

Here are four basic types of narrative that can help you structure a story:

  1. Challenge story. The protagonist faces a daunting uphill struggle (Die Hard, David and Goliath, Susan Boyle’s first X-Factor performance).
  2. Connection story. The protagonists come together from different walks of life through great adversity (Romeo and Juliet, Notting Hill, countless mobile network ads).
  3. Creativity story. The protagonist solves a series of puzzles/challenges to achieve their goal (The Da Vinci Code, Jason and the Argonauts).
  4. How we do it differently story. The innovative ways the protagonist can make a difference to the world (Nordy stories, Apple).

Always remember that Conflict (or obstacles) = Drama.

For further examples of how telling stories can help your business grow, check out this article about Best Western.