November 2015

3 Rules for Great Storytelling


One of my mentors was a successful TV Director. He worked on hit shows like Gilmore Girls and Ally McBeal. Week in and week out, he would have access to amazing Hollywood talent, state-of-the art camera equipment, and the best post-production facilities money can buy. And in spite of having all of these resources at his fingertips, he always insisted that 3 things were at the heart of great filmmaking: story, story, story.

Obviously, he had a thing for sarcasm. He also was adamant about where your priority should be when creating a film, or any other piece of communication for that matter.

The problem is that when it comes to producing great video, we have shiny object syndrome. The shiny object is technology. Filmmakers and marketers alike are distracted by it: 4k cameras, slow motion on our smartphones, drones, SnapChat, and more. It’s all enough to keep tech geeks like me from ever getting anything of substance done.

Of Course, technology isn’t the actual issue. It is the fact that we often use it as a substitute for great storytelling. The result is lots of great looking video that fails to convey anything of value. And since it’s much easier to spot a great drone shot versus a great line of copy, we continue to default to technology as a proxy for great storytelling.

So, I am serving up 3 Rules for Great Storytelling that will still allow you to take advantage of great technology, but won’t make it the only thing you rely on.

1. Know Your Audience (Intimately) – Most anyone that gets involved with a creative project recognizes that knowing your audience is important. Where I’ve seen clients fall down repeatedly is in making this a check the box exercise, where “audience” is a one-liner on a creative brief, e.g. males 18-34. Common pitfalls include: inadvertently trying to address multiple audiences at once, defining an audience too broadly, making assumptions about an audience.

Instead of making this a check the box exercise, give this the time and attention it deserves. Dedicate a full meeting or discussion to ensuring that whatever you are working on targets a singular, well-defined audience. It will make all the downstream activities like concepting, storyboarding, copywriting and designing, that much more impactful.

2. Make it so a 5 year old can understand it – When you are intimately involved with a product or service, you forget how much you know about it. You can’t see the forest for the trees. And so, as much as you’d like to think that you are dumbing down the copy on your creative, it’s still probably coming off as a little clunky and hard to understand.

So, what can you do? Pressure test your copy with cross-functional team members, outside partners and trusted confidants. Don’t rely solely on the feedback from people on your direct team. They’re more likely to tell you it’s great as is.

3. Focus on emotion and not features – At the end of the day, we make buying decisions with our emotions. We don’t purchase features; we purchase things that we think will make our lives better.

So it’s no surprise that our technology clients struggle with this on a daily basis. They’re surrounded by product experts and engineers that are are paid to think about and develop “features” all day long. So, shifting gears and finding out how to communicate in a way that transcends features is challenging, but it’s also well worth the effort.

To get everyone focused on the emotional aspect of storytelling, talk through real-life use scenarios. You don’t have to ignore the features. Instead, talk about the outcomes that the features provide. How did each feature make life better? Then, base your story on that.

Overall, storytelling can certainly feel like more art than science. However, these rules can provide a great foundation for driving more predictable results. They will also make your investments in technology shine. You won’t be simply using a drone shot because it “looks cool” or Prezi because it’s the new thing in presentations. You’ll be using technology because it adds to your stories. And by putting your focus on story first, it’s no surprise that you’ll probably end up with some pretty compelling stories.