In the previous post, I argued that a story-driven marketing approach works better than alternate approaches that appeal mainly to emotions or facts. That’s because story fits the way the brain works. But in marketing, the story needs to be compact, precise, factual, and purposeful. In other words, our stories must be designed to get a person to take an action.
A purpose-told story has eight parts.
1. The ordinary world
This is where you determine the setting, protagonist, and core value binary.
The setting. Start with a world in balance. That world can be a physical setting, a social milieu, an abstraction, etc. When things change, think about how that value will be expressed. That’s what will affect the audience.
The protagonist. It can be a prospect, customer, group of people, product, or a company. For a service company, the protagonist is usually a prospect. Whatever the protagonist is, it’s never an overdog. No one can empathize with an overdog—we all see ourselves as underdogs.
To make your protagonist an underdog, put them up against a villain—an antagonistic force, like bureaucracy, social institutions, internal fears and doubts, etc. These forces are what try to block the protagonist from getting what they want.
When we experience someone struggling against powerful forces to change for the better, we feel empathy. A person feeling empathy experiences the story as if it’s happening to them. The result? We create a human connection between the company or product and the audience. Always generate empathy.
The core value binary is a pair such as “efficiency/inefficiency”; “productivity/waste”; “simplicity/complexity”; “meaning/ennui.”
What your protagonist wants is on the left side of the pair. The forces of antagonism serve the right side of the binary.
2. Inciting incident
Some event has knocked the prospect’s world out of balance—to the negative.
3. The goal
The protagonist comes up with a plan to restore balance by reaching some goal or achieving some object.
This is the thing that will put life back in balance. It has to have weight. It has to be important.
Martin Brody in “Jaws” wants a dead shark. Chiron in “Moonlight” wants love. Your prospect wants salespeople to close more deals.
When you think about the goal, ask yourself what happens if the protagonist doesn’t get the object of desire.
What’s at stake? It has to be a compelling answer.
4. The protagonist acts
The prospect does something to get the object based on their understanding of life.
They expect the world to react in a positive way.
5. The world hits back
Everything worthwhile takes effort. And our first effort is never good enough.
When the world reacts differently than expected, there’s a gap that opens up between the expectation and the reality. The prospect’s expectation is violated. (For example, in a case study, this is the answer to the question: “How did you first try to solve the problem?”)
This event is the heart and soul of storytelling. If it doesn’t happen, there’s no story.
Story is created when the subjective world and objective world repeatedly collide. These collisions create turning points—places where things move from positive to negative, positive to double positive, negative to double negative, negative to positive, etc.
Turning points generate surprise, curiosity, and insights.
In other words, they keep the reader’s attention.
In the Storynomics seminar mentioned in part 1 of this series one of the most important things Robert McKee said in the seminar was, "The power of story comes from the negative side of life." We have to establish the negative floor in a story, because it makes the protagonist’s struggle to change generate empathy.
Again, empathy—where the reader or viewer recognizes that “this character is like me”—is critical to an effective story.
6. The protagonist takes a second action—from a place of insight
The prospect struggles through the gap between subjective and objective reality—a struggle through delusion and ignorance—to a second decision, made from a place of wisdom.
(In a screenplay, this step forms the bulk of the second act, where the protagonist struggles through a series of ever-greater obstacles before they get to step 7.)
7. The world reacts positively
The world’s response rewards the protagonist.
Anything you put in front of the audience at this point will be remembered. This “open mind” moment lasts 6–8 seconds. It’s when you bring up the company logo or the call to action.
8. The protagonist achieves their goal
The world is back in balance. At least until the next inciting incident.
These are the basic elements.
The steps McKee outlines are powerful because they mirror our own individual struggles to change. Our first attempts are almost never enough and life usually has to kick our butts many times before we learn the lessons we need to learn to become our best selves.
Keep that in mind for your prospects on the buying journey. Their world has been knocked out of balance. Things aren’t working the way they should. And what they’ve tried so far hasn’t worked. There’s a lot at stake. They have a goal. You can help them reach it.
Sometimes, we’re telling stories explicitly (like in a case study or a brand video). Sometimes the telling is more implicit, as in an ad. But there's always a story playing out.
For example, here are the elements in the TBWA\Chiat\Day backstory:
1. Ordinary world—Apple’s miniscule market share. Chiat\Day soaring.
2. Inciting incident—Steve Jobs contacts Lee Clow.
3. Goal—Clow wants to win the Apple account.
4. First action—Clow tells Rob Siltanen he won’t pitch.
5. World hits back—Jobs asks Clow to pitch.
6. Second action, from a place of insight—Chiat\Day prepares a pitch.
7. The world responds positively—Chiat\Day wins the account.
8. Goal achieved—“Think Different” confirms Chiat\Day as an industry leader and hands Apple a jet pack.
Here are the elements in the "Think Different" TV spot:
1. Ordinary world—The imperfect world we all share.
2. Inciting incident—Implied: Some event has caused the “crazy one” to see a new possibility.
3. Goal—They want to bring change only they can see.
4. First action—They try to fit into existing social categories (round pegs in square holes).
5. World hits back—It doesn’t work. They’re disagreed with or vilified.
6. Second action, from a place of insight—They realize they have to make their own rules.
7. The world responds positively—They are quoted and glorified. They change things.
8. Goal achieved—They push the human race forward.
But what’s this got to do with B2B? In Part 3, I’ll talk about how you can create stories that business buyers find compelling. In the meantime, if you have any questions or want to talk story, get in touch.