The Ultimate Guide to Storytelling
Storytelling is an art.
Not a process, method, or technique. And — like art — it requires creativity, vision, skill, and practice. Storytelling isn’t something you can grasp in one sitting, after one course. It’s a trial-and-error process of mastery.
Sounds like a lot of work, right? It is, and rightfully so because storytelling is a crucial part of the most successful marketing campaigns. It sets vibrant brands apart from simple businesses and loyal consumers from one-time, stop-in shoppers.
It’s also the heart of inbound marketing.
Storytelling is an incredibly valuable tool for you to add to your proverbial marketing tool belt. That’s why we’ve compiled this guide, to help you discover and understand storytelling and weave gorgeous, compelling tales for your audience.
Pick up your pen, and let’s dive in.
Because storytelling can take so many forms, it can be a challenge to create a good story. Here are some quick do’s and don’ts to get you started:
The Art of Storytelling
Since the dawn of human language, storytelling has been how cultures pass on shared beliefs and values. Some of the stories told today come from stories our ancestors were sharing over 6,000 years ago.
Every person has a story, but the art of storytelling can make a story transformative. There are a few qualities that can push a basic story into the art of storytelling.
While the setting will influence what a story can be, all great stories have a narrative, a spoken or written account of events.
For example, stand-up comics sometimes tell stories during a set. The structure, setting, and details of this narrative may not feel the same as they do in a Shakespeare play. But both storytellers are sharing a narrative.
But it's not enough to just tell the story. The storytelling that resonates with people grabs their attention. There are many ways to grab and keep an audience’s attention in a story.
Creating suspense is one option. Stories that are full of mystery are interesting because of their unanswered questions. Surprising your audience is also a great way to pull readers in.
Another way to captivate your audience is to add details that bring your story to life. A popular way to describe this storytelling technique is "Show. Don't tell."
For example, say your company is launching a new product. In your story, you can share details about the moment your team came up with the idea. This is more exciting than telling your customers that you’re about to release the best new product. Talk about the roadblocks and small wins that led up to launch. This makes your audience feel like they’re part of your process.
Storytelling isn't just the story that you tell. It's also the way that your audience responds and engages. Some kinds of storytelling require the reader to take part in the story, like the Netflix interactive film Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
But with most stories, the interaction comes from the relationship that the audience builds with the storyteller. Your audience might be a fan group for the latest Harry Potter movie. And your favorite storyteller could be a TikTok influencer.
That feeling of connection and interaction is essential to storytelling.
Many movies come from popular books. And it's not unusual for viewers to rate the quality of a book-based movie on its ability to match what they imagined as they read the book.
When someone listens to storytelling they often run a picture show in their mind. This picture show can be incredibly detailed, including characters, setting, and events.
These imaginings often pull up memories for individual readers, or they might see their qualities in one of the story's characters. No story is complete without the listener or reader adding these imaginative details on their own.
Telling a story is like painting a picture with words. While everyone can tell a story, certain people fine-tune their storytelling skills and become a storyteller on behalf of their organization, brand, or business. You might’ve heard of these folks — we typically refer to them as marketers, content writers, or PR professionals.
Every member of an organization can tell a story. But before we get into the how, let’s talk about why we tell stories — as a society, culture, and economy.
Why Do We Tell Stories?
There are a variety of reasons to tell stories — to sell, entertain, educate or brag. We’ll talk about that below. Right now, I want to discuss why we choose storytelling over, say, a data-driven PowerPoint or bulleted list. Why are stories our go-to way of sharing, explaining, and selling information?
Stories solidify abstract concepts and simplify complex messages.
We’ve all experienced confusion when trying to understand a new idea. Stories offer a way around that. Think about times when stories have helped you better understand a concept. Maybe your favorite teacher used a real-life example to explain a math problem. Maybe a preacher illustrated a situation during a sermon or a speaker used a case study to convey complex data.
Stories help solidify abstract concepts and simplify complex messages. Taking a lofty, non-tangible concept and relating it using concrete ideas is one of the biggest strengths of storytelling in business.
Take Apple, for example. Computers and smartphones are a pretty complicated topic to describe to your typical consumer. Using real-life stories, they’ve been able to describe exactly how their products benefit users. They use storytelling instead of relying on technical jargon that few customers would understand.
Stories promote and shape ideas.
This is because stories engage our emotions. So, even if you're stressed out and overwhelmed, you can still connect with a story. That connection might lead you to be less critical about facts, less defensive, and more open to changing your ideas.
Data is powerful. But data without storytelling can result in confusion, frustration, and conflicts of opinion. This is because listening to stories engages different parts of the brain than data does.
When you tell a story, you're asking someone to see a series of events from your perspective. The person listening to that story believes in the truth of what you're saying.
If you're good at storytelling, you might influence the future behavior of that person. And cultures often honor skilled storytellers. They appreciate brands that tell stories to promote wider societal values too, like this Ben & Jerry’s example in support of the People’s Response Act.
Stories bring people together.
Like I said above, stories are a universal language of sorts. We all understand the story of the hero, of the underdog, or of heartbreak. We all process emotions and can share feelings of elation, hope, despair, and anger. Sharing a story gives even the most diverse people a sense of commonality and community.
In a world divided by a multitude of things, stories bring people together and create a sense of community. Despite our language, religion, political preferences, or ethnicity, stories connect us through the way we feel and respond to them. Stories make us human.
TOMS is a great example of this. By sharing stories of both customers and the people they serve through customer purchases, TOMS has effectively created a movement that has not only increased sales but also built a community.
Stories inspire and motivate.
Stories make us human, and the same goes for brands. When brands get transparent and authentic, it brings them down-to-earth and helps consumers connect with them and the people behind them.
Tapping into people’s emotions and baring both the good and bad is how stories inspire and motivate and eventually, drive action. Stories also foster brand loyalty. Creating a narrative around your brand or product not only humanizes it but also inherently markets your business.
Few brands use inspiration as a selling tactic, but ModCloth does it well. By sharing the real story of their business, ModCloth not only makes the brand relatable and worth purchasing, but it also inspires other founders and business owners.
What makes a good story?
Words like "good" and "bad" are relative to user opinion. But there are a few non-negotiable components that make for a great storytelling experience, for both the reader and teller.
Good stories are:
- Entertaining: Good stories keep the reader engaged and interested in what’s coming next.
- Believable: Good stories convince the reader of their version of reality and make it easy to trust and engage.
- Educational: Good stories spark curiosity and add to the reader’s knowledge bank.
- Relatable: Stories remind readers of the people and places they know. They help their audience recognize patterns in the world around them.
- Organized: Good stories follow a succinct organization that helps convey the core message and helps readers absorb it.
- Memorable: Whether through inspiration, scandal, or humor, good stories stick in the reader’s mind.
How to Tell Great Stories
According to HubSpot Academy’s free Power of Storytelling course, there are three components that make up a good story — regardless of the story you’re trying to tell.
Every story features at least one character, and this character will be the key to relating your audience back to the story. This main character is often called the protagonist.
Your characters form the bridge between you, the storyteller, and the audience. If your audience can put themselves in your character’s shoes, they’ll be more likely to follow through with your call-to-action.
The conflict is the lesson of how the character overcomes a challenge. Conflict in your story elicits emotions and connects the audience through relatable experiences. When telling stories, the power is in what you’re conveying and teaching. If there’s no conflict in your story, it’s likely not a story.
Every good story has a closing, but it doesn’t always have to be a good one. Your story’s resolution should wrap up the story, give context to the characters and conflict(s), and leave your audience with a call to action.
If you’re new to storytelling, there are a couple other elements you’ll want to think about as you build your first story.
Your plot is the structure of your storytelling.
A blog can have great writing and relatable characters. But if you don't create a natural flow of events, your blog will confuse your reader.
Your "About" page on your website can run through the story of your business. But if you don't break it into clear and useful segments, your site visitors might bounce before they get to the good part.
Plots don't need to be in chronological order. There are many ways that you can experiment with the structure of your story.
But your story should have a beginning, middle, and end. This structure is familiar, so it makes your audience more comfortable and open to new information.
The context of your storytelling impacts how your audience takes in your story. The setting is more than where a story takes place. It's how you can:
- Share the values and goals of your characters
- Shift the tone of conversations and action
- Make it easier to show instead of tell
For example, say you're creating an ad campaign that features two main characters. One runs a small startup and the other works for a large enterprise. Where would it make sense for these two to meet up? How could their location impact the conversation?
Now that you know what your story should contain, let’s talk about how to craft your story.
The Storytelling Process
We’ve confirmed storytelling is an art. Like art, storytelling requires creativity, vision, and skill. It also requires practice. Enter: The storytelling process.
Painters, sculptors, dancers, and designers all follow their own creative processes when producing their art. It helps them know where to start, how to develop their vision, and how to perfect their practice over time. The same goes for storytelling – especially for businesses writing stories.
Why is this process important? Because, as an organization or brand, you likely have a ton of facts, figures, and messages to get across in one succinct story. How do you know where to begin? Well, start with the first step. You’ll know where to go (and how to get there) after that.
1. Know your audience.
Who wants to hear your story? Who will benefit and respond the strongest? To create a compelling story, you need to understand your readers and who will respond and take action.
Before you put a pen to paper (or cursor to word processor), do some research on your target market and define your buyer persona(s). This process will get you acquainted with who might be reading, viewing, or listening to your story. Understanding who your story is for will also offer crucial direction as you build out the foundation of your story.
2. Define your core message.
Whether your story is one page or twenty, ten minutes or sixty, it should have a core message. Like the foundation of a home, you need to set up your core message before moving forward.
Is your story selling a product or raising funds? Explaining a service or advocating for an issue? What is the point of your story? To help define this, try to summarize your story in six to ten words. If you can’t do that, you don’t have a core message.
3. Decide what kind of story you’re telling.
Not all stories are created equal. To decide what kind of story you’re telling, figure out how you want your audience to feel or react as they read.
This will help you figure out how you’re going to weave your story and what goal you’re pursuing. If your goal is to:
Your story should describe how you completed a successful action in the past and explain how readers might be able to create the same kind of change. Avoid excessive, exaggerated detail or changes in the subject so your audience can focus on the action or change that your story encourages.
Tell Your Story
Talk about your genuine, humanizing struggles, failures, and wins. Today’s consumer appreciates and connects to brands that market with authenticity. Your storytelling should reflect your authentic self.
Tell a story that taps into familiar emotions, characters, and situations so that readers can understand how the story applies to their own life. This is especially important when discussing values that some people might not agree with or understand.
Foster Community or Collaboration
Tell a story that moves readers to discuss and share your story with others. Use a situation or experience that others can relate to and say, "Me, too." Keep situations and characters neutral to attract the widest variety of readers.
Impart Knowledge or Educate
Tell a story that features a trial-and-error experience, so that readers can learn about a problem and how you found and applied a solution. Discuss alternative solutions too.
4. Establish your call-to-action.
Your objective and call-to-action (CTA) are similar, but your CTA will establish the action you’d like your audience to take after reading.
What exactly do you want your readers to do after reading? Do you want them to donate money, subscribe to a newsletter, take a course, or buy a product? Outline this alongside your objective to make sure they line up.
For example, if your objective is to foster community or collaboration, your CTA might be to "Tap the share button below."
5. Choose your story medium.
Stories can take many shapes and forms. Sometimes people read stories. Other times they watch or listen., Your chosen story medium depends on your type of story as well as resources, like time and money.
Here are four different ways you can tell your story:
Written stories take the form of articles, blog posts, or books. They’re mostly text and may include some images. Written stories are by far the most affordable, attainable method of storytelling as it just requires a free word processor like Google Docs or a pen and paper.
You tell spoken stories in person, like in a presentation, pitch, or panel. TED talks are an example of spoken stories. Because of their "live", unedited nature, spoken stories typically require more practice and skill to convey messages and elicit emotions in others.
Audio stories are spoken aloud but recorded — that’s what sets them apart from the spoken story. Audio stories are usually in podcast form, and with today’s technology, creating an audio story is more affordable than ever. (For great story-driven podcasts, check out The HubSpot Podcast Network.)
Digital storytelling comes in a variety of media, including video, animation, interactive stories, and games. This option is by far the most effective for emotionally resonant stories and active, visual stories. This is why they can be expensive to produce. But don’t fret: video quality doesn’t matter as much as conveying a strong message.
6. Plan and structure your story.
You have an idea of what you want to include in your story, how you want to organize it, and what medium is best. If you were doing some creative writing, your next step might be to jump right into writing and work on the structure of your story later.
But while storytelling in marketing is creative, it also has a goal in mind. This means it may need a more structured process because every step from intro to CTA needs to meet a specific goal.
Your storytelling should ignite imagination and emotion no matter where you share it. But marketing storytellers are also tracking metrics once their story goes out into the world.
With this in mind, you may want to create a detailed outline of your story. You might develop storyboards, wireframes, or a PowerPoint presentation. These can help you stay focused as you craft your story. They can also help you keep your original vision of your story as you move through the approvals, meetings, and pitches that often come with business storytelling.
Now it’s time to put pen to paper and start crafting your story.
You've done a lot of work to get to this point. For many storytellers, this is the fun part. It can also be the hardest part because it can be tough to create on cue.
As of this writing, there are over 215,000,000 links on Google for the search "writer's block." If you feel stuck, you're not alone. But help is on the way.
Remember, you've got this. Every person is a storyteller, and audiences aren't just waiting for any old story. They want to hear from you.
7. Share your story.
Don’t forget to share and promote your story. Like with any piece of content marketing, creating it is only half the battle — sharing is how your audience can complete your story.
Depending on your chosen medium, you should definitely share your story on social media and by email. Promote written stories on your blog, Medium, or by guest posting on other publications. You can share digital stories on your website, YouTube, or a mobile app. While spoken stories are best conveyed in person, consider recording a live performance to share later.
The more places you share your story, the more engagement you can expect from your audience.
Storytelling is a trial-and-error process, and no one tells a story perfectly on the first try. That’s why we’ve collected these resources to help you fine-tune your storytelling skills and learn more about the different ways you can tell a story.
- Guide to Becoming a Better Writer
- OEDb’s writing resources
- How to Write a Blog Post
- Copywriting 101
- HubSpot’s list of writing tools
For Audio Stories
For Digital Storytelling
- Ultimate Guide to Video Marketing
- Examples of Interactive Storytelling
- Website Examples of Storytelling
- How Brands Are Reaching Gamers
- Ultimate Guide to Making Your Own App
Start Telling Your Story
Storytelling is an art. It’s also a process worth learning for both your business and your customers. Stories bring people together and inspire action and response. Also, today’s consumer doesn’t decide to buy based on what you’re selling, but rather why you’re selling it.
Storytelling helps you communicate that "why" in a creative, engaging way. You are a storyteller. So, pull together your ideas, find the right channel and tools, and share your story.
This post was originally published in November 2020 and has been updated for comprehensiveness.