It’s an extremely common problem.
It takes training to diagnose.
And if left unchecked, it can be crippling for a show.
Here’s a hint: It begins innocently. A brand highlights a few “stories” they’d like covered in their podcast. The team moves forward and produces episodes with said “stories.” But after listening to the episodes, everyone agrees that something’s missing. Feedback includes phrases like:
“needs more energy”
and, “lacks oomph”
No one can articulate exactly what’s wrong. But something is terribly wrong.
The brand is using the podcast to speak, but nobody’s listening.
And now I’m going to tell you something so simple that it’ll sound counter-intuitive. The problem is the “story” itself. Ninety-nine percent of the time, what a brand thinks is a story, is not a STORY.
And here’s why.
What the heck is a story anyway?
So…what are the fundamental building blocks of a well-crafted story?
Robert McKee, the godfather of storytelling and author of STORY sums it up in three words: CONFLICT CHANGES LIFE. Sometimes I describe this as “someone doing something” — but that something has to be in response to a conflict which has motivated that person to act.
A story consists of a sequence of actions that occur when a sympathetic character encounters a complicating situation that he confronts and solves.
It’s deceptively simple.
And although stories are all around us, many of the stories we encounter in everyday life are not fully formed. They’re fragments. Just look at the news. It’s mostly populated with resolutions (which involve accomplishment or emphasize change) or conflicts, but usually, a quick and dirty news report doesn’t have a narrative arc. It’s up to us to uncover the complication that led to the resolution (or vice versa) and examine whether that specific story is worth telling. But we’ll get to that.
In Storynomics, Robert McKee explains why many marketers are confused about what a story is.
Here are some common misconceptions.
Misconception 1: Storytelling is intuitive
Just because you’ve heard stories all of your life doesn’t mean you know how to tell a good one. It’s like mistaking watching a baseball game for being a pro player. One is entertainment and the other — like storytelling — takes a lot of hard work and training.
You might know a good story when you hear one, but understanding why it is so good, or what made it so memorable is a valuable skill that needs to be honed; a craft that involves breaking down that “why” into a universal story form.
Misconception 2: Storytelling is a process
A process is horizontal. And although it can have a beginning, middle, and end, it lacks conflict, motivation, and a turning point — all of which are at the heart of a story and what makes it resonate for an audience.
Misconception 3: Storytelling is a journey
Okay, I admit, this sounds counter-intuitive. What about taking the listener on a journey of discovery?! But let’s look closer at the language here. Journey indicates that the protagonist is a passive player. In a well-crafted story, the protagonist is fighting to resolve a conflict and achieve a goal. Passive protagonists make for dull stories.
Misconception 4: A narrative is a story
This lesson is also a bit hard to swallow. If a story isn’t a narrative of some kind, then what is it?
A large number of major marketing campaigns have tanked because they’ve confused a story with a narrative. And here’s why: All stories are narratives but not all narratives are stories. Narratives are generally one-dimensional, banal, repetitive, and predictable. They’re what I like to call “this exists” stories. They recount events but lack CONFLICT and RESOLUTION. They don’t have staying power among audiences, let alone any influence.
So, what makes a great story?
It’s easy to think about a great story in descriptive terms: It grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. A great story will have you sitting in your car in your driveway long after you’ve returned home, radio on, waiting to hear how it ends. It suspends space and time; transports you to another world.
Thinking about a story in prescriptive terms is a bit harder.
The universal elements of a STORY
Although stories can take many different forms, beneath most, there are universal elements — an invisible form — that give those stories deep resonance, emotional satisfaction, and staying power for their audiences.
Lesson 1: Knowing your audience
As a storyteller you must know your target audience. Ideally better than they know themselves. Know their desires (yes, unconscious desires count). And you need to offer them something of high value to address what they want, engage them — and keep them engaged. The story you tell should solve a problem for your audience (whether that be practical, emotional, or psychological) while winning their heart and their head.
Example: When Steve Jobs invented the iPhone he knew what many other tech companies didn’t: that his target market wanted beauty and convenience. And the iPhone marketing told a story that didn’t focus on research and development (“Madison Avenue Says Hello to ‘Hello,’ Again”), but put the customer’s desires first.
Lesson 2: Details, details
Stories need context. Audiences need details to transport them to a specific time and place and understand the state of balance of a character before it’s upended by conflict. When you add these details, sometimes it’s helpful to think big. Ideally, your story is just one element in a web of larger content (a world, or other podcast episodes) that your audience can inhabit. This is also a very smart content marketing strategy. (See anything by Robert Rose at The Content Marketing Institute and read about the very smart Blue Ocean Strategy.)
Lesson 3: Conflict
Life’s full of conflict. Say I knock over my coffee mug while gesticulating during a Zoom call. That’s a conflict, but not a very interesting one. Hardly the backbone for a good story.
A true conflict has high stakes and reveals a character’s values and incites meaningful change in their attempts to resolve it — and ideally lends itself to an emotionally satisfying resolution. Conflict always centres on a flawed protagonist (that audiences can relate to and are likely to feel empathy for) who confronts one or more types of narrative conflict — yeah there’s a lot more than one — and ultimately, hopefully, prevails.
Example: Let’s go back to Apple. Their iconic 1984 commercial was classic rage against the machine material. A protagonist violently disrupts a dictator’s address. It’s a great example of the protagonist vs society/the institution and laid the groundwork for their “Think Different” slogan celebrating individuality and iconoclasts.
Lesson 4: Moment of insight
To resolve the conflict they’re faced with, a protagonist must experience a moment of insight where they change one of their core values to get what they want. (Hint: if this value is shared by your audience you’re in a good position to change their hearts and minds too.)
Example: Let’s talk about the 2011 baseball film Moneyball (McKee uses this example in Storynomics too). Brad Pitt stars as the Oakland Athletics general manager, Billy Beane, who struggles to build a winning team using sabermetrics. A moment of insight is reached when Beane realizes that he has to trade his team’s star first baseman to force the team’s manager to adopt his sabermetric choice. At this point, Beane makes a decision that he won’t recover from professionally if his strategy fails. But his moment of insight tells him that he’s got to go all in and risk everything to succeed.
Lesson 5: Resolution (keep your promise to your audience)
Have you ever watched a movie and felt cheated by its ending? That’s because you were. Emotionally unsatisfying endings are less powerful in that they have less resonance for audiences and they’re less memorable. That doesn’t mean that the ending needs to be a happy one, but it needs to keep the promises that you made to the audience at the outset. What drove the protagonist to act the way they did? How did this influence the way the story unfolded?
Example: At the end of Moneyball, Beane’s team — driven by his unwavering commitment to sabermetrics — wins a record-setting 20 games in a row and as a result has another crack at the World Series. The story ends with Beane having achieved his goals and resolving the conflict. The promises made to the audience at the outset (that Beane’s conflict would be resolved — whether it be a negative or positive resolution) were kept. And although many sports fans already knew how this story would end, their satisfaction rested in watching and understanding how and why it ended the way it did.
And finally, to those who balk at the notion that a story can be reduced down to any kind of formula (or universal truths) and hold firm that story form can’t be taught because it knows no bounds…
I’ll leave you with the words of author Sadie Jones, from her Guardian interview with Tim Lott on the subject: “When I was younger I entirely rejected the notion of being taught to write, and McKee’s name made me run in horror,” she says. “I later realized we can reject or accept the teachings of others as we choose. It’s a question of confidence. Insecurity doesn’t want to be lectured, but if we want to break the rules we can do it more thoroughly if we master them first.”