Once Upon a Time There Lived a Plot: The Importance of Storytelling


Meg O'Leary

Boy meets girl; they fall in love; they get married; the end. Are you feeling inspired yet? Probably not, because after about the age of 5 years old, these simple, fairy tale stories just don’t cut it for us anymore. As a mature audience, we crave twists and turns, developed characters and deep engagement. We want to know where the girl went to college, what his parents are like, what marital issues the couple encountered. And when the boy is hospitalized for a rare illness and the girl struggles to go on, we want to be there—living it as it happens. These are the stories people want to read. Why? Because they have a plot. And they are the kinds of stories that we, as marketers, should be pursuing.

All too often, the stories companies want to tell aren’t really stories at all. They might sound something like: We have an amazing product. Here is a customer who says it is amazing. You should buy it. You’ll think it is amazing, too. There are no beautifully crafted descriptions, no gripping messages, and the readers are left wondering why they just wasted their time on these empty, declarative statements.

Don’t get me wrong, I love entrepreneurs and executives who are truly passionate about what their company does—sadly, it is hard to find these days and it is a big part of why I do what I do. And I know that they often think that their companies’ mere existence is a story in itself. On the rare occasion, it is. But that is a very rare occasion. The truth is that good stories in business are much the same as good stories in the literature. Quite simply, they have a plot.

Mrs. Deal, my high school literature teacher, made us study the “anatomy of a story” with vigor. At the time, her persistence fell on deaf ears. I remember sitting there thinking that after passing her class, I would never need to use this lesson in “real” life. Now, years later, I find myself constantly referring back to that basic framework. Marketers should pursue stories with real plots—and that means making sure you keep five elements of a good company story in mind:

1. Passion – Write stories around issues your audience actually cares about—not just because you can get a customer quote. Figure out what the focus should be and then find a quote that fits.

2. A Protagonist – This one is easy. It is you, your company, your product, your service, or something along those lines. Too often this is where company stories begin and end. Make sure you clearly represent your protagonist and give it some depth. Readers remember round “characters” better than flat “characters.”

3. An Antagonist – Our villain! The villain is often the most overlooked part of an organization’s story. But without it, you don’t have a story at all. As companies, we need to think beyond the traditional “evil doer.” Instead, think enemy! What is the issue or challenge that your company has been built to address? Maybe it is a cultural issue, a major industry problem, or even just the inadequate status quo.

4. The Revelation – Please tell us something we don’t know. A good story engages the reader who is awaiting some sort of reveal. Share something unexpected with the reader. Back up your story with interesting facts and expert information to encourage an “aha moment.”

5. The Transformation – Consider the impact of your story. What is different as a result of the story you are telling? A clearer understanding of your brand? Increased sales or Web site foot traffic? Think about what you’d like to accomplish by the time your reader turns that last page.

If you are missing one of these elements, the truth is, you haven’t got much of a story—so move on and find where the stories do exist within your company. Remember, everyone can live happily ever after—you might just need the right person to help you get there.

Meg O’Leary is a principal and co-founder of InkHouse Media + Marketing, a PR and social media agency based in Waltham, Mass. You can e-mail her at meg@inkhouse.net, and find her on Twitter @moleary.

To learn more about to use Twitter as part of a storytelling strategy, attend PR News' November 10 Twitter Conference in Las Vegas.




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  • Robert L Smith

    Well said. Remember the passion part? To tell a passionate story the teller must feel the passion to make the description realistic.

  • Ford Kanzler

    Hi Meg,
    Good article. I was waiting for a good story about a client you’d shaped a story for to make it real. Did the editors cut that?