I just love it when phrases are banded about within an industry and customers are expected to immediately grasp what they mean. One of the latest, ‘storytelling’, has been gaining traction within both the marketing and learning sectors. “We need to tell stories” say marketers and educationalists. But what does this mean?

The problem with a lot of marketing – and it’s a problem shared by many learning materials – is that there can be too great a focus on imparting facts. True, when selling or teaching passing on facts is important – but we should both be measured about how we do this and pass them on in a meaningful way. Otherwise it’s a mind-numbing succession of unstructured detail. Each point has value, but the whole doesn’t engage.

How this happens is understandable. The planning of any form of marketing or learning is focused around facts – whether they are product features, service benefits or key teaching points. The brief is passed on to the creatives and becomes the framework for communications.

It’s often more effective to structure those facts (perhaps not even all of them) into a story.

A simple but effective way of doing this is around the conflict and resolution model. Many films and novels are structured in this way. They establish a problem and then work towards a resolution. For example, Star Wars: A New Hope – the universe is run by an evil empire with a giant planet-killing weapon; Luke, the hero or protagonist, carries the plans for the Death Star to the rebellion and then destroys it. There are a few more steps in-between – context or exposition, conflict or rising action, climax, closure or falling action and finally resolution. But hey, we’re not writing a novel, we’re selling something or teaching something.

In marketing terms, a story might look like: identify a problem customers face (context), demonstrate what this means in daily terms (conflict or rising action), introduce your solution (the hero), show what happens when the solution is deployed (climax) and then demonstrate the benefits (resolution). It’s a journey. It’s far more interesting and meaningful than starting by introducing your company and immediately expounding how fantastic your solutions are – which is introspective and can feel both pompous and arrogant.

It’s accepted that stories often have a three-act structure: the beginning, middle and end. The stages above might fall into that structure like this:

  • Beginning
    • Exposition or context
    • Conflict
  • Middle
    • Rising action
    • Climax
  • End
    • Resolution

Any good watercolourist will tell you that a great part of the success of a painting isn’t just what’s put in, it’s also what’s left out. For example, leaving white paper to show clouds, or minimising detail to convey movement. Our marketing deliverable may have started off with a list of important points, but we should only include those which serve the story.

There’s really no need to tell everyone everything in each and every marketing tool. It’s easy for people to get the bigger picture by going to your website should they be interested enough – and cramming detail in, because you’re worried they won’t, isn’t a fix. It makes things worse.

Many advertisements, videos and training courses go further than just using a storytelling framework. They quite literally tell a story – and use that story to communicate some of their key points. For a car manufacturer, this might be a family heading off to the beach. The story will tell us, perhaps visually rather than with words, that the car is spacious, fun, flexible, agile and so on. In the process, more of the fact-giving gives way to storytelling, but those fewer key points are generally communicated far more effectively.

Less is more, as the poet Robert Browning said. When you tell stories rather than howitzer out facts, less can be far more.