The Shapes of Stories

Written by in Inspiration on

Whenever I hear advertising and storytelling used interchangeably, I cringe.

That’s not to say marketing creative can’t tell a story, but let’s be honest — it usually doesn’t. If I asked you to tell me the best story you’ve heard in the last week, are you really going to bring up a retargeted banner ad? Does YouTube pre-roll ever overshadow the video that follows it?  

As marketers, our job in its simplest form is to communicate so well that it persuades — to interrupt someone’s life for a split second, and in that split second tell them something that they not only won’t be able to forget, but that will change the course of their decision making.

Tall order, huh? It’s no surprise then that when advertising succeeds even a small fraction of the time, it’s an incredible success.

When a major league hitter winds up on base ⅓ of the time, they end up with their bust in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. If the next website I write converts like that, I will be carried out of our office like an anointed reincarnation of David Ogilvy, but of course without as many pithy quotes.       

If we want our creative to resonate, it needs to tell a story. An actual story. Something that moves from A to B to C to D, that has internal or external conflict, tension, closure, or hell even a lack of closure.

As much as I hate to be cliche and bring up Hemingway already (give me credit for almost making it 300 words) the efficiency of his writing is proof that stories can be told with brevity. You don’t need to hold someone’s attention for an hour and a half to tell them a story.  

One afternoon while having lunch with friends, Hemingway wagered that he could craft an entire story in six words. He wrote “For Sale: baby shoes, never worn” on the napkin and immediately collected his winnings.

Proof that even before today’s onslaught of second to second media, the storyteller that can elicit an emotional response faster wins.

The first step to collectively improving our storytelling skills is to recognize when a story is smack dab in front of us. For that I defer to another master author, Kurt Vonnegut.  

Vonnegut recognized common threads between many of our most enduring stories and charted them across a horizontal axis of time and vertical axis of relative happiness.  

I’ll let him explain.

Credit: Maya Eilam

In future editions of this blog series, I will be charting each of these story shapes, finding them out in the wild, and discussing the abundance of tools storytellers have at their disposal.

Ultimately, I want to create a forum for marketing professionals to put the story back in brand storytelling.

In the meantime, I challenge you to find these shapes in every story you consume. Be it a song, a film, a book, and even a blog, these story shapes are everywhere.


Tweet me at @JayTrose and let me know what you think is the shape of this blog article.  

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