Evolutionary biologists believe humans started telling stories around two million years ago — around the same time we developed the ability to speak. And since we didn’t start writing until 3200 B.C., speaking was our main form of communication. In turn, storytelling was the best way to teach others how to navigate our ruthless, prehistoric world.
To put it simply, storytelling is an evolutionary trait. Our brain craves stories because they were crucial for our survival. Interestingly enough, natural selection also shaped the act of storytelling.
Even though Netflix, Hulu, and our local movie theaters are chock-full of stories, only one story structure survived the evolutionary pruning process. That’s right — most of today’s stories follow a structure that’s been honed over millions of years. And Hollywood was the first industry to monetize our need for them.
From The Fault In Our Stars to Inception, all the best stories follow the same structure. Although the order of events may vary, each story includes all of the following elements:
- Exposition: The world or situation the hero lives in, their status quo.
- Inciting incident: A major event that disrupts their status quo, creates a pressing problem in the hero’s life, and compels them to solve it to return back to their normal life.
- Progressive complications: Obstacles that hinder the hero’s chances of getting what they want, escalating the story’s conflict.
- Turning point: A revelation that helps the hero realize what’s required to succeed.
- Crisis: A tough decision that will either set the hero on the path of success or failure. They will never return to their regular life again.
- Climax: Gutsy move necessary to succeed, often revealing the hero’s true character and changing their worldview forever.
- Resolution: Indications of how much the hero has changed.
It’s easy to see how each of these elements plays out in a major motion picture like The Avengers, but it’s also possible to include some of these components in your next video series.
If you want to master the craft of narrative-driven content, you must first master your understanding of story structure. Below are five ways you can ensure that the binge-worthy content you create captivates viewers, as well as examples from shows you’ve probably already binge-watched!
1. Set a clear goal for the hero to achieve
An inciting incident makes or break a story. In one of the funniest episodes of The Office called “Christmas Party,” Michael spends $400 to get Ryan an iPod for Secret Santa. But when it’s his turn to receive a gift, Phyllis disappoints him with a pair of homemade oven mitts. This forces Michael to react absurdly in order to get a better gift — turning Secret Santa into a Yankee Swap. Now, the office can take turns stealing each other’s presents or picking a new gift from the tree, kicking off the episode’s entire storyline and promising us that we’ll witness Michael pull out all the stops to get a gift he actually wants.
When crafting an episode for your branded show, make sure to introduce a pressing problem into the hero’s world that sets a clear goal for them to achieve. After you do that, they’ll be faced with two options: Find a solution or ignore the problem entirely. This choice will spark your episode’s entire storyline and reveal to your audience what they’re about to get into.
2. Block the hero’s path to success as much as possible
The more obstacles that block your hero from achieving their goal, the more challenging their life is. And the more challenging your hero’s life is, the more satisfying it is when they conquer these obstacles and finally achieve their goal.
However, your hero can’t face the same type or magnitude of conflict each time an obstacle crops up. This will make your story drag on and feel repetitive. Instead, you must continually escalate your story’s conflict to keep your audience invested.
For example, in the series premiere of the drama Sorry For Your Loss, Leah, a recent widow, faces the biggest obstacle of all — her grief. As she struggles to put her life back together, she blows up on her sister, grief group leader, and late husband’s brother in the process. While it’s clear that isolating herself from loved ones won’t really help Leah move on, she can’t really ever go back to how things were. Ultimately, she finds some comfort in writing, which is truly what sets her on the path to recovery.
A good way to figure out if you’re escalating your story’s conflict enough is determining whether or not your hero can go back to their regular life after they’ve faced an obstacle. In other words, if they can’t go back to the way things were without suffering any trauma or displeasure, then you’ve escalated your story’s conflict enough.
3. Escalate tension as you approach the climax
The turning point in your story shifts the narrative from one particular emotion to an entirely different one. Usually, it’s a positive transition from your hero failing so much that they feel like giving up, to your hero uncovering a new nugget of information that makes them realize there’s actually a path toward success.
In the critique show called The Profit, Marcus Lemonis tries to turn a fly fishing store called SmithFly into a profitable business. During the episode’s turning point, it seems like Ethan, the owner, is a changed man. He used to be extremely defensive and deflect any criticism directed toward his products, but now he’s actually receptive to the feedback given by a distributor.
However, we quickly see him fall from grace and go back to his old ways during a big pitch. This adds a lot of tension to the climax — while you’re watching it, you can’t help but sit on the edge of your seat and pray that Ethan doesn’t mess things up. When he seals the deal, though, you feel like jumping for joy. If Ethan never showed signs of resistance, which added tension to the story during the turning point, the climax’s payoff would be less satisfying.
When crafting your story structure, consider escalating the tension at the end of your turning point to heighten your story’s conflict to a memorable level. Since your turning point leads to the crisis (which sparks the climax) intensifying the end of your turning point can ramp up your climax’s conflict, suspense, and payoff.
4. End with a twist
Your climax serves as the moment of truth — this is when your audience learns whether your hero actually has the guts to do what they need to do and has experienced a change in their worldview. It’s a rational and inevitable result of your inciting incident. But whether or not your hero achieves their goal during the climax, it must happen in a surprising way. Otherwise, your story will seem too predictable.
For instance, in the season premiere of the documentary Tom vs. Time, sports analysts keep berating Tom Brady with criticisms of his age. However, his mentality, training, and diet convince you that all that stuff is just noise. Tom Brady seems ageless (albeit in a somewhat robotic, creepy way). When you shockingly find out he lost the home opener, however, you can’t help but think his age is catching up to him. This adds drama to the overall narrative and compels you to watch the next episode.
When crafting narrative-driven binge-worthy content, especially documentaries, twist endings are the best way to shock your audience and, in turn, retain their attention. Humans are wired to predict things, so if you can shatter their forecast of your show’s plot, they’ll pay more attention to your show and engage more deeply with it.
5. Highlight how much your hero has changed
During Anthony Bourdain’s review of Montana’s culture and food in his show, Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown, the late, great Bourdain identifies as a liberal and never considers himself a hunter. But after spending an entire day with a hunter who is surprisingly also a conservationist, he realizes that you can strike a balance between the two. In fact, it dawns on him that hunting and conservation actually rely on each other. Bourdain ends the evening by marveling at the stars scattered across the big Montana sky and reflecting on his newfound insight of hunting and conservation being intertwined.
The point of your resolution is to complete the story and teach your audience a life lesson. So instead of summarizing what happened during the climax, rip a page out of Anthony Bourdain’s storytelling playbook and spotlight how much your hero’s worldview has changed since the beginning of your story.
Even though each of these shows belongs to completely different styles and genres, they all follow the same or similar structure. Because the structure of a story is like scaffolding to a house, without it, your story will crumble. So the next time you set out to script a long-form video or series, make sure you incorporate these Hollywood story elements so you can keep your story moving along nicely.
Episode 6: “The Brandwagon Interviews” Podcast with Brendan Gaul of UM Worldwide
From tactics to taglines, Wistia’s CEO, Chris Savage, chats marketing with the brains behind successful brands on our new video series, Brandwagon. Last week, Chris sat down with Lauren Fleshman, Co-founder and CMO of Picky Bars, to learn why she believes strategic rigor is essential to building an effective brand. Today, we’re excited to share our extended interview with this week’s guest, Brendan Gaul, Global Chief Content Officer and Head of UM Studios at the full-service media agency UM Worldwide.
Check out the episode to hear Brendan talk about the agency’s award-winning documentary film, 5B, and discuss how brands are shifting their strategies to create original content as traditional advertising platforms disappear.
Or listen on: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher
Watch the actual Brandwagon episode here!
UM Worldwide works with some of the world’s largest business-to-consumer brands like Coca-cola, Spotify, BMW, Sony Pictures, and Johnson & Johnson. When Johnson & Johnson wanted to find a way to elevate the image of nurses around the world from doctor sidekicks to the heroes of healthcare, Brendan pitched the idea for a documentary film called 5B.
Flashing forward — 5B won the Grand Prix for Entertainment at the 2019 Cannes Lions Festival for Creativity, which was the first time a media agency has ever won the award. For Gaul, this win validated that brand-funded content can be accepted by audiences and industries.
On this episode, we hear more about how other brands are creating content in ways that offer value for their audiences, and Brendan shares exercises smaller companies can do to help define their brands, too.
On this episode of The Brandwagon Interviews, Brendan Gaul explains the decision-making behind UM’s unique piece of branded content and advises how brands, both big and small, can approach creating content humbly.
Here are some of the lessons learned throughout the episode:
- Think of innovative ways to reach customers who’ve moved away from ad-free platforms
- Create content that offers value for your audience
- Don’t try to reach the “average customer”; reach your high-value audience
Short on time? Check out some of our favorite moments during this interview between Chris and Brendan.
2:51 – A non-traditional career path
After chatting about Brendan’s favorite dessert and the current state of New York diners, Savage and Gaul talk about Gaul’s winding career path to working with some of the world’s biggest brands. Brendan talks about getting his start in film school at Pratt in Brooklyn, but quickly found himself immersed in the world of fashion retail when he took a job (to pay for off-campus housing) at the first Armani Exchange in NYC. Brendan learned about brand experiences through his work with luxury brands like LVMH, Sephora, and Donna Karan. With these brands, he saw first-hand how brands created immersive brand experiences that tapped into all five senses. He also got a sense of how different brands relate to one another in commercial environments.
12:21 – Moving into advertising
After the attacks on New York on September 11, Donna Karan underwent a restructuring that left Brendan without a job, giving him time to reflect on what his next steps would be. During this time, he was introduced to the world of advertising. He leveraged his experience from film school and consumer-experience design to art direct several commercials for Lowes. The work got him a job at then McCann Erickson. Brendan shares how his career has advanced from there and what he does today at UM Worldwide.
17:38 – Changing to survive
At UM, Brendan works with some of the biggest B2C brands in the world, including Amex, Coca Cola, Levis, BMW, Johnson &Johnson, and more. He points out how changing media landscapes are forcing these iconic brands to evolve and change the ways they do things. Savage asks if this is the challenge for big brands today. Brendan talks about how consumers are moving to ad-free platforms, so brands need to think of innovative and interesting ways to reach those customers. The two discuss Facebook’s recent acquisition of WhatsApp and their declaration that “the future is private” as examples of diminishing advertising space, and Gaul shares the benefits of working with big brands in big media.
22:57 – 5B
UM worked with Johnson & Johnson to create the documentary film 5B, which was shown at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival. The idea for the documentary came from Johnson & Johnson’s efforts to elevate the image of nurses around the world from doctor sidekicks to the heroes of healthcare that they are. The documentary had an impressive showing at Cannes, winning the Entertainment Grand Prix at the show among other awards. Savage and Gaul talk about how the film came to be, and the decision-making behind this unique piece of branded content.
41:09 – “If you’re putting content out there that’s solely based on trying to sell more stuff, the consumer smells it.”
How do brands know whether they can do something like what Johnson and Johnson did with 5B? Gaul talks about how brands need to know that they have — or need to earn — permission to be a part of cultural conversations. Savage and Gaul discuss how brands can approach content humbly and note examples of brands trying to act in spaces where they aren’t welcome. They go on to discuss other examples of brands who are creating content in ways that offer value for their audiences.
51:06 – The big-brand playbook
While it’s relatively easy for the biggest brands to create powerful content, Savage wants to know what smaller companies can learn from this type of content strategy. Brendan admits that it can be easy for smaller companies to be overwhelmed by the need to create content, but offers some practical advice and exercises smaller companies can do to help define their brands.
55:23 – “You had me until you said ‘average consumer.’”
How can B2B companies reach average consumers like B2C brands do? Brendan points out that the goal isn’t to reach an “average consumer,” but to reach your high-value audience and goes on to describe how smaller, B2B companies and local businesses can think about their products. He offers some ideas on how to position themselves for their best audiences.
The Science Behind Storytelling: Why Narrative Cuts Through the Noise
At the beginning of every year, most marketing teams set aggressive goals for their content. With lofty numbers hanging over their heads, they crank out content with the sole purpose of gaming an algorithm or converting leads.
Unfortunately, this type of content is more likely to meet traditional marketing goals than say, an original docu-series might. And because of that, marketers claim the data backs up their strategy — they’re moving the needle, making more people aware of their product or service. The problem with this strategy, however, is that this type of content doesn’t actually resonate with audiences in a meaningful way. Sure, it may reach them, but it doesn’t strike a chord with them. In other words, it won’t turn them into life-long fans of your brand.
Storytelling, however, has the power to do just that. And lucky for us, neuroscience backs up that claim time and time again. Let’s take a look at the science behind storytelling itself, why it’s such a powerful tool for marketers, and how it can help businesses cut through the noise.
Before our ancestors could write about the dangers of their environment and teach their children how to maneuver the social dynamics of their community through books, they told stories.
It’s estimated that from the time humans started speaking to the time we started writing, almost two million years passed. During that period of time, the humans who learned how to survive their ruthless, prehistoric world through stories lived longer and reproduced more often than the humans who didn’t. As a result, natural selection shaped and hardwired our brains to crave, seek out, and pay instant attention to narrative.
“Humans who learned how to survive their ruthless, prehistoric world through stories lived longer and reproduced more often than the humans who didn’t.”
Today, brands that prioritize storytelling are tapping into their audience’s innate need for narrative. They’re the ones who will be able to get their audience hooked on their binge-worthy content. And not only that, but they’ll be the ones to inspire their fans to spread the word amongst their peers and friends.
Take, for example, how Taco Bell teased the return of their popular menu item — nacho fries — in their ad below:
To announce that nacho fries were making a comeback, the brand launched a fake movie trailer ad campaign with a witty and enthralling sci-fi storyline. By using a storytelling strategy, they were able to capture peoples’ attention in an entertaining way.
If a scientist scanned your brain while you watched Stranger Things, it’d look like Joyce Byer’s alphabet wall. Now, watching Stranger Things doesn’t lodge a Demogorgon into your brain. What it does do, though, is boost your brain’s neural activity, lighting it up like a Christmas Tree.
When more parts of your brain are active at the same time, your ability to remember whatever you’re engaged with increases exponentially. Stories warned our ancestors about the dangerous dire wolf lurking at night and taught them valuable social norms like generosity and cooperation, so the fact that narrative can illuminate our brains and sear information into our memories makes complete sense. If stories didn’t have this effect on our minds, our ancestors wouldn’t have remembered how to dodge that dire wolf or why they should help their neighbor.
Today, stories haven’t lost a speckle of charm. In fact, in a marketing industry that’s filled to the brim with uninspired content, narrative-driven content is more alluring than ever before. So, trust the neuroscience — if you want to earn people’s attention and bake your brand into their brains, do it through stories that speak to the wants, fears, desires, and beliefs of your audience.
“If you want to earn people’s attention and bake your brand into their brains, do it through stories that speak to the wants, fears, desires, and beliefs of your audience.”
Playing on fear, Allstate Insurance successfully bakes its brand into the brains of their audience. They’ve literally personified mayhem into “Mr. Mayhem.” For every commercial, Mr. Mayhem takes a different form, whether it’s a car thief or a pesky cat.
In this ad, Mayhem is a cat who is plotting against its owners. Allstate illustrates several instances where a cat might wreak havoc on your house. If you’re a pet owner, these mini-scenarios remind you that having the wrong home insurance coverage (and not Allstate) might end up costing you!
Every marketer has heard the adage that humans are creatures of emotion, not logic. But how do you consistently form bonds with strangers, persuade them to buy your product, and convert them into brand advocates? According to neuroscience, storytelling is your best bet.
When we read, watch, or listen to a gripping story, the activity triggers the release of oxytocin in your brain, which pushes us to relate, care, trust, and help others. Within the context of a story, a brain full of oxytocin helps us empathize with the protagonist. In fact, we’ll empathize so deeply with the protagonist that the parts of our brain that would be active if we actually experienced the story switch on.
If your audience can rely on your stories for a consistent fix of emotion, they’ll fall in love with your brand and keep coming back for more. In fact, humans have always revered great storytellers. In 2017, anthropologists discovered that the best storytellers in two different Filipino villages had a better chance of getting chosen to be social partners, gaining community support, and having healthy offspring. For brands, the benefits are equally valuable to their bottom line.
Nike has mastered the art of storytelling and other businesses look to them for inspiration. Their ads are famous for telling powerful stories, but they also showcase the brand’s values. Here’s a look at their recent ad “Dream With Us”:
Nike’s not just pumping up their brand here. In a world where women are marginalized, they’re encouraging women to tell their stories and inspire today’s youth to chase their dreams. However, the message still works to build their brand because people emotionally connect to the values being displayed.
Producing content that’s designed to game algorithms or convert website visitors might be able to generate a decent amount of views and leads for your team. And as a marketer with goals to meet and bosses to please, it’s tempting to prioritize your team’s own goals over your audience’s needs. But if you truly want to resonate with an audience, create a lasting impression on them, and, in turn, produce real long-term results, storytelling is the best path forward.
Episode 5: “The Brandwagon Interviews” Podcast with Lauren Fleshman of Picky Bars
From tactics to taglines, Wistia’s CEO, Chris Savage, chats marketing with the brains behind successful brands on our new video series, Brandwagon. Last time, Chris sat down with Veronica Parker-Hahn, SVP of Growth & Innovation at Effie Worldwide, to learn why she believes strategic rigor is essential to building an effective brand. Today, we’re excited to share our extended interview with this week’s guest, Lauren Fleshman, Co-Founder and CMO of Picky Bars.
Check out the episode to hear how Lauren learned the power of identifying and marketing your values from her experience as a two-time US track and field champion, and a Nike-sponsored athlete.
Or listen on: Apple Podcasts | Spotify | Stitcher
Watch the actual Brandwagon episode here!
Before becoming the co-founder and CMO of Picky Bars, a real-food company that makes energy bars, oatmeals, and granolas to fuel active lifestyles, Lauren Fleshman was a highly decorated professional runner. She’s a two-time US 5K champion (her fastest mile time is 4 minutes and 23 seconds!). When she signed on as a Nike-sponsored athlete, she soon realized she was Nike’s own brand marketing asset. From this experience, she learned how to be an exceptional storyteller and the importance of marketing her values to renew sponsorship deals.
Using this wisdom, Lauren started Picky Bars and grew the business in the energy bar market. On this episode, we hear all about building your brand for the long-run by paying attention to how you make your audience feel.
“I think you can make an interesting story out of anything. Because if you have a goal — no matter what the business is — there’s a journey involved in getting there. Everyone can relate to a journey.” On this episode of The Brandwagon Interviews, Lauren Fleshman highlights how knowing your values and telling your story will help your audience connect to your brand.
Here are some of the lessons learned throughout the episode:
- Identify your story and decide it’s worthwhile to tell
- Figure out why people like you and lean into that
- Go narrow yet deep with your current audience and trust that your brand will grow from there
Short on time? Check out some of our favorite moments during this interview between Chris and Lauren.
1:22 – “I think it’s helpful sometimes to be a beginner at something”
After Chris runs the best mile of his life, Lauren and Chris sit down to talk about all things brand. Chris kicks off the conversation by asking Lauren about learning how to play the violin. Despite being a champion runner and a business owner, Lauren talks about how it’s important to be a beginner at something. It’s helped her in her coaching career and has pushed her to understand certain aspects of her business in new ways.
4:14 – On being a marketing asset
Not long after her highly successful collegiate career, Lauren signed on as a Nike-sponsored athlete. She quickly came to understand the world of running from an interesting perspective: she was another brand’s marketing asset. Fleshman talks about what it was like to pitch herself to companies in hopes of renewing sponsorship deals and how being an influencer helped her learn to tell her own story.
8:55 – Changing values at Nike
Even though she had a demanding training and race schedule, Lauren still found the time to tell her own story. Early on, she realized women athletes at Nike were treated differently than male athletes. Nike advertising for women featured models instead of professional athletes whereas ads for men’s shoes and clothing featured top male athletes at the time. Fired up, Lauren emailed Nike’s CEO on a whim and ended up changing the culture at one of the world’s largest brands. The company worked with Fleshman to make the first Nike catalog featuring female athletes and produced a commercial with her.
14:04 – “Everyone can relate to a journey”
When you’re a national champion and a Nike athlete, you’ve got a pretty cool story to tell, right? But what if you’re selling insurance or golden-toe socks?! Chris asks Lauren what companies should do if they feel like they don’t have a story, or that their business is “boring.” Lauren says if you just start telling your story, and if you accept that your story is worthwhile, you’ll be surprised by how people will be interested. If you have a business, you have goals. And if you have goals, there’s a journey involved in working toward those goals. Experiencing this in her running career and with Picky Bars, she believes everyone can relate to a journey, and they’ll be invested in your successes and failures along the way.
17:40 – Layering risks
What happened after Lauren missed competing at the Olympics due to injuries? She took the downtime and started four major projects, all of which she fully expected to fail. Fleshman describes how low-risk ventures can feel worthwhile in the face of failure because impacting even a few people in your community can have a great benefit.
21:26 – Starting Picky Bars
Chris asks Lauren about how she started Picky Bars, which are energy bars made with whole foods and balanced for sport. The story began when Lauren was on a break from running and wanted to help her husband and triathlete, Jesse Thomas, find an energy bar that wouldn’t mess with his digestive system (and fill the house with unwanted…gas). Lauren continues to tell the origin story of her business and how the brand grew organically.
26:47 – Growing a business in a crowded space
The energy bar market is saturated with products of all shapes, sizes, and claims. So, how did Lauren begin marketing Picky Bars and differentiate the brand in a crowded space? She first focused on her community and doubled down efforts on her personal blog. Then she drew on her experience as a sponsored influencer for other brands to market Picky Bars.
28:32 – Understanding your values
Lauren’s personal values have a ton of overlap with the brand values at Picky Bars. Chris wonders how you discover and define your values as a brand. Lauren explains how she began to define her own values and why she thinks it’s important for brands to lead with their values. Often, it’s about looking at what’s working and identifying why people like you in the first place, and then leaning into that.
32:14 – Finding a home at Oiselle
Amidst the discussion about values, Lauren mentions how she began to feel out of alignment with Nike due to their policies around athletes starting families. At that time she fell in love with Oiselle, a clothing company for female athletes, and left Nike to work with Oiselle, who helped her scale her values to affect more change and impact more people. Fleshman describes how she felt more motivated to work for Oiselle because their values aligned. This has fundamentally changed how she feels about sponsorship opportunities and how to inspire employees.
36:53 – Marketing your values
Chris asks how companies should market their values once they define them. Picky Bars and Oiselle both tell brand stories that reflect their brand values. In doing that, Lauren’s noticed that brands have the power to change the culture of the industries in which they operate.
40:15 – Creating brand affinity with Work, Play, Love
In 2018, Lauren and her husband started a podcast called Work, Play, Love. The podcast focuses on the intersection between sports, entrepreneurship, and relationships. On the podcast, the couple talks about their experience running Picky Bars — including all of their mess-ups and struggles — they offer advice on balancing life with goals in sport, and they talk about their relationship. Chris asks why they decided to be so open about their business and Lauren talks about how it gives their audience an opportunity to have a deeper connection with them and the Picky Bars brand. She describes how doing a show like Work, Play, Love has helped their business.
44:43 – CEO recaps
Lauren recommends that small businesses create a CEO recap for their fans, the same way a CEO would brief investors on the state of the business. She talks about the benefits of being open with your audience, both for your customers and for yourself.
47:24 – “Decide your story’s worthwhile”
What advice does Lauren have for marketers who are thinking about making shows and being their own spokespeople? She says that the first step is deciding that your story is worthwhile. Then? Go narrow and deep with your current audience and trust that your brand will build from there.
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