Tag Archives: story

The story trend: are you bored of bad ones?

From brand journalism to in-bound marketing  – we’re all encouraged to use story to engage our audiences – but what makes for a good story and even more, for a good writer?

Years ago, a friend recommended Robert McKee’s ‘Story Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting‘. I’d eagerly raced out and bought a copy, and tried to get into it, but at the time, I lost momentum and it sat patiently on my bookshelf — until a few weeks ago. It must have known that it’s time would come as it’s now proudly sporting a number of hand written annotations and several cracks in its spine and  from over use! Why have I found it so useful?

An animation of the Structure of Story

Structure of Story Prezi

Click to open a ‘Structure of Story’ Prezi

Being a visual thinker – and also wanting to learn Prezi with a ‘real’ project – I decided to create my first Prezi to try and represent Robert McKee’s thoughts on both the structure of story (acts, scenes and sequences) and the techniques of writing (the ‘quest’, ‘writing between gaps’, ‘turning points’ etc.) – and here’s the outcome:.

The Structure of Story Prezi

I’ve only scratched the surface of Robert McKee’s book – I’d encourage you to have a read – it’s a great help in understanding why some stories work better than others.

Story is like creating a symphony, you need to learn the instruments and how they work in harmony with timing to create great music. It’s not something that’s as easy as picking up a trumpet and blowing – it takes knowledge, understanding and practice, practice, practice.

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Google’s two-step is a shining example of the power of story.

Link to a google advert in India video on YouTube.

Click to view









This advert is a stellar example of a brand driving viewers’ emotional connections to ‘intangible’ services

Step one – connect with characters

Google tells a beautiful story connecting the viewer with likable characters and filling in historic background that lends itself to authenticity.

Perhaps less obvious, and deftly pointed out by Himanshu Gupta in his blog on Medium, is why Google have released this advert in a market where they have 97% share.

Step two – the deft move to mobile

Google are aware of the speed of mobile adoption, particularly in India – watch the advert a second time and look for the early move of search from the desktop to mobile; how mobile is used first in the home and then traveling to demonstrate location specific search, along with responses in ‘cards’ – these reflect Google’s eagerness to encourage seekers away from native apps that offer similar features.

I was fortunate to attend a Google/Mindshare event earlier this year, where ever more sophisticated searches are met using location aware and ‘previous question asked’ sensitive responses (more on that in my previous blog here), all enabling us to create our own stories like the one in the advert.

My take outs:

  1. a great story is the best foundation for sharing information
  2. viewers can engage emotionally with ‘invisible’ services
  3. repeat viewings can reveal the more subtle messages and purpose.



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10 social steps to build a brand – what Angela Ahrendts’ move from Burberry to Apple can teach us.

On 15 October Angela Ahrendts moved from CEO, Burberry to SVP Retail and Online Stores,  Apple. This Burberry’s Social Story video for SalesForce neatly picks out the ten steps in Burberry’s digital strategy which have made the brand so successful, and signal what we might look for in Apple retail soon.

Click for larger view

Click for larger view








  1. Reinvent constantly
    It all started with an appreciation of the need to constantly change to stay ahead of the fast moving digital curve.
  2. Unify the culture
    People are the lifeblood of any organisation and when they’re aligned around a common culture, they become a powerful force. Ahrendts mentions that the first digital platform that Burberry implemented was “The greatest uniter of culture of any platform that had been put in place”.
  3. Enable dialogue with and amongst employees
    The common platform brought the employees together because it let 11,000 associates around the world talk to each other – enabling dialogue unlocks the energy within the organisation – best practices can be shared, ideas can evolve, collaboration can flourish, stories can be told.
  4. Visible, accessible leadership
    The platform also provided employees direct access to the Leadership Team.
  5. Clear strategic direction
    The Leadership Team in turn were able to provide real time communication and strategic direction to the workforce – Arhendts and Bailey spoke to their associates directly once or twice a week.
  6. Engaged employees drive great customer experiences
    Knowing that employees had to be on board first, and having put that in place, Burberry then turned their united employees’ focus towards their customers.
  7. Employees are empowered with the tools
    11,000 employees are enabled to respond near instantly to customer interactions in the digital space – a superior level of customer service.
  8. Weave digital into the fabric of the company strategy
    From social to physical, the Burberry digital strategy has been thought right the way through the customer’s journey
  9. Create memorable customer experiences
    Digital elements are added to the physical shopping experience, tags in garments trigger video mirrors, and trays tell stories of the provenance of products placed on them, Burberry’s flagship retail store in Regents Street, London, England is more an adult retail theme park than a department store.
  10. Don’t rest on your laurels
    Go back to step 1 and keep reinventing yourself at the speed of social.

I wonder how long it will be before the we see the first signs of an Apple make-over?

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Corporate stories – where’s the drama?

Good stories have drama and drama comes to life in the action between characters. If the last corporate story you read was more fact sheet than blockbuster it was likely missing the vital personalities and perspectives needed to elevate it beyond corporate reflection.

Graphic showing how to build drama into corporate stories

Click for larger version

Common pitfalls in story telling

Following my last blog on bridging the gap between good and great stories, inspired by a series of four short videos by Ira Glass, in the final part, ‘On Two Common Pitfalls‘ Ira points out a couple of pitfalls to watch for:

  • Pitfall 1 – you feel you need to sound like other presenters
  • Pitfall 2 – you focus solely on one perspective and lose the drama

There’s a tendency to take on ‘reporter voice’, mimic the intonation, build the same peaks and troughs of speech, and in the process your own voice gets lost. Audiences like individuals, and the more you put of yourself into your piece, the more you’ll give them to connect with.

Corporate ‘tone of voice’ or your own?

This rings true in the corporate world where there’s often a ‘house style’ or a corporate ‘tone of voice’. This works great for official communications like annual reports, thought leadership pieces, white papers and fact sheets, but when it comes to story telling, it’s your personal perspectives that create the engagement. If you report the facts alone, you’ll sounds like a fact sheet. If you only provide your opinion, you’ll come across as self-absorbed and the purpose of your story will get lost. You need to find a balance between these two to engage your audience and deliver the purpose of your story.

You need characters to create drama

Ira reflects that even if you’re producing a first person story documenting experience, what’s interesting is not just your take on things, it’s seeing how you interact with other people; seeing other people through your eyes seeing what you deal with – otherwise there’s no drama. You need all the things that happen between people. It’s not going to work if there’s too much of you and not enough of the other people, and it’s not going to work if there’s too much of the other people and not enough of you, because there’s not enough characters to make a drama.

How do you balance corporate reporting and personal perspectives?

Think about your last corporate story – how much was setting the scene, reporting the facts and concluding with the outcome? Did you mention how you felt? Did you recall your interactions with anyone else? If you’re not including other characters and creating some drama, you’re not really telling a story, you’re just recalling an experience.

My take outs

  1. Don’t lose your own voice amidst the corporate house style – one size does not fit all communications.
  2. Good stories have drama, drama needs action, and action needs characters – ensure your stories have the drama that creates the engagement.
  3. Balance your content between your subject and your perspective, all subject will read like a fact sheet, all perspective will sound like a soliloquy, both approaches will lessen your reader’s attention.

Think about the last corporate story you read – on a scale of ‘corporate fact sheet and business blockbuster’ where did it sit?

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How to bridge the gap from good to great corporate stories.

Not every corporate story you write will merit a Pulitzer, but focusing on what you love in your writing, producing in volume and not letting reader stats distract you from your course will steer you towards your best work.


Click for larger version

Trust that you have good taste

Following my last blog on balancing time between story selection and story production, inspired by a series of four short videos by Ira Glass, in Part 3 – On Good Taste Ira observes that you get into something because you love it, you have taste, but to expect that for a lot of your early work, your output won’t match your ambition or reflect your taste very often. But you’ll know that gap – and you must continue to produce and the quality will come.

Focus on what you love

In corporate story telling, you may have limited choice on your content, your medium or your writing deadlines. Try to find an element that you love, and hone your story telling skills around that. It might be your ‘voice’, it might be the format you work in, it might be a content specialism. Try to identify the essence of what you enjoy in your writing – and your reader will likely ‘hear’ that too.

Keep viewers’ feedback in perspective

Views and likes are great, comments are better, but keep them in context and critique your own work. Look at the work of other writers and ask yourself what it is in their writing that appeals to you, and see if you’re using the technique in your own work.

Start now – and keep on writing

One of Ira’s key points is that you mustn’t let your own critical eye dissuade you from writing, it’s only in producing a body of work that you’ll create material that you truly feel reflects you. If you stop at the first hurdle – you’ll never know. Many employees have a sense that everything they write has to be Pulitzer worthy, it makes them nervous, and they dabble only as far as comments and status updates, likes, or don’t join in at all. Take a leap of faith and ‘publish and be damned’.

My take outs

  1. Amongst all of your corporate content and obligations, find what you love in each piece and let that be your focus.
  2. Audience feedback is great, but write first for yourself – your audience will appreciate it more.
  3. Every article won’t win a Pulitzer – it’s not supposed to – so ‘publish and be damned’.

Have you found a foreboding sense of corporate writing perfection has prevented you from publishing or felt constrained to venture only as far as reading, liking and commenting?

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The 50:50 of story editing – balancing your production and selection time

The art of story telling isn’t solely in the writing, it starts with choosing the stories your audience will find most compelling – but what’s the best balance of time between these two activities?

Why spending as much time selecting stories as editing them is important

Following my last blog on Fact Sheet Flatliners, inspired by a series of four short videos by Ira Glass, Ira makes three observations in Part 2 – Finding the right story.

  1. It takes as much time to find a good story as it does to capture, edit and produce it.
  2. Half to a third of stories get canned.
  3. Edit aggressively, give yourself deadlines to constantly create, know that 1:5 will be great, the rest won’t be memorable – and that’s ok – you have to create work to get great work, no one does 100% great work constantly.

How do you know what stories to drop?

A pie chart showing 50% time for story selection and 50% time for production

Click to view full size

As corporate story tellers we can tend to focus on production, honing content that we hope will resonate with our audiences, but how much time do we spend on filtering content, and how much do we deselect, compared to that we choose?

An approach used to measure content in focus groups is to ask audiences what the test material makes them think, feel and would tell a friend. This gives a good framework for filtering content for potential stories too:

  • What will the audience think – is the story persuasive, is it realistic?
  • What will the audience feel – is it told with authenticity, does it engage emotionally?
  • What might the audience tell a friend – does it grab attention, is it memorable?

Take outs

  1. Spend as much time on story selection as production
  2. Use the focus group approach of considering what will your audience think, feel and tell a friend having heard each story as a way to select the ones most likely to engage to take to the production stage
  3. Know that half to a third of stories won’t make the grade, which will give those that do the greatest chance to be heard.

As a corporate story teller, what’s your experience? How much time do you devote to story selection rather than writing and publishing?

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Story telling – avoiding fact sheet flat liners

Story structures are great, but too much formula can lead to fact sheet flat-liners or drawn out disappointments that fail to get the audience engagement we know they’re great for.

Story telling is coming to the fore as a way of communicating and driving engagement, and it’s often accompanied by sound advice such as having a clear three act construct, a hero/protagonist, defined scenes, obstacles/opportunities, actions, resolutions and lessons learned. But whilst we stick rigidly to this structure we can still risk losing our readers.

Some advice from Ira Glass

Since 1995, Ira Glass has hosted and produced ‘This American Life’ a public radio show in the US that now reaches over 1.7 million listeners on over 500 stations weekly – and I think the techniques he suggests can really help put some drama into our corporate stories.

Ira’s advice is in a series of four short videos, each under 5 minutes, this blog is based on Part 1 – Story Format.

Ira points out that when we’re in school, we generally learn to tell stories around one argument that’s then supported by facts – which can be a little flat.

To build some drama and personality into his stories, Ira recommends using anecdotes and moments of reflection which he illustrates using an example of a what could be a really boring story – about a guy waking up and going to his front door.

Anecdotes and Moments of Reflection

1. Anecdotes

Ira suggests using anecdotes to build drama and that anecdotes have two elements, momentum and ‘bait’ for the listener:

A. Momentum: is used to give a sense that the events in a story follow each other – give a sense of a journey and a destination and build some feeling into the story. Often stories start with scene setting, but it’s important to add some emotion over and above location.

B. Bait: for the reader: stories work best when they raise questions for the listener – in Ira’s illustration, what will happen to the man when he opens the front door, where is he going, why is it so quiet? This way, the author manipulates the listener by choosing when to provide the answers, and adding in new actions that raise new questions.

2. Moments of reflection

Here’s the reason for the story, here’s the point, the return for the listener for paying attention.

What can go wrong with stories

Great anecdotes with weak or no moment of reflection are disappointing and frustrating. They make the story predictable and give the listener nothing new.

Boring anecdotes with important moments of reflection miss the mark too and worse yet, dilute the purpose of the story so the listener feels they’ve wasted their time.

I’ve drawn a quick ‘four box model’ here that illustrates the story sweet spot and some pitfalls to avoid based on Ira’s comments.

A four box model showing story types against anecdotes and moments of reflection.

Four box model showing story types against anecdotes and moments of reflection.

Stories aren’t like a long joke that ends with a punch line, they’re not a shopping list of activities, they have action sequences and moments of reflection multiple times through the story that deliver a memorable conclusion for the reader. And with corporate stories, there’s usually a conclusion we want the reader to remember.

My take outs:

  1. Structure is great, but avoid the fact-sheet approach where the reader feels they’re on a predictable path towards an obvious outcome.
  2. Stories need drama, and drama comes from people – try to involve more than one character in your story.
  3. No one wants to drive on a motorway continually, give your reader an interesting journey that will help them remember the destination when they get there.
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