Stories are magic.
This might sound like an overstatement at first, but there’s an inexplicable effect that stories have on conversations and our sense of connection. And it’s also why storytelling has become a new focus for marketers – especially in content marketing.
So today I’ll share with you some notes from a practical marketer’s guide to storytelling – Donald Miller’s Building a StoryBrand.
The science of storytelling
There is a lot of research out there that explains the power of stories. It boils down to the wonderful capacity stories have to create shared memories. What does this mean? In short, when we tell a story to someone, their brain reacts as if they are reliving the same thing.
In scientific terms, this effect is called “neural coupling”. The speaker and the listener experience the story together and this becomes a way to plant ideas, thoughts, emotions in others.
The fundamentals of stories
There are a ton of books and ways to look at storytelling. The most popular among these try to classify story plots into different categories – like Booker’s “seven basic plots”. Others try to arrive at a larger unifying model of storytelling – according to Joseph Campbell, there is one hero’s journey that all main characters in stories pass through.
These are all great concepts if you want to learn the basics of storytelling – but they are too theoretical. As marketers, we’re looking for specific actionable tactics to use and teach clients. Enter Miller’s StoryBrand concept.
Building a StoryBrand
According to Miller, one mistake brands make is “they cause their customers to burn too many calories in an effort to understand their offer.” In other words, our pitch requires a lot of work to become clearer and easily understandable.
A story can help with that because it makes our communication more predictable and easier for the brain to digest. Consumers are so familiar with stories that they immediately recognize the pattern and it serves as a fast track for our ideas.
So Miller built a seven-step framework that helps marketers and business owners clarify their brand story and formulate it in a recognizable and efficient pattern.
Here is nearly every story you see or hear in a nutshell: A CHARACTER who wants something encounters a PROBLEM before they can get it. At the peak of their despair, a GUIDE steps into their lives gives them a PLAN, and CALLS THEM TO ACTION. That action helps them avoid FAILURE and ends in SUCCESS.
Or, if you need a visual representation:
The seven storytelling elements
The book goes into a lot of detail about each element of the StoryBrand framework. Although things are pretty straightforward, you will find important pieces of advice on each element. I’ll cover some of the key ones here.
You’ll get a lot of practical value if you do the work while reading. StoryBrand has a BrandScript template that lets you draft out your brand’s story as you go. You can access an interactive version if you register on their platform or just use this photo as a guideline:
A story starts with a hero who wants something. And then the question becomes: Will the hero get what she wants?
In marketing, the hero is our customer. This is the person we’re talking to and the person we need to persuade so there should be a powerful sense of identification.
Building the characteristics of your story hero should be easy enough if you have done some research and created your target persona.
An important step here is to understand what your character wants. This is the driving force for the rest of the journey. “In story terms, identifying a potential desire for your customer opens what’s sometimes called a story gap. The idea is that you place a gap between a character and what they want.”
Adding this gap moves the character forward and advances the story. Without an unfulfilled desire, your story will fall flat. To make sure this desire is actually real and reflects the real interests of your target audience, you can use the Jobs to be Done framework and do some customer interviews.
The problem is the “hook” of a story, and if we don’t identify our customers’ problems, the story we are telling will fall flat. As soon as the conflict in a story is resolved, audiences stop paying attention.
The problem is a natural result of the story gap. It’s the reason why our character can’t fulfill their desire just yet.
The villain is the number-one device storytellers use to give conflict a clear point of focus. It’s an easy representation that we can focus on. In marketing narratives, the villain is often a metaphorical one, but that doesn’t make the battle any less real.
Miller notes down four characteristics that make for a good villain:
- “The villain should be a root source. Frustration, for example, is not a villain; frustration is what a villain makes us feel. High taxes, rather, are a good example of a villain.
- The villain should be relatable. When people hear us talk about the villain, they should immediately recognize it as something they disdain.
- The villain should be singular. One villain is enough. A story with too many villains falls apart for lack of clarity.
- The villain should be real. Never go down the path of being a fearmonger. There are plenty of actual villains out there to fight. Let’s go after them on behalf of our customers.”
In a story, a villain initiates an external problem that causes the character to experience an internal frustration that is, quite simply, philosophically wrong. These are also the three levels of problems a customer hopes to solve when they buy a product:
- The external problem: this is the physical representation of the problem, the one that’s manifested in the outside world. For a grocery delivery service, this can be the lack of access to high-quality fresh produce.
- The internal problem: this is the way that the external problem is making your character feel. If we continue with the same example, our character feels frustrated and can even feel disappointed because she isn’t doing a good job as a mother.
- The philosophical problem: this is the reason why the problem is wrong. It is related to the overall state of the world. We use words like “ought” and “shouldn’t” when we describe it. Our philosophical problem is that everyone should have access to quality food with a verified source.
This is where our brand comes in. Take note that we are not the hero of the story – our customers are. We are the guide, the mentor that leads them to success.
The two things a brand must communicate to position themselves as the guide are empathy and authority.
The guide must have this precise one-two punch of empathy and authority in order to move the hero and the story along. As customers, we are constantly looking for these characteristics. When we find a brand that covers them both, we are compelled to build a relationship with them.
Empathy, quite simply, is getting customers to feel like they are being seen, heard, and understood. We need to show that we cover these checkboxes before we can fully win a customer’s trust.
When it comes to authority, there are four ways we can demonstrate it in marketing materials:
- logos (of businesses we’ve worked with or media we’ve been praised by).
Once we prove our empathy and authority, the character will be ready to listen to our plan.
The plan is the bridge the hero must cross in order to arrive at the climactic scene. The plan tightens the focus of the movie and gives the hero a “path of hope” she can walk that might lead to the resolution of her troubles.
The plan gives customers clarity on what’s to come and how they can fulfill their desires. It alleviates confusion and reduces perceived risk.
How many steps should our plan have? “At least three and no more than six,” says Miller. If your solution is more complex, you can break down the steps into phases and describe only these phases on your landing page.
There are two types of plans:
- A process plan can describe the steps a customer needs to take to buy our product, or the steps the customer needs to take to use our product after they buy it, or a mixture of both. Process plans are about alleviating confusion.
- An agreement plan is a list of agreements you make with your customers to help them overcome their fear of doing business with you. Agreement plans are about alleviating fears. This can be a money-back guarantee or a lowest-price guarantee.
Once your character has the plan laid out in front of them, it’s time for the guide to call them to action.
The call to action
The reason characters have to be challenged to take action is because everybody sitting in the dark theater knows human beings do not take major life decisions unless something challenges them to do so.
By this point, you’ve reminded your customers what’s the problem that’s preventing them from fulfilling their desire. You’ve positioned your brand as a trusted and authoritative partner and you’ve laid out the next steps your customer needs to take. It’s time to get them to make the first step.
Here Miller is talking about your standard call to action – getting the customers to take the first step. This can happen in one of two ways:
- Direct call to action: requests like “buy now” or “call today”. A direct call to action is something that leads to a sale, or at least is the first step down a path that leads to a sale.
- Transitional call to action: it can be used to “on-ramp” potential customers to an eventual purchase. This is a first step in building a deeper relationship with your brand, like watching a webinar or downloading a resource. This call to action contains less risk and usually offers a customer something for free to build connection.
We don’t bring up the negative stakes enough and so the story we’re telling falls flat. Remember, if there are no stakes, there is no story.
Under what circumstances would you stick to a training plan better? Option 1 is to get $100 if you complete a 30-day streak. Option 2 is to be fined $100 if you break a streak. According to Prospect Theory, people are more likely to be dissatisfied with a loss than they are satisfied with again. And this is why Option 2 has been proven to work better in real life. We are more afraid of failure than motivated by success.
Still, using failure as a driving force can come off as crass or as a manipulative scare tactic. So how can we make failure messages work? Miller introduces a four-step process called a “fear appeal,” based on the book Building Communication Theory:
- Make the reader know they are vulnerable to a threat.
- We should let the reader know that since they are vulnerable, they should take action to reduce their vulnerability.
- We should let them know about a specific call to action that protects them from the risk.
- We should challenge people to take this specific action.
Here’s fear appeal at work: “Nearly 30% of all homes have evidence of termite infestation. Since nobody wants termites, you should do something about it to protect your home. We offer a complete home treatment that will ensure… Call us today and schedule…”
Nobody gets excited about a muddled vision.
In order to win the attention of your customers, you need to pain success in concrete terms.
To arrive at a specific picture of success, think about what your customer’s life will look like if their problem is resolved. This includes both external characteristics, but also how they will feel and why the resolution to their problem has made the world a more just place to live in. Essentially, we go back to the three levels of the problem and build a three-layered definition of success.
Miller explains there are three dominant ways storytellers end a story. They allow the hero to:
- Win some sort of power or position (fulfilling the need for status)
- Offer access – this can be access to member-only seating areas, exclusive content, and more.
- Create scarcity – let the customers know they are among the few that can try a product.
- Offer a premium – create special VIP titles.
- Offer identity association – when you have a recognized brand like Mercedez, owning the product is about status just as much as quality.
- Be unified with somebody or something that makes them whole (fulfilling the need for something external to create completeness)
- Reduced anxiety – reduce frustration, offer satisfaction for a job well done.
- Reduced workload – provide tools that can give them what they’re missing.
- More time.
- Experience some kind of self-realization that also makes them whole (fulfilling the need to reach our potential)
- Inspiration – motivate and provide ideas, create a feeling of accomplishment.
- Acceptance – create a sense of self-worth.
- Transcendence – offer customers to participate in a larger movement.
Brands that participate in the identity transformation of their customers create passionate brand evangelists. This is a hard thing to achieve but it will boost your brand’s reputation.
The StoryBrand principles
As a summary of sorts, here are the key principles that you should keep in mind when building your StoryBrand:
- The customer is the hero, not your brand.
- Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but customers buy solutions to internal problems.
- Customers aren’t looking for another hero; they’re looking for a guide.
- Customers trust a guide who has a plan.
- Customers do not take action unless they are challenged to take action.
- Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending.
- Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them.
Marketing applications of StoryBrand
To be frank, this last part of the book was much more “meh” than the rest. It covers ways you can apply the StoryBrand framework to specific marketing tasks, but I feel they are all quite straightforward and you won’t get a lot from them.
Creating your website
The greatest application of StoryBrand is in creating marketing copy and building landing pages. I often suggest this as a good place to start for novice copywriters. You can easily build the basics and diversify to make things your own.
The one thing to keep in mind is that you won’t follow the StoryBrand structure to the letter. Usually, above the fold on your landing page, you’d start with either the problem or go straight to the offer.
The part that I take quite literally will be using an obvious and specific call to action and actually putting the steps of your Plan on the page.
Creating a one-liner for your brand
In filmmaking, there is something called a logline. Think about the short description you see when browsing new shows on Netflix.
A logline is simply a movie’s one-sentence description. What makes these loglines complete and effective? Two things: imagination and intrigue.
You can create a one-liner that serves as a logline for your brand. Miller provides a four-component structure to make things clearer:
- the character,
- the problem,
- the plan,
- the success.
Here’s an example:
“We provide busy (2) moms (1) with a short, meaningful workout (3) they can use to stay healthy and have renewed energy (4).”
What I would suggest is to work on this after you nail your positioning and understand how you can differentiate from your competitors.
Creating customer testimonials
Finally, I find the StoryBrand framework a useful way to strengthen customer testimonials. Contrary to what a lot of marketers think, a testimonial is not just a series of superlatives about your work. To be impactful, they need to demonstrate the progress your customer has achieved with your help.
Miller provides a list of five questions that help you extract your user’s story:
- “What was the problem you were having before you discovered our product?
- What did the frustration feel like as you tried to solve the problem?
- What was different about our product?
- Take us to the moment when you realized our product was actually working to solve your problem.
- Tell us what life looks like now that your problem is solved or being solved.”
This is a great format that you can basically apply to the letter.
It starts with stories
Ever since prehistoric times, humans have gathered around and exchanged stories. And using it for marketing is just sound logic.
“Building a StoryBrand” goes beyond the storytelling theory and provides a simple structured approach that anyone can use. The book is organized in a very easy to follow way and you will be able to read it (or read my notes) and draft out your own BrandScript pretty easily.
But do keep in mind that you’re not telling your story in a vacuum. Make sure you create a story that’s different from your competitors. Your customers will look at alternatives, as well, and the last thing you want is to look and sound the same.