What makes a great story?

All good stories, from the mundane to the sublime, have a set of four common qualities:

  1. A beginning, a middle and an end
  2. A protagonist—a primary actor propelling the story forward
  3. Something at stake
  4. Surprises and setbacks

While storytelling is a technique that novelists, playwrights and others have spent lifetimes perfecting, the basics are easy to grasp. They’re as innate in us as language is.

When I work with ad agencies to help them communicate more effectively with prospects, I start by showing them the stories that surround them that are just waiting to be told—client successes, the team’s experience, the decisions made and struggles overcome to build an agency into what it is today.

Often these stories are taken for granted, either because they’re treated as table stakes or because the agency is simply too close to them to recognize their value. The irony is that agencies replace these simple but powerful narratives with familiar, empty phrases or bulleted lists, both of which have the opposite effect than the one they’ve intended.

For example, in case study results, I see a tendency to rely on lots of big sounding numbers and percentages at the expense of anecdotes about, say, a clever negotiating approach or unexpected setbacks that were successfully overcome.

It’s not that big increases in revenue or engagement aren’t important, it’s that the reader must work harder to process that information into a narrative they can relate to. Essentially, in your effort to impress, you’re putting up a roadblock between you and the business you want to win.

Where to start?

Even if I’ve convinced you that being human is the only qualification you need to master storytelling, you may still be wondering how to harness your natural talent. Case studies are a great place to start.

By their nature, they have all the elements of a good story:

  1. The form is the same. Challenge + solution + results is equivalent to a story’s beginning, middle and end.
  2. A protagonist, which is always the client or the brand -- you and your team are playing a supporting role.
  3. There’s revenue and reputation at stake—both for you and your client. 
  4. And, unless someone out there can prove to me they’ve mastered a frictionless creative process, there are always surprises and setbacks.

Like I said earlier, the surprises and setbacks are what make the story so interesting. They tell your prospect what you want them to know – that you’re perseverant, innovative, relentless, client-focused, committed to your work—without having to rely on those empty-sounding phrases.

You make it easy for the prospect to understand your value, to relate to you, and to remember and repeat to others what they like about you and why they want to hire you.

Good stories are often short stories.

As you start to trust your storytelling capacity, try using it in more challenging formats, like a prospecting email or a tweet. Trust me, all the elements of a good story can be packed into 140 characters or less.

Need more proof?

Ernest Hemingway once bet that he could write a six-word short story that could make people cry. The wager was ten dollars, which Hemingway won with the following:

For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.

I hope your stories will never be as tragic, but they can make a similar impact. Trust your innate ability to connect with your prospects who are, after all, other humans who just want to hear a good story.