Storytelling 101: The Definitive Guide & Examples [2023] | Semrush
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Storytelling 101:
The Definitive Guide & Examples [2023]

Margarita LoktionovaFeb 23, 202317 min read

Even if you’ve never told a story in your life, this article will take you from novice to expert in no time at all.

You’ll learn how storytelling relates to business and marketing needs. And, once you’re done, you’ll be ready to produce storytelling for your own brand that will not only move people but also engage your current and future customers.

So, what are you waiting for? Get reading right now!

The Basics of Storytelling

The Basics of Storytelling

In this section, we’ll explore your first questions about storytelling. You’ll learn what it is, why it’s important, and how it can impact your business in a positive way.

What Is Storytelling?

Storytelling is the craft of taking information and turning it into a memorable narrative with a setting, characters, and plot.

It not only engages your audience’s emotions but also encourages their imagination. In business, it communicates specific messaging and motivates your readers to take action.

Marketing professionals can use their storytelling skills to grow current and future customers’ loyalty to any given brand. They can also use it to encourage them to buy a company’s products or use its services.

Check out how Airbnb has centered compelling stories around its hosts. The company shares how ordinary people have boosted their income or created a successful business.

What is storytelling: AirBnb example

What Is Business Storytelling?

Put simply, business storytelling uses narratives to sell products, services, and brands.

Business storytelling capitalizes on the fact that people don’t want to receive your cold pitches, promotional emails, or inconvenient sales calls. Instead, they prefer to build connections with the brands they identify with.

Storytelling can therefore be more powerful as a way to connect with an audience than traditional ads. After all, ads often simply highlight the features or benefits of a product.

Here, Canva gives a master class in how to connect with their audience by sharing customer stories:

What is storytelling: Canva example

What Is a Story?

A story is a series of connected events told to an audience through written or spoken words, or a variety of other media or forms of communication. Whenever an author or speaker is relaying that series of events, they are telling a story.

Stories have been used for thousands of years to add great value to our shared culture. They are also incredibly useful and powerful forms of communication.

Stories breathe life into business and marketing. They help brands connect with their target audiences by showing the value of their products and services, without having to spell things out.

What Makes Stories Valuable?

Stories are valuable because they help us explore and navigate tension in our own lives. To see how they work, follow this simplified example.

  • They typically begin in a neutral position, where everything is fine:
    Jane was an ordinary student, happily studying in her hometown.
  • The storyteller then introduces the tension. In business storytelling, that could be an issue or problem a customer faces:
    She realized she needed to earn some extra money to support her studies. But there were very few jobs for her locally.
  • That protagonist could be the customer, who is aided by a good or service offered by your company:
    She discovered an online tutoring platform where she could help students in lower years progress. Not only would she be able to earn some much needed money, but she’d also be helping other people.
  • Finally, the story will show how the protagonist resolves the tension:
    As soon as she signed up, she realized it was the right decision. She could work in her down time, connect with new people, and do something worthwhile and valuable, too!

Good stories are valuable because they show us how to deal with difficult situations. They do this by putting the protagonist in a situation where they can reach a happy resolution. Often they use tools or services to do so.

Furthermore, stories are memorable. As a result, they are easy to retell and much more compelling than a list of facts and figures.

Case Study: Seek—How To Use Storytelling in Marketing

Fashion brand Seek has a whole section of its website dedicated to telling the stories of its customers. In turn, these customers show the brand’s purpose.

The website is a master class in how to use storytelling in marketing.

What is storytelling: Seek example

The stories, frequently under the “We Who Seek” title, feature interviews with creatives who form part of the brand’s target audience.

Throughout the interviews, the subjects are asked questions about their goals and dreams, often built around the words “seek” or “seeking.”

At the end of each interview, the page links to Seek clothing items worn by the subject that are available to buy.

What is storytelling: Seek example

This genius, creative way of telling stories appeals to other creatives. It highlights artists, poets, designers, and others making progress in their field while fully outfitted in Seek clothes.

In doing so, it establishes empathy between the brand and would-be clients. At the same time, it tells them “Hey, Seek wants to support you on your journey, too!”

The result is a strong series of real-life stories. They encourage others to buy what almost becomes a uniform for people working in creative industries.

To learn more about content marketing for small businesses, you can check out our guide here.

The Art of Storytelling

The Art of Storytelling

Storytelling is a craft, and it takes time and practice to become an expert storyteller. That said, taking these seven important elements into consideration will help even the newest writer, marketer, or business owner develop their storytelling capabilities in no time at all.

The 7 Elements of Storytelling:

1. Theme

The theme of a story is why that particular story is happening. When writing your story plan, the theme is where you can work out what message you want to convey to your audience.

If you want to promote your company, that might be a simple call to action that pushes your goods or services.

On the other hand, if you want to create a deeper connection, your message might focus on the benefits of overcoming a certain challenge.

Don’t explicitly state your theme. In writing, the adage goes that it’s better to show, not tell! Show your theme by interactions between characters rather than spelling it out directly.

The same is true for video.

In this series from Beardbrand, the theme is (aptly) transformation.

Storytelling content example - Beardbrand

Each video in their Cut Loose series gets tens of thousands of views, because they all tell a story and show a big change in someone’s life. They also do well to promote the barbershop!

2. Characters

Make your characters relatable. If you have an accounting service aimed at small businesses, don’t tell your company’s story via the challenges facing a billionaire. Instead, share a small business customer story—this is far more likely to resonate with your audience.

At the same time, your character should be relevant to your company as well as your potential customers.

If you’re struggling to think of characters, refer to your company’s buyer personas.

If you don’t have much experience with buyer personas, check out our article on how to build some here. Of course, you can also tell real stories using your customers, if they are willing to participate.

Once you know your characters, you need to develop their character arcs. In the most simple of stories, that development would use your company’s services to help the protagonist overcome the challenges facing them and become stronger in the process.

3. Setting

Settings include some obvious points such as place, time, and date. They also include less obvious features, such as tastes and sounds.

For a setting used in business storytelling, it might include a fast-approaching deadline, a difficult economic environment, or the push to make an annual sales target.

Take some time to think about what setting might be most applicable to your business.

In this real-life story about a doctor who passed an English test to emigrate to Australia, the setting is simply Perth:

How to tell a story

4. Point of view

You must establish the point of view in your story. It is crucial to generating empathy among your audience.

In content marketing, the point of view must nearly always be that of your would-be customer. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment!

Once you’ve established your main character (i.e., the person the story is focused on), you can still choose between telling that story in the first person (I, me), the second person (you, your), or the third person (he, she, they).

Experiment with different types of perspective to see which one suits your business storytelling best.

In this emotive marketing video, we see the story action from the perspective of a grandfather:

5. Plot

If the theme of the story is why something is happening, the plot is what is happening. All plots must include an introduction, an exciting incident, tension leading to a climax, and then resolution.

It can be a good idea to jot these down before you start writing to better map out your plot.

Here are some questions to get you started:

QuestionsExample answer
How does the story introduce the main character or characters?Brian was looking for a way to better support his staff. They needed training, motivation, and encouragement.
What is their main challenge?Brian only has a limited budget, so it looked like he was going to have to disappoint a number of his staff. He was worried they’d leave his company.
What do they have to do?
Where do they have to go?
Who do they meet?
Brian discovers the solution: A pay-as-you-go modular training program. Not only does his team get to develop professionally, but they’re also rewarded with time off!
How do they nearly fail? Why do they succeed?At first the management team was skeptical. But Brian showed them how it worked with a trial, with just a few members of his team. Soon, once they saw the results, it was rolled out company-wide.
What are the results?Staff retention is at an all-time high and efficiency is up by 60%.

6. Conflict

Conflict is vital in any narrative, be it fiction or nonfiction. It’s the motor that drives readers to keep reading!

In classic novels like JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings or Charles Dickens’ Nicholas Nickelby, the conflict is driven by a classic antagonist who puts obstacles in the way of the stories’ heroes.

In business storytelling, the conflict can be driven by problems facing your potential customers.

For example:

Shelly needs a faster translation service. She suggests an artificial intelligence solution, but no one on the board believes that it will work. Shelly decides to go against management and try it anyway. Risking everything, she published her results. Needless to say, everyone was blown away. Shelly had saved the day once again.

- How to build a story

Your product or services can help them overcome those problems, and the story of how they were solved will drive the narrative toward…

7. Resolution

…your resolution! The resolution is the ending to your story. While fiction storytelling techniques might use messy endings to discuss the human condition, business storytelling should see the main character solve the challenges they faced.

Think about what that might look like before you begin writing.

Here are some questions to help you:

  • What were the initial goals for the character in the story? (e.g., a faster translation service)
  • How can you quantify the results? (costs and time to delivery)
  • What does the main character think about the resolution? (a positive outcome)

What Makes a Powerful Story?

A good story homes in on something your reader considers to be important and interesting. A powerful story uses the art of storytelling to make the narrative compelling from start to finish.

Here’s a great example of a powerful story being used by a business.

In Britain, popular retailer John Lewis releases a special Christmas ad every year.

This release has almost become an event in its own right. It often generates lots of third-party content with people commenting about it.

In 2022, John Lewis’ Christmas ad was called “The Beginner.”

“The Beginner” starts by introducing us to a middle-aged man who decides to take up skateboarding for the first time.

Through practice, he slowly gets better but not without embarrassing and injuring himself on the way.

At the end of the video, we discover that the man and his partner are waiting for Ellie. She’s a young teen who they want to foster or adopt.

Ellie is clutching a skateboard, and that’s when we discover the commercial’s protagonist has begun skateboarding to have something he can share with her.

The video then closes with a pledge from John Lewis to support the more than 108,000 UK children who are in the care system.

This story is powerful because it uses suspense and comedy to deliver the viewer to a heartfelt climax.

Our hero, the unnamed man, must overcome the challenges of being a skateboarding novice. That way he’ll have something he can share with Ellie to make her feel more at home at Christmas.

It combines all of the elements of storytelling mentioned above to build a connection between the viewer and John Lewis, which pledges to help more children like Ellie.

How to Tell Effective Business Stories

Launching into your first storytelling endeavor is daunting, and that’s okay! Remember that writing is a craft, not a natural-born talent. That means it can be developed and improved over time.

For now, though, you can use these five tips for writing some effective business stories of your own. Give them a go!

1. Establish parameters

Establishing clear parameters will help you set the scene for your story. Avoid having too many major characters, locations, or dates. To do this, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the main character, the person telling the story?
  • When is this story happening?
  • Where is this story happening?
  • What challenges are the characters encountering?

And most importantly:

  • Why is the story being told?

Jot the answers to these questions down on a pad of paper before you start writing. Use your answers as a road map to constructing your story.

2. Be true

In other words, keep your story realistic!

Are you a small mom and pop business?

Don’t spin a story making your business bigger than it really is. Do you offer one particular, unique service? Don’t paint a picture of your business being able to solve problems it can’t.

3. Keep your story outcome clean

Ideally, any example of business storytelling should end with a clear call to action. Don’t over-complicate things.

Keep your narrative simple for a nice and clean, unambiguous outcome. The last thing you want is for your hard work building a story to be wasted with customers left confused about the message.

4. Consistency in style and content

Be consistent! It’s okay to construct narrative and stories around recurring characters in your business storytelling efforts.

As we mentioned in our guide to brand storytelling, UK-based comparison website Compare the Market has for years demonstrated a master class in consistent storytelling.

The website has established a compelling narrative for its audience via the life and adventures of fictitious meerkat and aristocrat Aleksandr Orlov.

In short ads, viewers would watch Aleksandr struggle time and time again to get people to stop confusing his own website, Compare the Meerkat, with Compare the Market.

Through consistent messaging, both of these websites became household names. Developers even set up a real Compare the Meerkat website for people to visit.

When thinking about consistency, also be careful to think about your tone. Establishing the tone for your stories is an important part of storytelling marketing; if you are unfamiliar with the topic, you can read more about it here.

5. Build empathy

Finally, make your customers and potential prospects feel empathy for the characters in your storytelling.

Give them someone to root for, get them evolved on an emotional level, and they will really connect with your brand.

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Types of Storytelling

Types of Storytelling

Of course, there’s not just one storytelling technique you have to stick to, and you can choose from a variety of methods. Here is a list of four different methods you can choose from:

1. The Hero’s Journey

This story pattern features a main character who overcomes challenges and completes a special mission. After succeeding in their journey, the hero is rewarded.

This is a simple structure that can easily build a connection between the audience and the hero. If you’ve ever watched a Hollywood film, you’ll be familiar with it.

In a business scenario, this structure can be used for case studies, blogs, and video content.

It should highlight how your product or services help your clients (the heroes) succeed in their challenges. This story from a local language school roughly follows the hero’s journey format.

The following infographic shows the overall structure:

Hero journey in storytelling - infographics

To use the hero’s journey structure in a company case study, you can use the following questions and ideas to frame it:

  • What is the status quo? (Describe what the company is, what it does, and how it helps people.) Introduce your main character here.
  • Next, outline the major challenge the character and company were facing. How was this costing them money, time, or customers?
  • Why and how did the main character decide to make a change? Introduce some personal motivations here, too.
  • Next, share how they eventually found your solution and how you helped them get through the process.
  • Explain the adoption and onboarding process. Was it easy? Were there hitches?
  • How did the solution overcome the challenge?
  • What were the results? Tie these back to the main issues. Use facts, stats, and figures.
  • Finally, end on a quote, explaining how things are now and what will happen in the future.

2. The Mountain

The mountain puts a main character on a path to a series of ever higher peaks (or challenges) before reaching the grand finale.

This structure works very well when following an individual’s career path or their journey in creating a very successful product.

You can follow the same plot as described above in the Hero’s Journey; simply add in more challenges and solutions. And make sure the ending really is spectacular—they’re climbing a mountain, after all!

3. Sparklines

Made famous by author Nancy Duarte, “sparklines” is the binary code of storytelling.

The narrator moves between 0 and 1, where 0 represents the real-world narrative and 1 speaks to the audience’s imagined, ideal world.

By contrasting the two in a narrative, the content creator can engage on a deep emotional level with their audience and build a real connection.

It works very well in speeches, videos, or any media through which you need to make a persuasive argument, make a pitch, or sell something to your audience.

“sparklines”  in storytelling 

And here is an analysis of Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech through the lens of the sparklines structure:

4. False Start

The viewer settles in for what looks like a run-of-the-mill story and BAM! The author brings them back to the very beginning and turns the tables completely.

This is a great storytelling method to employ for conveying lessons or showcasing innovative ways of solving problems. As such, it’s a good candidate for content marketing.

Dollar Shave Club does this to some extent in its viral video debut:

It starts out with a simple introduction, but the story slowly builds up, becoming more ridiculous at every turn. It makes it very hard to ignore and also shares a very convincing value proposition.

These are just some of the methods you can choose from, so play around with them and see what works for you.

The End?

The End?

So, there you have it—the ultimate guide to storytelling. After reading this article, you’ll be ready to experiment with your own business storytelling for content marketing.

You’ll soon be enticing new prospects and bringing existing customers back for more.

But remember that storytelling takes practice. If your first attempt isn’t so great, don’t be put off! Try again, find someone who can help you edit, and keep on giving it a go. Good luck, scribe!

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Try ContentShake AI-a smart writing tool for small teams with big content marketing goals. Save time, see results.

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