Once Upon a Time

Written by on October 16, 2012 in Messaging, Story - No comments

Before we talk about crafting a masterful story, I’d like to tell a quick one:

Once there was a marketing expert who suggested to the head of sales, “Hey, we should change our approach to presentations and actually tell a story instead of putting the prospect to sleep with 100 powerpoint slides.” The head of sales quickly responded, “That’s exactly what we should do. We should tell a story!” The marketing expert was surprised but energized by the philosophical victory. Finally, no more slide crimes! So he went to work on crafting the perfect story, a tale that would have prospects jumping to do business with the firm.

Once completed, he shared the masterpiece with the head of sales. At first, his audience of one praised him for the good work. And then the feedback began. “We’re missing that slide I like about the 7 ways we’re different.” The marketing expert sighed as he died a little inside. The head of sales continued, “What about our quality process? We need that in there. Oh, and we need a slide that shows our global locations, and one on our technology investments. We probably should add in a slide with logos of all our clients too.”

One by one slides were stuffed into the story, until the slide count was once again pushing 100. The marketing expert stared at the train wreck of a presentation and felt the crushing weight of defeat. Meanwhile, the head of sales was as enthusiastic as ever, once again congratulating the marketer on his grand idea of telling a story. Just a few hours later, another promising prospect would suffer death by powerpoint.

We’ve all been there. I’m picking on the sales guy but truth be told, sometimes the marketers in the room are just as guilty of killing a good story. Human nature makes us want to say everything to everyone at every opportunity. That’s why we just can’t help ourselves when we go into presentation mode. There’s always one more slide to add.

An easy way to combat this, of course, is to stop using powerpoint. I’ll pause for applause, and laughter, and eye rolling. Because we all know it will never happen. And yes, I’ll admit there is a time and place for powerpoint, but again, most of us are not disciplined enough to use it appropriately. But this is both a soapbox and a tangent (something I’m going to caution you against in just a few paragraphs. Oops.)

Storytelling is an age-old art form. And it’s been growing in popularity in marketing circles for several years now. But I still encounter a lot of 100-slide powerpoint decks without a story in sight. So I thought I would share some of the collective wisdom I’ve come across on the art of storytelling to help guide you the next time you have the opportunity to ditch the slides and tell a story.

We’ll organize the insight with a simple formula for success. Connect – Engage – Excite.


To initially connect with your audience and capture their attention, you have to be relevant. The content must be put into the context of your audience’s wants and needs. How does your story reflect your audience’s reality? How can your audience be the hero of your story?

Marketing Guru Seth Godin once said that, “The best stories don’t teach people anything new. Instead, the best stories agree with what the audience already believes and makes the members of the audience feel smart and secure when reminded how right they were in the first place.”

It would be helpful before you start writing your story to make sure you have a clear picture of your target audience, what they’re like, what their emotional drivers are, what problems they are trying to solve, and so on. Don’t make the mistake of discounting this step and assuming you “know your customer” because the truth is, you probably don’t have as firm as grasp on what makes them tick as you think you do.


Once you have your audience’s attention, you must keep it. To do that, you need to deploy all the usual tricks of the trade in storytelling. Drama. Plot. Suspense. Humor. Conflict. You have to map your story strategically to make sure you keep the audience informed and entertained. There’s a great simplification on the shapes of stories by author Kurt Vonnegut that you can watch. While very much tongue in cheek, he does offer a valuable lesson. Stories have shapes that are familiar to people. Tap into one that fits your content.

Additional advice on keeping the audience engaged…

Openings and closings are very important. Spend the majority of your energy making them perfect. Get to the point quickly. The longer it takes you to get there, the less likely it is that you have one. Beware of tangents: if something goes too far astray, you will probably lose your audience’s attention. Be visual. You must paint a picture. It’s worth 1,000 words and/or 100 slides. Keep it simple. Our minds get overloaded very easily. Telling a story should help you simplify your messages and make them more memorable.


It’s not enough to keep an audience with you. Before your story ends, you have to transcend attention and interest and propel them into action. Friar Pedro Arrupe said that “What seizes your imagination will affect everything.”

We all make decisions based on emotion over rational thought. You have to make an audience think “what if” and daydream with you. Before your call to action, you have to move them from the world they know, to a place where their problems are solved and they have saved the day. If your entire strategy is not centered on building toward the seminal moment when imagination takes hold, you’re missing the true power of story.

Bonus Tip:

Be a student of storytelling. Closely examine the structure of some of your favorite books, songs, movies, etc. Try to understand the critical elements that make these stories come to life for you. Dissect examples of stories in pop culture, whether it’s a do-good company like Warby Parker, an insightful Ted Talk or a social media phenomenon such as Invisible Children/Kony2012, study it closely to see how it connects, engages and excites you.

And if you are a brave marketer, who is trying to bring the power of story to your organization, I urge you not to get discouraged. Keep fighting against slide crimes. Keep educating your stakeholders. And in honor of the late, great motivational giant Jimmy Valvano, “Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.”

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.