Emotional Storytelling: What are the qualities of a great story?

"For sale: baby shoes, never worn". - Earnest Hemingway.

Six words that pierce the heart of any person with an ounce of compassion. 

How is it that Hemingway was able to startle more emotion in me with just six words than any branded corporate video I’ve ever seen? 

If you're not familiar with the Hemingway Challenge, the story goes: Ernest Hemingway was put to a contest to write a story in just six words. The result is what he considered to be his masterpiece.

We've often used the Hemingway Challenge to help businesses cut through the jargon and get straight to the point of their brand story. 

Here's ours:

Beautiful films that make things happen.

Back to the story, it's so good because everyone can relate. That's the differentiation. The loss of innocence. A life that could have been. A pain we all fear. 

There's also the clever delivery. It's a twist ending, even if it's in just six words. It's a story that subverts expectations and leaves us a little dumbfounded.

We are so enamored by stories. And yet when it comes to businesses, most shy away from storytelling. They focus on their strengths and never on their fears or vulnerabilities, why is that? 

My guess is that business professionals fear a loss of competitive advantage if they're to show weakness.

However, it's in that vulnerability that people, aka human beings, can relate. And as Hemingway has proven, relatability is a key component to emotionally effective storytelling.

Storytelling is good for the brain.

The brain loves multi-sensory experiences.

Stories that reach past logic and touch the emotional facets of the mind are more likely to be remembered. 

Oxytocin, the "feel good" hormone, is shown to increase when we are experiencing empathy. 

Empathy occurs when we transport ourselves into the lived experiences of another-- in fact scientists even call this phenomenon, "transportation", and have correlated it with people who are experiencing a story told through an individual's experience.

Therefore, finding a compelling emotional context to inspire your desired outcome is likely going to be rooted in personal storytelling. 

If you want someone to take an action like donate, or purchase, or to call your sales rep, utilizing a story with relevance and emotional context will be much more effective.

So how do you tell an emotionally compelling and relative story?

Now, I don't personally subscribe to the notion that there are only a certain number of stories in the world, but there are some very effective and time-tested frameworks.

Framework #1 - The Hero's Journey.

This is one of the most overused narrative frameworks in western storytelling... because it works.

Most movies, TV shows, books, and even TED talks follow this structure.

The hero's journey follows a single individual (the hero), living in a broken world. 

Some irreversible change in their life (the inciting incident) will embark them on a journey to defeat an enemy (the monster). 

As they face increasingly challenging trials, they eventually fail (the sacrifice) and must discard something important to overcome their own imperfections (rebirth, or revelation) to finally defeat the monster and usher society into a brave new world. 

Often this hero is guided by a wise old sage. 

The reason this framework is so effective is because it very quickly builds empathy towards an individual. The hero in a broken world is often someone we can relate to through their struggles and unfair disadvantages, because we know what they must feel like through our own shared experiences. 

Seeing the hero try and fail is an exciting emotional experience, with rising and falling circumstances that trigger those tasty oxytocin hits. 

Defeating the monster requires a revelation, a learning, a lesson that we as the story listener can use for our own growth. 

The hero's journey is incredibly effective at leaving audiences feeling satisfied with the experience, and their time spent is rewarded at a deep emotional level. 

Hollywood uses this all the time.

I'll bet you anything that this is the formula to just about every single one of your favorite movies. 

Here's a couple of quick examples of the Hero's Journey in action:

Star Wars:

Luke Skywalker lives on a boring old farm (hero in a broken world).

The empire kills his family in search of important secrets. (Inciting incident).

Luke must learn the way of The Force (trials) to stop Darth Vader (monster) from reigning over the Galaxy. 

He is guided by Obi Wan Kenobi (wise old sage).

Upon narrowly escaping the Death Star, Luke actually leads Vader right to the secret Rebel base, and they will be destroyed in 20 minutes (the sacrifice). 

Luke decides to let go of technology and turns off his targeting computer, relying solely on The Force (the revelation).

The Death Star is destroyed and everyone except for Chewbacca gets a medal (brave new world, albeit slightly racist).

The Matrix:

Neo is a computer hacker with a boring job (hero in a broken world). 

He is offered a red pill that will transport him out of reality itself (inciting incident).

He must learn to understand the Matrix and its rules in order to fight the Agents (trials).

Morpheus (the sage) is caught and to save him Neo must sacrifice himself (the sacrifice). 

Trinity kisses Neo and he is miraculously reborn (rebirth) and can now read and manipulate the Matrix (brave new world).

Bulls on parade!

The Dark Knight:

Batman feels he's no longer the hero that Gotham City needs (hero in a broken world).

The Joker challenges Batman to reveal himself, or else innocent people will die (inciting incident).

Batman must spring the Joker's well laid traps in order to stop him (trials).

The Joker corrupts Harvey Dent, leading to his death. Batman decides to take the blame for Harvey's crimes to protect Harvey's legacy. (Sacrifice). 

"He's not the hero we need, but the hero we deserve." (Rebirth).

Michael Cain is the old sage.

You might be wondering how this can be applied in a brand storytelling context. 

Many advertisers like to position their client as the hero and themselves as the wise old sage. An example could look like: 

Your client (hero) has been working for the same company for years. They’ve recently gotten married and have a child on the way, their salary won’t cut it any longer and they need a raise (inciting incident). 

You are a career coach (wise old sage), and you have the tools and resources (trials) the client will need to confidently talk to their boss (the monster). Through effective training, they can let go of their insecurities (sacrifice), and earn that raise for a nominal monthly coaching fee.

In this scenario, the career coach can utilize this exact storyline as a marketing tool. They can take out ads that tell this story. They can post testimonials of similar situations. They can corner the market on new parents seeking raises.

Framework #2 - And, But, Therefore. 

While the hero's journey is incredibly effective, it is way overused. 

The demand for comprehensive insight into complex themes of growth and sacrifice and rebirth may be a bit much for a simpler story.

So another effective framework is: and, but, therefore (ABT). 

Here, we cap the point of a story with simple tangental redirections (but & therefore). 

This keeps the story concise, while still driving a sense of discovery and revelation that leads the listener to a satisfied conclusion. 

Most un-trained storytellers can get stuck in the "and, and, and" vortex of storytelling. 

We've all been trapped with that one stranger at a cocktail party endlessly blabbering on, saying the same thing over and over. Hemingway would be rolling in his grave. 

Don't be that person. Here's how: 

Make a point. 

Add some context. (And)

Throw in a curve-ball. (But)

Come to a conclusion. (Therefore)

I saw a mechanic running a promotion for a $50 oil change. I thought this was a great deal and I was excited to save some money.  (And)

When I got there, they told me that the price is only valid if I commit to a full tune-up. Bringing my total cost to well over $175. The whole experience left me feeling ripped off. (But)

So that's why when I post prices, I’m honest as up front about the true cost of my services so that customers can rest assured that what they see is what they get. (Therefore)

Framework # 3: X but also Y.

This framework is great for internalizing tension and building empathy around personal experiences. 

Your behaviours are predicated around one marker, but they're also sometimes around another, and these two characteristics can be conflicting. 

Walter White is a struggling school chemistry teacher (X), but also a dangerous drug king pin (Y).

Tony Soprano is a crime family overlord (X), but also struggles with anxiety and mental health requiring therapy (Y). 

Don Draper is a smooth-talking marketing and sales genius (X), but is also living a secret life as an imposter (Y). 

This quick and easy framework can help create relatable scenarios for your storytelling that people can find compelling, just by adding one layer of dimension to your character's motivations. 

It's a great way for building empathy around your personal brand.

If you're a sales agent that's also experiencing social anxiety. Share your experiences.

Or if you're a fashion designer that's also environmentally conscious, how do you confront issues around sustainability in your industry? 

Talk about the challenges of these interconnections. Doing so will greatly improve people's awareness of your passions over only talking about your upcycled t-shirts.

These three frameworks can go the distance for adding empathy and emotion to your business's storytelling.

Whether it's a long and arduous story that can utilize the hero's journey.

Or if it's a smaller experience that can be tightened up with and, but, therefore.

Or if it's a personal outlook on your passions that can shed light on showing vulnerability through x but also y. 

There are many more frameworks to choose from, and I'll likely write about them in the future. But for now, you can see that even these three can add so much emotional flavor to your messaging. 

People connect to emotionally relevant stories. They are more likely to remember the experience because of it, and it can be done in just six words. Yet most businesses don't leverage storytelling in their marketing.

So take the time to improve people's experiences with your business by using these frameworks, and let me know how it goes.

Written By
Inder Nirwan
Co-Owner & Filmmaker