7 Elements of a compelling story

The science of storytelling.

Jerry Seinfeld once famously said, “People’s number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral you’re better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

In the work I have been doing over the past 20 years I have encountered several people who either freeze up or go into melt down when they are faced with speaking to a large audience. This is a fear many of you may have also felt in a similar situation.

But what if you knew that you could take any content and turn it into a compelling story that will not only engage people, but maybe even inspire them? What if storytelling was just a process and once you know it you can use it to bring any content to life?

Well guess what, storytelling is largely a process and I am going to give it to you in this blog. Take a look at this popular advertisement and then I will break it down using the 7 Elements of Storytelling:

1: Backstory – this is a brief context of your story that sets up what your story is about
Although this is usually the first thing, in this ad it comes a little later where the hero remembers all the things he did with his truck. Pulling down sheds, throwing logs and other manly things.

2: Inciting Incident – an event that changes everything and turns the characters life upside down
The hero forgets to put on the handbrake and his pride and joy roles off a cliff and he not only loses his truck but also his manhood.

3: Aspiration – a goal that is not easily attained and reveals a persons true character
His goal once he loses his truck is to try and move on with his life without it and still maintain his manhood.

4: Conflict – challenges you need to overcome and an ultimate choice
Although he tries to get on with his life he can’t. He has lost his appetite, can’t ride a bike to work and struggles to move on.

5: Resolution – end of story where questions are answered
Once he finally lets go his car and manhood comes back, washed up on a beach where the truck starts first time.

6: Microscript – the story in one line that is easily repeatable
Here it is all summarized into one word – Unbreakable

7: Metaphor – adds meaning and insight and is familiar to an audience
Ultimately this is a love story. Boy finds car, boy loses car, boy finds car again.

The reason this advertisement is so popular is that it plays on the notion that men love their cars and it follows a traditional love story.

I challenge you to think about other truck commercials you may have seen. In Australia there is one where a bolder falls into the back of a truck and it carries it no problems. Another where an army tank is towed out of a creek by a truck. And another where everything beefs up on the truck including the man that’s been driving it. All of these ads play on the notion of toughness and how manly the people are that drive them.

The Hilux ad does all these things but does it in the form of a story, one that has only one line in it – “Forgot the handbrake” which I am guessing was necessary to ensure that it is human error that causes it to go off a cliff and no fault with the truck. The only other line is “Woo hoo!”

If you are wondering if storytelling works, know that last year the Toyota Hilux outsold its nearest competitor by almost 2 to 1 and is consistently in the top 3 cars sold in Australia.

Now I’m not suggesting that the Hilux’s sales success is all down to the story they have created, they obviously make a very good product. What I am saying is that this ad works because rather than tell you what a great deal it is, or how many features it has, it uses a story type and structure we are all familiar with to emotionally connect people to the product in a way facts and figures simply can’t.

One Comment

  1. John P August 5, 2014 at 11:12 pm #

    Thanks for these insights Mark. For years I have struggled to decipher why some stories I tell persuade in a more compelling way than others. In reflecting back it is now obvious that in the less compelling stories I was missing core elements out of the 7 you have put forward! A real ‘light bulb’ moment.