the art of storytelling
Everything has a story, a narrative, something to give it life and substance. And if you don’t know it, find it. The art of storytelling is ultimately what gives value to an object, a product, a concept. We connect with the emotion rather than the form itself. Whether a documented account or simply smoke and mirrors, a story is only as good as the storyteller. It is what creates an effective brand, will help sell the pitch, or bring a concept to life.
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When I was a kid, countless stories began with, ‘Once upon a time…’. Most of those stories
followed a very similar format. You’ve got the protagonist in distress, an antagonist – the villain – throwing one obstacle after another, then the inevitable hero who saves the day.
I always liked the villain.
But that’s irrelevant here.
Or is it?
No, it’s totally irrelevant.
So there’s always the golden story arc of beginning, middle and end. Which is just lovely. Albeit, a bit expected, but it works fine. Following this ancient formula for storytelling is fail proof, a shoe-in for that potential bestseller. Or screenplay turned cinematic masterpiece starring DiCaprio. Or bedtime book for your little monster.
I’d read DiCaprio a bedtime story any day.
Let’s say you decide to go rogue and screw the story arc. You flat line. The good kind of flat line where we start in one place and meander around until we get to the next place. So on and so on. All the while we learn about the character, the substance being the emotional connection. An emotional engagement that steers us into a completely different story, one where we start weaving our own life, our own feelings. The story becomes more meaningful and impactful because we are connected. Not just by a plot line, but by our unintentional investment in the experience.
Great storytelling is dragging an unsuspecting reader through the gamut of emotion. I want a reader to feel like they just ran an emotional marathon by the time they’re done. Like a cadet in boot camp, crawling on hands and knees through mud, below barbed wire in freezing cold weather during a rainstorm. Then make them feel like they’ve climbed Everest and are in a moment of pure, blissful triumph. The up and down extreme followed by quiet moments of pause.
I want someone to feel. Something. Anything.
Want them to connect with the words, to the message, to the emotion behind every tattooed page and unwritten subtext. Because that’s how as human beings we remember. We engage. We subconsciously allow the experience to penetrate our fiber and impact our life.
It’s about what we feel. But most importantly, it’s about the memory of that feeling. Because the lingered feeling is the most powerful. It’s the one that make us think, the one that makes us share with another, the one that will ignite change.
As art director for helium creative, I emphasize this idea to our clients. As a writer, I anguish over this idea with everything I piece together.
If I ask you to quickly think of your three favorite brands, I can guess exactly what will happen.
Well, first you’d probably stare blankly then say, “I have no idea.”
Then most likely a large number of people would say Apple.
But everyone, without a doubt, will name a brand they have some emotional resonance with. It’s the brand that has either woven itself into their life, the brand with a great story, or the one that makes you feel – something.
Apple is a great example, and probably the most common, well-referenced. The Apple brand makes you feel cool, technologically with-it, like I’ve got a leg up not only in the tech world but also the design world. Their visual messaging is modern, clean and emotive. It communicates a level of trust and authenticity, so much so that Apple has single-handedly developed something far greater than any single one of their products: Loyalty. I am so unbelievably guilty of being an Apple loyalist. They speak to my community. The creative, the open-minded, the progressive. The people who want technology to work with their life and enhance the day-to-day whatever. Who knows, really? I could blow a lot of smoke, make up a bunch of crap – but in truth, Apple creates an experience. And that’s what keeps us coming back for more.
From the interface design to the packaging, the complex simplicity of their product design to their well branded stores. Now Apple may not be dragging anyone through some hypothetical boot camp. But the point is, they have a well-crafted, well-executed experience. A story. And a great story is entirely dependent upon the storyteller.
Two questions should always be floating somewhere in the forefront of your brain when storytelling:
- What message am I trying to convey?
- What do I want someone to feel?
It’s like the left brain/right brain love child. Get the facts out first. Know the message you’re trying to communicate then make sure whatever is created addresses that message. Even if it’s transitional work or seemingly minor projects, everything has value and everything communicates something. Nothing is for nothing. And if something falls into the nothing category, then kill it.
Seriously. Then take it out back and bury it.
I remember a few months ago I was stressing over the amount of dessert and crap food I was shoveling into my body like every day was my last meal. Story of my life. I was at a foot reflexology appointment bitching about my eating habits to the 70 year-old hippie woman who’s rubbing my feet, which are propped on her leg. First off, she’s a fiery old lady who looks to be about 58. Bright orange hair, turquoise earrings, glowing skin. Crystals and dream catchers all over her studio. As she’s digging a wooden stick into my left foot, she looks up and says, “Does it serve you?”
I asked if she was talking about my foot.
She laughed and said no. She was talking about the sweets.
Does it serve me?
The answer is no. I’m putting a bunch of crap in my mouth because in the moment it seems like a great idea. But always, always I regret it after the fact and wish I could puke it all out.
I hate puking.
I’d much rather chronic diarrhea than throwing up. I feel like I’m dying every single time.
The above three lines are irrelevant. Or are they? Good example of what doesn’t serve a story. Or does it?
Talking about my extremity preferences does personalize this story a bit, while making you think I’m funny and you like what you’re reading, or this is ridiculous and a waste of time. Either way, I bet you’ll remember it.
What do I want someone to feel? Do I want you to trust me, love me, hate me, laugh, cry? All of the above perhaps.
I had an art teacher once say the worst thing you can be is forgettable. To have artwork hanging in a gallery that someone simply walks passed. She said you want them to stop because they love it or stop because they hate it. Either way you’ll have a reaction. And a reaction lingers. A reaction is what they will go home and talk to their family about. A reaction is what will come up at the water cooler. It’s what creates the memory.
A story should always, always, always warrant a reaction. A feeling. The right visuals, descriptions, metaphor, quotes – whatever it is. Pull out the paintbrush, sharpen the pencil, take the camera and support the message with a feeling. Drag your audience through boot camp. Through the mud. Through the clouds. To the ocean floor and the highest mountaintop. It is always easy to edit and pull back, but much harder to infuse the substance after the fact.
And what’s the best way to evoke emotion?
Speak from an authentic, honest place. From experience. Cast a lure then bait your audience with a narrative of personal experience. As human beings we want to connect, we want to feel part of something. Like we can relate or understand. You have to feel the emotion yourself first before conveying it to anyone else.
When we work on developing a brand at helium creative, we first always start with the story. With the mood and emotional tie to then start shaping the visual components. Because ultimately an effective brand not only communicates their story, but it also communicates yours.
We developed the brand experience for Backpacks.com, the leading online retail concept for curated selections of – you guessed it – backpacks. After going through a discovery session with the client, we began honing in on the idea that a backpack is an extension of it’s carrier. My backpack is a part of me. It’s with me when I started preschool and will be with me when I’m holding my newborn. It is an extremely personal product with countless stories created by the people who wear them. Travelers, students, parents, children, athletes. A backpack is with us on our journey through life.
So we capitalized on this idea and coined the tagline: Along for the journey.
The brand experience took shape through a beautiful lifestyle photo shoot, messaging, website design and marketing collateral. Our goal was to create the sense of wanderlust and companionship with a backpack, ultimately with the Backpacks.com brand. It is a feeling of trust and nostalgia while, of course, innately thinking life would be way cooler with a backpack.
Shared stories and blogs of true-life customer experiences with their own backpack are featured on the website to further the relatability and emotional connection to Backpacks.com as not only an e-commerce brand, but a lifestyle brand as well.
The art of storytelling is simple.
Just open your mouth and speak honestly. From the heart. Pour your guts on the table and connect to an idea. Easy, right? Most importantly, listen. Listen to the client, the reader, to understand what story needs to be told. What is necessary and what doesn’t serve the message? Then cut the fat. To be a great storyteller is to always be open to life, to change, to communication. From our personal experiences stem the most beautiful and engaging stories. The ones that will resonate with an audience, shape a brand or, most importantly, ignite some change in the world.
For more storytelling, design + inspiration follow @heliumcreative on Instagram.