5 Ways to Strengthen your Message through Storytelling

Jay Laird, a faculty member in the Digital Media Program, co-designed the game design concentration at Northeastern.

It’s tempting to think that the modern technology we have at our disposal is all we need to deliver a killer message to our audiences. 

But the key to delivering an idea or message effectively lies in an ancient art: Storytelling. 

Storytelling reinforces your message by establishing an emotional connection with your audience. It helps people to better comprehend your ideas. It shows who you are. And it’s one of the elements at the very center of Northeastern’s Digital Media program in the College of Professional Studies

Here are five ways make your message stick by improving your storytelling techniques:

1. Choose the right medium 

There’s photo, video, infographics and interactivity — and many means of delivery for each medium. Instead of feeling paralyzed by options, consider which one best conveys your story. Video is great for showing a linear process, while an infographic is ideal for letting people explore information change over time. Photos (subjects and backgrounds) are worth a thousand words, but plain text is better if you want your audience to conjure a mental picture they identify with. And your audience may have a lower or higher trust level for some mediums versus others. 

2. Begin your story with characters.

Let’s say there’s a problem, and your brand or idea is the solution. Even though it may be your first instinct to present your solution, it may be obvious to you that your solution is the best one, your audience may need a bit more convincing. Or, even if they believe you, they may not remember your message later. 

Develop a character who would have the same kind of problem that you’re trying to solve. If your audience identifies with the character or at least sympathizes with him or her, they will recall more details about your message or idea and they will be more likely to connect it to other aspects of their lives later on. 

3. Identify the problem.

The most common dramatic structure of a story is to give a character a problem and then make him struggle find a solution. Whether you’re doing a 30-second commercial or an hour-long lecture, start off by letting the audience know why they should stick around until the end.

You might even create a certain amount of suspense, causing the audience to wonder how the problem will be solved, or even if it will be solved. Can the family displaced by a flood find a place to stay for the night? Will that dirty kitchen get cleaned before the judgmental father-in-law shows up? 

4. Take a journey to the solution, together.

When your characters take the audience on their journey, your audience connects the problem to the solution and better remembers both.

Maybe it’s something trivial like cleaning the kitchen or something agonizing like facing the prospect of being homeless, but in both cases, you increase the audience’s engagement by raising the stakes and making them eager to find out if everything will turn out okay.

This isn’t to say that your story has to end happily. To call your audience to action, you might instead illustrate the consequences of the solution not being reached, while offering hope for the future.

5. Use the small story to tell the big story.

Your characters take the audience on the journey from problem to solution, but you need to make sure that the audience takes away some sense of the bigger picture. Maybe it’s not as straightforward as providing a moral in the style of Aesop’s fable, but it needs to be something that connects your story to the world-at-large. If people start seeing elements of your story in their daily lives, they will remember it, and your message. Our memories like to keep things simple, so people usually remember the key elements of the story—the main character, problem, and solution— and then distort the rest over time to support other existing or new memories.

Stories can change perceptions. 
Politicians tell anecdotes about some (often imaginary) person they met on the campaign trail like “Joe the Plumber” in the hopes that people will identify with this everyday person and say “Hey, if this candidate connected with Joe, surely he’ll look out for my best interests!”  If you can tell the story of a specific man but make people identify with him as an Everyman, then people will start seeing your story as part of the bigger picture of their lives.

Tracking Effectiveness  
Of course, crafting the story the story is only the first step. Make sure you test your story. Try telling it in a few different styles or with a few different characters or even though a variety of media. And remember: storytelling began as an interactive medium, an oral tradition in which the audience would often ask questions and change the flow of the story. Even if you’re giving a lecture or showing a video, let your audience know that you are open to feedback. Find out what your audience is taking away from the story. Is it what you expected? Is it helpful in reaching your goals? 

Now tell us: What are some of the best examples of brand-based storytelling that you’ve seen?