We all want to make a change, and something that helps enormously when a company is looking to implement behaviour change for their audience is narrative. A storyline. If your message is paired with a storyline that is compelling, relevant, engaging and believable (or even better, true), you’re more likely to hook someone and entice them towards a new behaviour; a potential behaviour change.
Narrative is essential when it comes to good storytelling – without it, you’ll fall flat. Remember this spot from Extra? Or any of the John Lewis Christmas ads ever? If you can get your audience to have a genuine emotion when engaging them with your advertising, they’re going to remember your message that much better. Emotion is the key to so much of what we decide to do, and it’s often how we feel that dictates how we act.
The kicker is that we humans are notoriously cynical and difficult to sway. You can’t just put a story down in front of us and hope that it’s going to make an impact — there has to be truth in it. And yet, while it’s tough to change us from our paths, once we do make a change, we are likely to commit to the new direction with as much or even more vigour than our previous direction. Conscious behaviour change is a lengthy process that requires specific steps and much contemplation before we take the plunge, and narrative is an effective way to encourage this.
In order to tell a great story, you need to ensure that you adhere to a few hard and fast rules. They are remarkably simple, and yet if you don’t abide by them you may find that your message fails to get cut through with your target audience.
The power of a good story.
There are a few key rules of good storytelling, and when you stick with them, you’ll find that your messaging is clear and your plot compelling.
Step One – Stick to the principles
When you put it very simply, every story needs a good guy and a bad guy (a protagonist and an antagonist) and they need to be up against each other where the driving conflict is developed. There’s a bunch of stuff that happens (aka the plot thickens) and then there’s the resolution where everyone gets what they deserve (a comeuppance, a fairytale ending, etc). Some of these elements are negotiable, and some simply aren’t. John Le Carré famously said, “the cat sat on the mat is not the beginning of a good story; the cat sat on the dog’s mat, is.” You also need to make sure that you are making a distinction between a story and an anecdote. A story has growth and progression, while an anecdote is a single incident which lacks the power to take your users on the same transformational journey that a story does. You have to make sure you adhere to the essential elements of story structure to have success here.
Step Two – Make your story shine
When a business is trying to implement a behaviour change, it’s usually to encourage a consumer to make a new action or to change an existing behaviour to incorporate what the business supplies or sells. Consumers accept this, but if a story is quite clearly being told purely to sell, or to make some kind of commercial gain, they’re going to see straight through it. The desire to tell a story has to spring from inside the brand – has to speak to some kind of inherent emotional truth about your brand that your users will trust – and cannot be tacked on opportunistically.
Step Three – Help your users to care
People want to feel. We willingly stream videos of dogs greeting their servicemen and women owners to cry happy tears, and the emotion of caring is something that you need to put into your story. If a storyteller makes you care about the main character from the opening scene, you’ll be hooked. And in truth, if you’re coming from a business perspective, people’s guards are going to be higher, so you have to work that much harder.
Step Four – Make your audience feel clever
When brands are doing creative development research, a common question is “do the customers understand the message?” But when it comes to storytelling, the best ones ask something of us – they want us to solve problems and come to our own conclusions. Don’t give the audience four, give them two plus two and let them figure it out. Instead of wondering if the audience ‘gets’ the message, wonder instead about how the ad or message makes the user feel about the brand. We love a good story, and so long as you manage to deliver on the promise to tell a good one, you’ll make an impact with your behaviour change.
Step Five – Aim to connect
The final element in good storytelling for behaviour change is to work towards connection. A great story is a comfort to the user/reader/audience and when stories work, it’s because the storyteller (you) has established a connection with the audience – not just because you ‘got your message across’. If your story is emotionally honest and charming, you won’t be asking for permission to share a message, your audience will be willing to accept it.
In short, narrative is a vital component of what drives your storytelling, and when you combine all of the above elements and entice your audience along a truthful and compelling path, you’ll see an impact with your messages. All advertising seeks to create a story of sorts, but when you take the time to craft a narrative that encapsulates the true elements of story within it, and do so in an honest way your users will respond.