11 Ways to mess up story-telling

11 Unnecessary but commonplace ways brands mess up their storytelling*

We spend much of our time at Brands2Life telling stories for our clients so I thought it would be nice to bring together in one place a few of the reasons why some stories – not ours of course – don’t live up to their potential. None of them are new but they can raise their ugly heads from time to time.

1.      The invisible brand narrative

I think this is the most important of the eleven. No matter how good, a story that doesn’t link to an over-arching brand narrative won’t have the impact it deserves because it doesn’t reinforce a key message. It will simply entertain or inform in isolation. Every organisation needs to be able to articulate in simple terms its purpose and its journey in the form of a brand narrative so that people can understand them more easily.

And a strong, inspiring narrative will drive better stories because it brings focus and energy to the creative process. As kids, we all loved stories with heroes, villains and an exciting back-drop. Adults are no different even when the brand is the storyteller.

2.      Tell the staff a different story

The easiest way to cause your brand trouble is to tell one story internally and a different one externally. The CEO of United Airlines found this out to his cost earlier this year. Social media ensures the world knows about these disparities within minutes. But employees do want to hear and participate in their organisation’s narrative as long as they think it’s credible and feasible. Tell the internal audience the positive story first whenever possible, let them amplify it through their networks and the outside world will find the story much more credible.

3.      A split personality

When social is owned by marketing, or another department, one can often see a very different narrative from the one told by PR. People go to your feeds, especially Twitter, to gain a broad picture of your organisation’s narrative. If your feed is wall-to-wall special deals and product promotions it won’t do much good reinforcing your carefully crafted narrative. Social should be the bed-rock of your storytelling, the place where your customer relationships are built and strengthened.

4.      Pile ‘em high

Good campaigns often have much longer legs than the owners think. Too many brands play the volume game: they put out a story and then move straight on to the next one if it doesn’t work immediately. Much better to give the outside world longer and/or more than one chance to absorb the campaign: each time with a slight twist or variation but with the same core message. Some of our best campaigns have really delivered results months after the initial launch. Have faith.

5.      Skimp on the visuals

This links into the point above. Given most brands have finite budgets we can’t do everything we want to do every time. So, it’s better to do one story with fantastic visuals than two with poor ones (or none-at-all). A good quality, short film will make your story very popular with publishers. Imaginative and original pictures or graphics deliver good cut-through too.

6.      Making your message your headline

How often does a piece of copy end up with an anodyne title pulled from the key message document? The headline needs to excite the reader and entice them to read on. Once they’ve read it their ‘take-away’ should be one or more of the key messages. My first boss used to send press releases to the client without headlines because he said the media never used the headline. He added a creative one before it got sent out. You can’t do that in today’s world but his rationale was dead-on.

7.      Hi-jack other people’s stories

Brands can be tempted to take short-cuts to build consumer empathy such as tapping into moments of extreme human sadness or, even, tragedy. These must be incredibly well-judged: people can see straight through them if not. Most recently, the McDonalds ‘child bereavement’ advert fell foul of these concerns. There’s plenty of room for emotion as long as the consumer doesn’t feel manipulated as a consequence.

8.      Avoid humour

Many brands, particularly global ones, are nervous about the use of humour. Too many opportunities to offend. But humour, more than anything else, makes content memorable. And we all like to share things that make us laugh. Recently I judged 30+ films for the Brand Film Festival. The cheaper funny ones stood out against the expensive ones set in exotic locations because they surprised – and, in some cases, delighted – whereas many of the big-budget ones looked like just another advert.

9.      It’s all about the SEO

I might get shot down for this but I think an overly slavish adherence to key SEO words and phrases can sometimes kill a story. The need to repeat the same words multiple times, particularly words and phrases that the reader has seen many times before, can deaden its impact. Fresh, original informative and/or entertaining copy, with the right visuals, can make all the difference and can drive a brand’s Google ranking even better.

10.  Staying safe

Then there’s risk. A truly successful, surprising story won’t have been told before so, by definition, there’s an element of risk involved. It takes time to develop so it needs to be created in anticipation of a future news agenda not today’s. No-one wants to be stuck telling a story that has already been told by competitor brands. Communications professionals are well-placed to develop these as we are always in touch with media and influencers who are more interested in what’s going to happen next than what’s happened. This gives us the confidence to predict how a topic or theme will develop and then persuade our colleagues to take our lead. (And, hopefully, we will be right most of the time).

11.  Zig like everybody else

This last point is a variation on the previous one. The advertising agency BBH has a great mantra: ‘when the world zigs, zag’. It takes courage to run against the pack and challenge the status quo but that’s what makes a story memorable. Something that confounds conventional thinking but also connects to something we hold to be true. One of our biggest successes in recent years has been Pestaurant for Rentokil Initial. It was a simple idea inspired by all the survivor TV programmes and healthy eating trends: ‘eat the pests we are known for destroying’. Pestaurant got masses of coverage, won lots of the awards and, subsequently, ran all around the world. (It didn’t cost very much either).

So, there you have it – eleven things to avoid when storytelling. Maybe you can think of others? If so, feel free to add them in the comments. Actually, there’s one more – boring headlines – I developed the one for this after listening to a talk by Dan Goodswen, formerly of BuzzFeed*. You need to intrigue the reader from the get-go. If you’ve read this far then it’s worked.