The act (and art) of storytelling is as old as time. Marketing is, in many ways, the modern discipline of storytelling — where the storyteller of thousands of years ago had just a fire and a captive audience, and word of mouth to depend on for distribution, today’s storyteller has a multitude of resources at their fingertips. Replace the fire with a screen, the audience of ten with millions, and more distribution channels than even he cares to know about. But some things have remained constant: every story has a purpose, it provides some innate utility to its audience, and it has people at its center.

Earlier this week, we co-hosted a storytelling workshop in San Francisco with the New York Times’ T-Brand Studio. We had speakers from across disciplines share perspectives and best practices on making your story stand out in a crowded space: designer-turned-storyteller James Buckhouse of Sequoia Capital (formerly Twitter and Dreamworks Animation), Levi’s CMO Jennifer Sey, New York Times’ Sebastian Tomich, Gates Foundation’s Eddie Rehnfeldt, and Charles Schwab’s Kirstin Falk. The following are six lessons from our speakers to apply to your storytelling.

1. Start with people, not users.

“Calling people “users” is doing a tremendous disservice to humanity.” — James Buckhouse, Head of Content and Design at Sequoia.

Don’t forget that at the other end of your product is a real, living, breathing person. Yes, we call them users in the context of their interaction with what we’re selling them, but starting with a fundamental human need is key. Brands that have most recently accomplished this are Dove Men’s #RealStrength campaign (the lesser known, more recent companion to its acclaimed Real Beauty initiative) which tapped into misperceptions of the relationship between masculinity and care.

2. Your story isn’t just problem and solution

Brands, products, and businesses exist essentially to solve problems. There’s a need in the market for X service or Y product — here’s why you should use our offering. So it’s easy for us as marketers to think that at the end of the day, that’s what our story should be — how our service tangibly helps a customer.

But emotionally resonant stories don’t just end with the solution. As Buckhouse put it:

“The mediocre writer (who misunderstands the actual job) ends with the solution. But no one cares about that. The marvellous writer has one more moment — the transformation. It’s not about your solution, about how it transforms you in the end.”

Approaching your brand’s story as “here’s the problem, we’re the solution because XYZ” is a value proposition — but a story shows the transformation your solution provides.

Take Levi’s, for instance. Jeans solve a problem, for sure — we (generally) need to wear pants. But it obviously goes beyond that; Levi’s CMO Jennifer Sey explained how Levi’s jeans have come to carry cultural cache, and they’re more than just pants now — they’re status symbols that can imbue pride to wearers, and their iconicity makes it easy to remember the special moments that can happen while wearing them.

For another example, Netflix’s brand managers think in terms of product attributes and benefits, of course; they know that streaming films and original content means easier selection and greater convenience. And they know that emotionally, that means satisfaction and delight. But there’s something bigger beyond those emotional benefits: an escape from reality, for the duration of your chosen film or TV binge. It’s not just a solution to a problem — it’s a transformation for the person logging in.

3. Who is your archetype?

Powerful stories are measured by their ability to elevate their audience. Your archetype, according to Buckhouse, is “an ordinary person against extraordinary odds, who achieves something remarkable by means of the platform.” Finding them might involve a little research, but once you have your archetype, you can tell a much fuller, purposeful story. And even if your product isn’t a platform, your archetype is the consumer who can now do things that they couldn’t before they had your product.

A good instance of documenting ordinary people achieving extraordinary things is Twitter Stories, a now-retired project that Buckhouse ran, highlighting little-known but powerful initiatives made possible by the social network: a computer scientist reviving lost languages, and a hospital connecting parents and children who are separated by illness are among them.

4. Unlock stories from your audience

“Create conditions where the people who love your brand can tell great stories.” – Jennifer Sey, CMO, Levi’s

Your consumers are your most potent source of inspiration: by leveraging their stories you’re making them brand ambassadors, amplifying the trust that other, would-be consumers have in your brand. Levi’s did this with its 2014 ‘Live in Levi’s’ campaign, collecting stories from people around the world who wore its classic 501 jeans. User-generated content ups your brand’s authenticity and helps make the otherwise aspirational into something accessible: see Loews Hotels’ ‘Travel for Real’ ad campaign that uses photos of real guests in its hotels.


5. Stories are about people, not brands

“The biggest challenge to storytelling in the financial services? Showing people what the impact of tomorrow will be.” – Kirstin Falk, Managing Director, Brand Innovation and Social, Charles Schwab

Sometimes, the best stories hold no mention of your brand at all. Charles Schwab’s video campaign captures the bold stories of individuals who left their jobs to pursue their passions, each honing in on the message that you can “own your tomorrow.” They made the connection between investment decisions and the power of ownership over one’s future. In leading the campaign, Falk pushed the envelope for marketing in her industry by keeping the brand’s name entirely out of the videos.

6. Be purposeful

During his time at Dreamworks, Buckhouse worked on the hit animated film Madagascar, centered around Central Park zoo animals who unexpectedly find themselves on the titular island. But before the movie hit theaters, Dreamworks screened an early version of it to an audience of mostly parents. These early viewers loved it; rollicking laughter after one joke would drown out subsequent jokes from other characters (by design — so that when you rewatch the DVD and finally catch those secondary and tertiary jokes, you find yourself thinking, “I always find something new in this film!”) and they stayed engaged when they needed to be.

But on one critical measure, the film was failing: when asked, no one said they would recommend it to other parents to watch with their kids. The reason, Buckhouse said: the writing was just too raunchy. The jokes landed as intentioned; but funny and engaging as they were, they were blatantly sex jokes. The team had to rework the film — making it less funny, but more easy to recommend (and thus, more of a financial success).

The lessons from all these lessons? While the stories we create must resonate, we still have to keep our goals and objectives in mind. Marketing is a field fueled by creativity and filled with art, but it’s a business discipline, too. How will the narratives we unlock, create, or share influence behaviors? Are we focused solely on building awareness and a connection with these stories, or is there another call-to-action that we have in mind? For actually productive storytelling, we must be clear on exactly what we want to achieve.