The Seductive Power of Storytelling

One afternoon back in 10,000 B.C., a pair of Mesopotamian farmers made the amazing discovery that bread wasn’t the only thing they could make from harvested grain. If they mixed it with water and left it around to ferment, the result was a blissful brew that instantly made them regret they’d have to wait until 1600 A.D. for the invention of a nice pizza to go with it.

If this were the opening paragraph in a newspaper story, you probably wouldn’t know where it was going. That doesn’t really matter. All that matters (especially from the vantage point of the person who wrote it) is that you’re already hooked to keep reading to see what happens next. In a noisy, competitive marketplace where every seller wants to be heard by as many buyers as possible, the ones that consistently close deals are those who artfully employ the most universal magnet in mankind’s existence: the promise of a tale well told.

Storytelling as a vehicle for influencing the behavior of others isn’t a new concept. The Brothers Grimm, for instance, built their career around cautionary tales about the dangers of accepting fruit from wizened crones or straying too far into the woods. Scheherazade had the smarts to realize that cliffhangers were a useful device to keep her alive for 1,001 nights. Even our earliest ancestors may have connected the dots that their fellow Neanderthals were likely to embrace enthusiasm about the future applications for fire and the wheel if there was a pulse-pounding set-up to illustrate why these were must-have commodities.

So why is it that stories can so successfully seduce us into a receptive frame of mind to listen …and buy?

A time once upon

If our trust has previously been betrayed, we become cynical in subsequent relationships. Thus, as wary consumers, it’s our natural instinct to resist the stranger at the end of the phone because we just know they’re trying to sell us a life insurance policy, a cupcake or a cosmetic makeover. Yet the child within each of us is incapable of sophisticated defenses due to fewer real-world experiences. The fond – and magical – associations we have with “Once upon a time” enable us to transcend whatever moment or mindset we’re in and be vicariously transported to someplace young, someplace intriguing.

As human beings, we’re also conditioned to learn by example, including examples set by others and related to us as stories. How many times, for instance, have you heard a seminar speaker start out, “Let me tell you about a little boy in Tazmania who was born with three arms…”

Whether your company’s objective is to get people to open their minds, their hearts or their wallets, you must first entice them as a raconteur.

But what’s that, you say? You’re not a creative sort who can nimbly pluck plots out of thin air? Does it mean you’re doomed to a lackluster website, uninspired ad copy, and commercials that no one can remember? Of course not!

If you’re a fan of the BBC’s Top Gear, you’re no stranger to the producers’ plethora of wacky challenges given each week to Jeremy, Hammond and James – build amphibious cars, make vehicles “wild animal proof,” participate in motorhome races, etc. Impressed by the imagination these lads bring to their tasks, my husband and I decided to invent our own version of Top Gear to expand our mental margins as inventive storytellers. It wasn’t long before we realized that anyone involved with advertising could tap the following wealth of brainstormer resources to set the wheels in motion for a radio, television, print or online media campaign.

Opening lines

Hatch’s Plot Bank is an expansive repository of 2,000+ plot ideas for novelists, playwrights and screenwriters. To use it, simply pick a number between 1 and 2,382 and find the corresponding premise. Examples include:

  • #30 – ice storm forces inlaws to share house for days; or
  • #1099 – movers make a mess of prized possessions; or even
  • #2042 – lovely woman on daily train finally smiles.

Further, in 2002, entrepreneur Cristy Clarke introduced “Table Topics,” a boxed collection of cards designed to remedy the stress of being tongue-tied at parties, family gatherings and even first dates. It might also work wonders as inspiration for your next ad campaign.

Finally, the next time you order Chinese takeout, don’t throw out the fortunes in your cookies. Instead, modify them as the new motto for your product or service. You can also hop over to and either click on “Open a Cookie” or “Fortune Cookie Quotes” until you find a phrase that resonates. Examples:

  • “It takes more than good memory to have good memories;”
  • “All progress occurs because people dare to be different;”
  • “You create your own stage – the audience is waiting.”

Hanging by a moment

In the early 1990s, Taster’s Choice launched a series of coffee commercials that instantly stirred (no pun intended) the public’s attention. Audiences loved the concept of recurring characters whose blossoming romance was nudged forward every few months in 60-second increments, always ending in a cliffhanger. A similar approach in serialization is found in ads for Country Crock (in which only the hands of the spokescouple were seen), Silly Rabbit’s ongoing quest for Trix, Pacific Bell’s “Garland” and “Rain Children” ads about keeping in touch by telephone, and the Dos Equis legends about The Most Interesting Man in the World.

As a starting point for your own serialized spin, take a page from New Year’s Day. January 1st is the date on which most people annually pledge to embrace a new routine – lose weight, learn a foreign language, become debt-free. Hop on over to the New Year’s Resolution Generator and scroll through until you find a match that (1) will utilize recurring characters and (2) is sustainable for the duration of your ad campaign. Examples include:

  • Throwing a dinner party;
  • Joining a choir; or
  • Taking more photos.

And although these serialization prompts should do the trick for most readers, they might be considered too tame for others. Looking for wacky writing prompts? Thousands can be found in Jason Sacher’s The Amazing Story Generator. This nifty little flipbook invites you to randomly pick three elements as the basis for an ongoing story. Examples:

  • After too many cups of coffee, an avid comic book collector develops the ability to fly;
  • During the hottest summer on record, a Shakespearean scholar leads the charge against a zombie army;
  • Longing for a simpler life, a temperamental sculptor gets trapped in a parallel universe.

You might also take a page from retailers in incorporating products into a fictional saga. In the early years of Banana Republic, for instance, catalogue subscribers were invited on a vicarious adventure through travelogue-style copywriting in which the authors referenced specific items of apparel they had packed for the journey. Similarly, Masterfoods USA used bite-sized content on the sides of its 7th Paths sauces and marinades to emulate postcard entries. Consider how the journal approach might work to promote a restaurant, a cruise line, or a summer camp.

Fractured classics

Last, it’s worth considering a modern classic: iterations on a theme. The 21st century has seen a quirky escalation in the phenomenon of classic literature undergoing updated – and unexpected – packaging. Sense and Sensibility and Sea Monsters, Mansfield Park and Mummies, and Little Vampire Women just go to show that nothing is sacred when it comes to spinning commercially kooky themes.

If you’re looking to sell something in a familiar-yet-twisted context, consider these to get the creative juices flowing:

  • The Mummy’s Great Expectations: A lot can happen when you’ve been under wraps for 3,000 years. Just ask Miss Havisham who, owing to a dreadful mistake, was accidentally mummified, stuck in an Egyptian crypt, and missed her wedding day.
  • Addams Family Robinson: Morticia Addams’ wish for a vacation in the Paris sewers goes awry when her family and servant Lurch get shipwrecked on a deserted island.
  • Jane Eyre’s Twilight: Mr. Rochester, brooding lord of Thornfield Manor, is concerned that his new governess, Jane, is spending way too much time wistfully watching the comings and goings of their new neighbors, the Cullens, especially the ghostly pale and mysterious Edward.

Inspired silliness can also be drawn from some of the most famous moments in movie history. Imagine Games Network has identified the top 100. Put your thinking cap on and see what you could reinvent.

A tale well told

While any of the aforementioned resources are fun tools for crafting the centerpiece of a clever ad, their use also extends to short- and long-term project planning as well as creative consultant-client collaboration: Turn that energy-drink koala into a costumed mascot that gives press conferences; have Inspector Javert write a monthly blog and offer gift certificate “rewards” to subscribers that report sightings of Jean Valjean; or invent your own version of Banshee’s opening credits in which embedded codes lead to clues on the show’s companion website. By plopping ordinary characters into extraordinary circumstances you reinforce the power of “possibility.”

Marcel Proust observed “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.” No matter the genre, the medium or the product being pitched, every “fresh” spin in storytelling is actually just the placement of a recognizable element into an alternative framework. Shakespeare, mythology, scripture and even fairy tales are popular fodder for hawking modern products; i.e., AT&T’s Hansel and Gretel using their mobile phone’s GPS to get home.

And hey, can you honestly watch any of the award-winning Budweiser commercials – especially the Rocky vignette and not feel a smile come to your face? It’s the first line of a tale that reels us in …and the last line that won’t let us go until we have answered the advertiser’s call to action.

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