Upon what authority do I say this? Nothing official, but I am a reader and writer of fiction. There’s a lot of woo-woo talked about great stories: it’s about inspiration and passion and your inner voice. Urgh. Maybe I’m a Philistine, but I’ve always wanted to understand the nuts and bolts of storytelling: the devices, the techniques, the craft. Not only was I a journalist for 10 years, but I’ve been in content marketing for 10 more. As a hobby novelist, I have spent many years researching and studying how to write great stories - including working at The National Centre For Writing, hosting their podcast for a year.

As I learned, my fictional stories became more gripping, more compelling. Consciously and possibly unconsciously, I started to use these techniques in my work: content and communication, from pitches to blogs, emails to case studies. These in turn became clearer, more persuasive and more memorable.

To help my colleagues benefit from what I’d learned, I prepared a presentation. This article is based on that presentation. It will arm you with the tools to do the same, whether you’re in SEO, PPC or content marketing; a writer, a dev, a designer or you run the company. 

Chapter One: In the beginning

Once, there was a group of people who all worked at the same place.

But they had a problem. And they didn’t even know they had a problem. They had a magical power, but it was a power that they weren’t using. The power of stories and of storytelling.

Luckily, there was a brave and wise and very handsome hero who knew lots about stories. 

But he had no way of helping the group of people because they lived all over the place and were busy with their own tasks.

He was sad.

So he used another magical power, called ‘Internet’, to help communicate the information across the gulf.

He spent hours and hours of challenging and courageous work creating an eight-slide PowerPoint presentation. Finally, it was finished of the presentation arrived. He was nervous and was tempted to call in sick. But he knew it was important, so he bravely went on.

The group came together and the hero of our story told them all about the magical power of stories, explaining how each and every one of them could benefit from this power.

The group listened, talked, asked questions and discussed it amongst themselves. And not only did they all learn something useful, they all enjoyed being together.

Then the group all sent thank-you gifts to the hero and lavished him with praise to show their unwavering gratitude.

And from that day on, even if it was in a small way, they were all able to use the magical power of storytelling.

That is the story of this presentation.

Humans respond to stories

Humans have an innate response to stories and narratives, a trait deeply embedded in our very nature. This profound connection to storytelling can be attributed to several key factors that resonate with our psychological and emotional frameworks. Understanding why we are so drawn to stories can illuminate how this powerful tool can be harnessed in various aspects of life, including work, education, and personal growth.

Why stories are powerful:

Emotional Investment

Stories have the unique ability to evoke a wide range of emotions, from joy and love to anger and sadness. This emotional engagement is crucial because it transforms the listener or reader from a passive observer to an active participant. When we care about the characters and their journeys, we are more likely to absorb and remember the message being conveyed. This emotional investment can lead to a deeper understanding and retention of information.


Narratives often reflect our own experiences, dreams, and fears, making them highly relatable. When we see ourselves in a story, it not only validates our feelings and experiences but also helps us navigate our own lives.

Simplified complexity

Life is complex, filled with nuanced situations and abstract concepts that can be difficult to grasp. Stories have the power to simplify these complexities, breaking down intricate ideas into digestible and understandable pieces.

Aide memoire

The narrative structure of stories helps in encoding information in our memories. The beginning, middle, and end format of stories make them easier to recall than disjointed or unrelated facts. This structure acts as a scaffold, upon which details and lessons can be hung, making them more memorable. As a result, stories are an effective tool for learning and remembering information.

Inspiration and motivation

Stories can inspire and motivate us by showcasing characters who overcome obstacles, achieve their dreams, or demonstrate resilience in the face of adversity.

Social bonding

Sharing stories is a fundamental human activity that fosters connection and empathy. When we share our own stories or listen to those of others, we build bridges of understanding and compassion.

We will be unconsciously using aspects of storytelling all the time 

Why is this relevant to marketing?

Storytelling is particularly relevant to marketing because of the power of narrative to foster emotional investment, enhance understanding, boost memory retention and inspire action. Whether it's through a compelling campaign, an engaging presentation, or an insightful report, the strategic use of stories can turn passive audiences into active participants who feel a personal connection to whatever it is that you’re trying to communicate:

  • We want our clients and colleagues to be emotionally invested
  • We want them to be able to understand what we’re doing and WHY
  • We want people to remember what we’ve said
  • We want to inspire our clients and colleagues.

What is a story?

What are the elements of a story? 

At the heart of every captivating narrative lies a fundamental structure - three-act structure - a blueprint that has guided storytellers for millennia. This timeless framework shapes the journey of characters and the unfolding of plots. 

  1. Problem or quest
  2. Journey and obstacles
  3. Solution and resolution

This might look fairly obvious. And it is. If you think about a client brief or strategy, it’s structured like this. If it’s done well.

Much of this will be intuitive to us and many of us will do this instinctively when telling an anecdote about something that happened at the weekend.

If you have to communicate something to a client or colleague (chat, email, presentation, pitch), consider how you might structure and present what you want to say, in this way.

Turbocharge your story

Drive engagement with your story with these plot devices.

There is a larger, more detailed structure and more devices that you can use depending on the aim of your communication. This is captured below and while this might be a template, various elements can be moved and even duplicated as required.

  • The Status Quo: Establishes the normal world or baseline from which the story departs.
  • The Problem: Introduces a challenge or conflict that disrupts the status quo.
  • The Quest: Sets the protagonist or main characters on a journey to solve the problem.
  • The Promise: Offers a glimpse of hope or potential solution that motivates the journey.
  • Obstacles: Presents difficulties or barriers the characters must overcome to achieve their goal.
  • Surprise: Injects unexpected twists or revelations that heighten the story's tension.
  • Critical Choice: Forces the protagonist to make a significant decision that will impact the outcome.
  • The Climax: Delivers the story's peak moment of conflict, tension, or action.
  • Resolution: Ties up loose ends and shows how the characters and situation have changed.
  • Reversal: Provides a twist that challenges or changes the outcome in an unforeseen way. It might also be how the thing that was going bad, is reversed, renewing the status quo or improving it.

How does that work?

This is my story of this presentation mapped into this. And even though I didn’t use the list, my story intuitively mapped against these elements.

Story element > Example 

  1. The status quo: Once, there was a group of people who all worked at the same place. 
  2.  The problem:  They had a magical power, but a power that they weren’t using. 
  3.  The promise: Luckily, there was a brave and wise and very handsome hero who knew about stories. 
  4.  The quest: So he used another magical power, called ‘Internet’, to help communicate the information across the gulf. 
  5.  Surprise: N/A Obstacles He was nervous and was tempted to call in sick. 
  6.  Critical choice: But he knew it was important, so he bravely went on. 
  7.  The climax: The group came together and he told them all about the magical power of stories 
  8.  Reversals: they were all able to use the magical power of storytelling. 
  9.  Resolution: they all learn something useful, they all enjoyed being together.

How does this map with marketing?

Here’s how we might use this in a marketing context:

Story element > Marketing example

  1. The status quo: You have low sales and no site traffic
  2. The problem: You aren’t doing any marketing activity so you’re losing out. You may even go bust.
  3. The promise: We’re going to find out what you can do
  4. The quest: We’ve done all of this research, found all these opportunities and created a plan
  5. Surprise: We also found that your homepage is non-indexed
  6. Obstacles: You have no link profile, small budget, Google penalties
  7. Critical choice: We have to decide where to spend your budget
  8. The climax: Here is the plan, here are the recommendations, the creative
  9. Reversals: We’ve implemented the plan, you are now doing SEO/web build.
  10. Resolution: Your traffic is growing, sales are growing

Again, notice that this doesn’t feel forced. Nothing feels out of place.

Many of us might already be doing this in our comms, but how many of us are doing it with the knowledge of what each element is doing, and consciously deploying them as part of a story framework?

Workplace communication

Transforming workplace communication into a compelling narrative can significantly enhance clarity, engagement and action. Here’s how to intertwine these storytelling elements into the fabric of professional communication:

Setting the scene: defining the problem

Just as a story begins by introducing a conflict that disrupts the status quo, start your communication with a clear definition of the issue at hand. Use simple, accessible language to ensure the problem is understood by all, making it a collective concern rather than an isolated one. This approach mirrors the storytelling technique of establishing the central conflict, drawing your audience into the narrative from the outset.

Building the connection: why it matters

In storytelling, the relevance of the conflict to the protagonist is what drives the story forward. Similarly, explain why the problem should matter to your audience, connecting the issue to its direct or indirect impact on them.

Highlighting the stakes: the consequences

Reflecting on the potential consequences of the problem, akin to outlining the stakes in a story, adds urgency and depth to your narrative. Whether it’s the risk of lost revenue, decreased productivity, or impacts on job satisfaction, clarifying what’s at risk engages the audience’s emotions and motivates them towards seeking a resolution.

Defining the journey: roles and actions

Every story involves characters embarking on a quest, facing challenges, and making choices. In your communication, clearly outline what role your audience plays in this journey. Specify the actions required, decisions to be made, or feedback needed, setting clear expectations and empowering them to contribute effectively to the narrative’s progression.

Mapping the path: the plan of action

Just as a story unfolds through a series of events leading towards the climax, provide a clear plan of action or steps to address the problem. This roadmap reassures your audience of a thought-out strategy for navigating obstacles, akin to a plot that guides characters towards their goal.

Envisioning the outcome: defining success

In storytelling, the resolution offers closure and a sense of completion. Similarly, define what success looks like in your context, using specific metrics or qualitative outcomes. This clarity helps align everyone’s efforts and provides a tangible goal, making the narrative’s conclusion satisfying and worthwhile.

Stories live everywhere

Where might we use storytelling elements to help us achieve what we want?

  • Pitches
  • Reports
  • Meetings
  • Mission statements
  • About us content
  • Articles
  • Guides
  • Emails
  • Interviews
  • Product pages.

In summary

The key elements of a story:

  1. Problem or quest
  2. Journey and obstacles
  3. Solution and resolution