simple picture of a person reading book

Simple stories, told well

When it comes to telling stories we want to create an experience for audiences. After all, that’s the whole point of storytelling, right? To tap into people’s emotions and make them feel something? If they’re emotionally stimulated, they’ll be engaged and they’ll be more likely to buy stuff, so people say.

But when everybody is telling stories in some shape or form, how do you stand out? More complex stories, better special effects, immersive experiences, or entire story universes? There’s so much pressure that we can sometimes try too hard and it all goes wrong. Maybe we should do the exact opposite. Instead of over-engineering things and creating elaborate story worlds and characters, shouldn’t we just focus on simple stories with relatable experiences with passion, sincerity and credibility?

You don’t need fancy resources to tell a good story

If musicians can continually create new songs with just 12 notes, why can’t a storyteller create new stories with limited raw materials? Wasn’t Ernest Hemingway supposedly able to tell a thought-provoking story in just six words?

For Sale: Baby Shoes, Never Worn

Except our raw materials aren’t that limited, are they? We can draw on all of the experiences, situations, and problems that people face every day. By tapping into this rich source of material you can create something compelling that doesn’t involve multiple universes, expensive technology, or complicated backstories.

People like stories they can relate to, something they’ve experienced or thought themselves and they should be drawn into the why of the story. If a product is good and has been conceived with a real problem in mind, we don’t need gimmicks.

So how do you create a relatable story?

No matter how much effort you put into explaining a product’s features or how many cutesy animations you put into your video, no matter how cool your superhero, or complex their origin story, nobody is going to respond to something they can’t relate to. People relate to problems and they respond to solutions. This is what should guide any story.

I’ve been telling stories in one form or another forever it seems. Some were great but some were absolute stinkers. Younger me use to blame it on “dumb” audiences who just didn’t get it, but now I realise it’s often my fault when a story dies on its backside. Too much shiny-shiny and not enough substance. Too much detail and not enough direction. Anyway, I wrote down some of the common mistakes I’ve made or seen in the past and the lessons I’ve learned. 

Use a recognisable situation

Avoid the temptation to base your story on wildly hypothetical scenarios that most people won’t recognise or believe. Not everyone wants to explore parallel universes or futuristic metaverses.

Talk about a relatable problem

In the situation you’ve just identified, find a problem which people have experienced, can recognise, or can empathise with.

Find a character people identify with

It’s no use introducing characters so far removed from your audiences’ own experiences that they can’t relate to them or who they can empathise with. The more specific this persona, the less likely people are to relate to them and the more likely they are to not care (Think about all those awful UX personas you’ve seen). or recognise from their own experiences

Don’t be blatant with emotions

Yes, you want to trigger an emotion but it should be natural – otherwise people will feel manipulated. In other words, put away the sad piano soundtrack, the cute puppy pictures, or the footage of people winning gold medals. Cheap sentimentality and over-the-top enthusiasm will backfire on you..

Don’t tell people how they should feel

It’s just plain preachy and will probably blow up in your face because you can’t definitively know how people will react to a particular stimulus. Instead, set up the scenario, characters and events, and trust that your audience will experience the emotions and feelings you anticipated.

Find a good metaphor to tell the story

You don’t have to be blunt and say “a person just like you, didn’t buy our software, and now they’re bankrupt and everyone hates them“. Instead find some metaphor about missed opportunities, fear of change, self-belief. These can come from anywhere and should encourage audiences to imagine the scenario – they don’t need every detail and they’ll create a richer story if they can fill in the gaps with their own details..

Humour is good but don’t overdo it

Unless you’re Ryan Reynolds, humour is tricky. One or two little bits of humour is fine but no more and definitely don’t signpost the places where you expect them to laugh. This isn’t a 70s sitcom so don’t need a laugh track.

Take your time

We all know about ever decreasing attention spans and the temptation is to try and rush through the story and get to the call to action as quickly as possible. Don’t! Spend some time developing the story to draw people in. The punchline doesn’t need a lot of time in your story. In fact, the shorter the call to action the better, that way you’ll give audiences something to think about.

Speak like a human

Use the same type of language you would use when you’re telling a story face-to-face. Just because you’re writing an article, creating a presentation, or producing a video doesn’t mean you have to speak like a poet – or worse – like a corporate robot. Keep it natural and give it some personality.

Don’t bombard people with details

This is one of the biggest story killers of all time. Whether it’s technical details about a product or random facts about the situation (…the guy was wearing a yellow t-shirt, Fruit of the Loom I think, he must have bought it on Amazon but I can’t be sure…) too much detail is guaranteed to have audiences tuning out faster than you can yawn. Sure, detail helps you paint a picture of the scenario but people like to imagine situations for themselves. In fact they can’t help it. Don’t stuff your story full of technical specifications just because a product manager or developer insists it’s really important. If they need more info, they can get in touch!

What now?

You can apply these strategies to any story, whether you’re producing a training video, selling a shiny new car, or explaining how to configure a server. So go on, be a bit more human and keep things simple.

Share this article