The System of Stories Part 3: Telling Stories That Stick

Mar 26, 2020

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Welcome to part 3 of the System of Stories: a 3 part essay written in collaboration with Zowie Langdon. We’re breaking down why great stories spread through systems, while others fail completely. If you haven’t read our high level overview in part 1, we recommend starting there.

Want to apply our framework to your storytelling? Skip to the end for an actionable checklist.

The Genesis of Stories

Last essay showed you how to analyse your system. Going forward, we’ll assume you’re familiar with the key ideas we discussed. In this essay, we’re ready to move from optimising your system, to shaping your story itself.

To understand what makes stories stick, let’s go back to where storytelling started:

Around the campfire.  

Cavemen telling stories around campfire
Credit: Animator Island

As soon as we could think, tribal leaders told tales. Successful stories contained information essential for group survival. We can think of these very first stories as campfire stories.

The things that made primitive stories spread hold true today. We all have caveman brains that are 70,000 years old. You might dress better, think you’re “rational” and live a more modern life, but your neural hardware hasn’t changed one bit. 

As Richard Dawkins said: “We are survival machines.” We still need stories to pass down information. All stories that spread tap into our selfish, primal urges. They share common properties.

Giving your story one of these primal properties is like adding wood to a fire. The more properties your story has, the brighter it shines and the more chance it has to catch your system’s attention.

We’ll examine these 6 properties in logical order: From the moment you, the Digital Storyteller, wants to tell a story, right up to preparing to share it with your system. There are 2 phases to telling a story that spreads: the Ideation Cycle where we generate the best idea, and the Creation Cycle where we bring the story to life.

The Ideation Cycle

System of Stories: The Ideation Cycle
The Ideation Cycle

Property 1: Story Goal

For Digital Storytellers, stories need goals.

During last essay’s system analysis you defined your system and clarified your Higher Cause behind sharing stories (“What if everyone believed X?”). Time to get specific: Why are you telling this particular story?

System of Stories Higher Cause and Story Goal
After defining your higher cause, give your story an explicit goal.

The goal of campfire stories was instilling life-or-death lessons in your tribe. "Catch this fish. Don’t eat this berry. And if you find a sabre-tooth tiger alone in the wild, pray you remembered to tell Mum you love her this morning." 

The best campfire stories ensured collective survival. The rest? Well… survival of the fittest and all that...For your story to survive it also needs a strong goal. It could be as small as making someone smile, or big as changing the world. Unfortunately your system doesn't have time for anything that isn’t directly improving their lives. When was the last time you finished reading a story you weren’t interested in? Probably wearing school uniform.

In “The Four”, Scott Galloway writes about the revolutionary story told by Amazon: to create “Earth’s Biggest Store”. This story is shared in countless media outlets, and has reshaped how shareholders interact with companies. Traditionally, investors focus on returning profits. With Amazon’s story, they’ve ditched profits in favour of vision and growth. Why give Amazon immense amounts of cheap capital? People buy into the story’s goal: building Earth’s Biggest Store.

The Everything Store Book Cover - Brad Stone
Amazon: The Everything Store. Credit: Brad Stone

Consumers didn’t see problems with supply chains before Amazon. Paying hefty delivery fees to wait for a week? Sure. Today, anything longer than 2-day delivery feels outrageous. Why? The other goal of Amazon’s relentless story: Obsessively improving the customer experience. As Bezos points out 20 years after his first shareholder letter: “One thing I love about customers is that they are divinely discontent. Their expectations are never static – they go up. It’s human nature.”

In “Made To Stick”, Chip & Dan Heath highlight that “stories focus people on potential solutions. Telling stories with visible goals and barriers shifts the audience into a problem-solving mode.” A good story goal either highlights: 1) A problem you’re solving, and/or B) a solution to improve your system’s lives.

Ask yourself:

“Why am I telling this story in particular? How will it change my system’s behaviour?”

Property 2: One Lesson

Powerful digital stories share one powerful lesson.

Cavemen Philosophy
Before Socrates: Cavemen Philosophy

I imagine campfire stories lived by a golden rule: Simple stories for simple people. Anything complex was, well, too complex. Our stories must follow the same 70,000 year old golden rule: share just One Lesson.

We use the word “lesson” because stories must be valuable. Digital Storytellers must improve the lives of their system—or help their “survival”—and focusing on one lesson ensures value is exchanged.

One lesson. That’s it. Our distracted brains need focus. Try to share any more, and your system might lose interest.

Ask yourself:

"What One Lesson am I sharing with this story? What single, simple big idea will my system take away?"

 In Thinking Fast & Slow, Daniel Kahneman points to a memory phenomenon: “The Peak End Rule”. When remembering anything, we focus on two things: The highest peak emotion, and the very final memory. When structuring your story, keep in mind that ideally your One Lesson should be part of both the story’s hardest-hitting peak and the finale.

Attention is today’s intellectual currency. Having to prioritise One Lesson for your system forces you to become ruthlessly selective.

Property 3: Understanding

A great story makes your system feel like you understand them. 

Stories that spread appeal to your system’s desires. They have a strong answer when someone asks “What’s in it for me?”

How can we figure out what your system wants? By applying your earlier work analysing Value Alignment. Moods come and go, values remain. The more Value Alignment your system shares with your story, the more they’ll pay attention. 

Once Value Alignment is created, it motivates systems to spread your story further. If your story reinforces your system’s worldview—otherwise known as the story we all tell ourselves—they have a clear incentive to propagate it.

Once you know your system’s top 3 values, ask yourself:

"Does this story align with my system’s values?"

Let’s say your system values truthful information. You could then ask: Does my story allow my system to see the world more clearly?

You can think of creating Understanding as improving your story’s flavour. Appealing to a specific value might not change the story’s contents, but it will change the experience your system has digesting it.

Empathy breeds connection. The more our message aligns with our system’s values, the more they’ll feel like we understand them. This makes them more prone to behave, believe and perceive as we do.

Let’s apply what we’ve learned so far.

12 Angry Men jury
The jury in “12 Angry Men”: 1 hardliner against 11 others

Juries are the deciding verdict in many legal systems. In order to be effective, jury members must all agree. But what if there’s one person—a “hardliner”—who doesn’t agree with everyone else? What devices are used persuading the hardliner to see things just like the status quo?

Stories, of course.

In their paper "Stories from the Jury Room”, John & Robin Conley highlight how juries know their Story Goal, share One Lesson and create Understanding with the hardliner.

1. Their Story Goal is persuading the hardliner to settle so they can reach a unanimous decision.

2. They simplify the situation, focusing the hardliner on One Lesson. One juror said: “On a simple level it would be very easy to say that he is guilty, but we all feel I think that an injustice has been done."

3. They create Understanding by empathising with the hardliner’s values. One juror proclaims: “I walked into this room feeling exactly like you do. Maybe even more so.” 

Note how none of this points to the jury being “right”. Juries don’t make decisions solely from facts. They make them with stories. Just like you and I.

At this point you have a clear idea, driven by a goal that aligns with your system’s values, it’s time to say “once upon a time…” and bring your story to life with the Creation Cycle.

The Creation Cycle

There’s three types of information that will go into your story: Personal, Emotional and Sensory.

System of Stories: The Creation Cycle
The Creation Cycle

Property 1: Personal

Memorable stories are told through people.

I enjoyed Marvel movies for years. But after the tenth time watching a world-destroying plot get thwarted with seconds to spare… they started getting stale.

Then came Civil War. (Spoilers below)

Marvel’s third Captain America film is in a category of one. Why? Instead of serving us ludicrous supervillains, the film turns hero against hero. Civil War zooms in on our beloved Avengers, and the devastating consequences that occur when they disagree.

In the film’s climax, the Cap and Winter Soldier trade blows with Iron Man. I was on the edge of my seat. By making superheroes bleed, the stakes felt like they were actually raised for the first time. I can’t relate to an earth-ending death ray. But I can relate to a brutal body punch. By making Civil War personal, the story felt more real than ever.

Captain America: Civil War
Civil War: The first truly tense superhero fight

Humanity has been obsessed with itself since conquering earth 70,000 years ago. Unless you’re a psychopath, people care about people first and foremost. It’s infinitely easier to care for humans than abstract statistics. The most compelling stories scratch that self-obsessed itch: They’re personal.

Personal stories create heroes & heroines. We laugh, love and live through them. We cheer them on from the sidelines and, like in Civil War, feel their pain when they fall.

Your story’s hero acts as a mirror for your system. Their actions should reflect your system's values, creating Value Alignment. Stories that spread share lessons people can apply to their own lives. As Francesca Valesia et al. says: stories enable people to "construe, understand, or make sense of life events, relationships, and the self."

Using a hero with high Value Alignment makes your story stickier. The more we want to be like someone, the more powerful we perceive them to be, and the stronger their message becomes.

Adam Neumann
Adam Neumann: 2019’s anti-hero

This is the exact opposite for “anti-heroes”. Instead of wanting to become like them, we’re repulsed by their mistakes and their conflict with our values. WeWork’s visionary Founder Adam Neumann cashed out $700 million right before the company IPO bombed. Expect lawsuits, death threats and no-one wanting to follow his cautionary tale.

Whether with heroes or anti-heroes, telling our stories through people create reference points for our system to reflect how they might act differently, as the heroes and heroines of their own story.

Property 2: Emotional

Behaviour change is unlocked by strong emotions.

As we’ve learned, campfire stories had one guiding higher cause: Aiding survival. The first stories taught us to survive by spiking emotional reactions. There is perhaps no emotion more powerful than having our very existence questioned. Fight or flight. To change behaviour, Digital Storytellers must follow in their footsteps and leave us with visceral feelings.

Vivid emotions change behaviour. Remember our solitary hardliner from the jury vote? He eventually relents, siding with the majority. But not because he believes their story. Instead, he doesn’t want to “hold up eleven people that are very strong in their feelings.”

We can bake emotions into our story by asking: 

“What feeling do I want to leave my system with?"

The feeling should reflect some kind of change. It could come from your hero or anti-hero taking a new path and shifting their perspective. Make no mistake: your system WANTS to witness transformations. Franceschini notes: “As spectators, we thrill when a narration makes us feel a transition of values.”

The change doesn’t have to be radical, but some kind of transformation is necessary. If nothing changes, you can’t expect your system’s emotions to change either. Unusual change prompts unusual emotions. Ask yourself: “What has changed as I’ve told this story?”

B2B International Emotions Research
This matters for B2B stories too: Research from B2B International found emotions matter greatly when influencing B2B decision makers.

Not every emotion needs to be positive, but it does need to be visceral. Think back to our anti-hero: We might feel disgust, fear or even rage at their actions. The lesson isn’t teaching our system to follow their example, but showing how to avoid making their mistakes. The worse the mistake, the bigger the emotional imprint, the more powerful the story.

Property 3: Sensory

Make your story tangible with sensory information.

Changing behaviour means sparking emotion. But emotions are implicit rather than explicitly stated. When was the last time you heard of an ambitious cavewoman? Or a caveman with self-esteem issues? Our ancestors understood the world through things like the touch of spears, and the taste of berries. Things that were real. That were sensory.

Portrait of Whistlejacket
Portrait of Whistlejacket. Credit: National Gallery

In London’s National Gallery, there’s one painting that stands above the rest for me. The portrait of the horse, Whistlejacket, by George Stubbs. Each time I see the portrait of Whistlejacket I feel emotions bubbling up. But I can’t tell you my favourite painting in the National Gallery is an emotion. It’s a horse, which brings up an emotion. Emotional responses are packages in sensory information. Stories must paint a vivid picture, and you can't paint pictures with abstract feelings.

There’s a reason we say “makes sense” when we understand something: we comprehend it using sensory information. With stories, Franceschini says  “what people want is to enter an unknown world, and to find themselves in it.” The gateway for people to enter your world is sensory information: Things that can be seen, smelled, touched, tasted or heard. 

Once you know the feeling you want to evoke, you’re ready to match it to the senses. The goal is identifying which pieces of information will best convey your chosen emotion. This is where we can use our context list from part 2 to create a high Context Density with your system. We want our story to use information they’re already familiar with.

Using your context list, create a list of keywords that surround your idea. For example, if you’re telling a story to marketing agencies, your keywords might include “SEO, funnel, traffic, growth”. A few keywords in case of the vegan recipe might be “environment, healthy, nutrition”. Then ask yourself: “Do these keywords overlap with my system’s values?” The more overlap you can identify, the more your story will resonate with your system.

When it comes to sensory information, details matter. Research has shown that details bring stories to life in your system’s eyes. Concrete pieces of data let your system make sense of your narrative.

Some common types of sensory information Digital Storytellers might use include:

  1. Place. Where is your story set? How does that influence what’s being told? Location shows motivation. Settings create context, and a reference point your system can come back to.
  2. People. Alongside your hero, who are your story’s key players? What are their intentions?
  3. Actions. What did your heroes actually do that’s noteworthy? Why do you think they did it? Let their actions speak louder than words.
  4. Wealth. Money talks. What is moving where? How is the market responding to an action?

Complex emotions are felt best through simple information. Tell your story in tangible terms.

To recap the Creation Cycle: Make it personal, choose an emotion and deliver it with sensory information.

Congratulations! If you’ve made it this far and followed all the steps, you’re ready to share your story with your system.

Once you’re ready to share, it’s time to engage the high authority agents you identified in part 2. Tag them in your social media posts, or reach out directly using your story as leverage.

Finally, remember that sharing stories is cyclical. If you’re just starting out, you might share stories that don’t get the response you’d hoped, and that’s completely ok. Every time you share a story with your system, you’ll play out the reciprocation cycle. Each process lets you adjust your strategy, and be that little bit better next time.

After all, it’s not about sharing one story. For Digital Storytellers, what really matters is the system behind the story.

Storytelling Checklist

The Ideation Cycle

Step 1: Give your story an explicit goal.

Step 2: Clarify your One Lesson.

Step 3: Make your system feel understood by aligning the story with their values.

The Creation Cycle

Three types of information: Personal, Emotional and Sensory.

Step 4: Make your story personal by giving it a hero or heroine, or an anti-hero.

Step 5: Give your system an emotional response.

Step 6: Make your emotions tangible with sensory information.

Thanks for reading. Did you find the System of Stories valuable? Perhaps you thought it could be improved somehow? We’d love to hear your feedback. You can reach Ben directly here or on Twitter (@benbradbury_). You can reach Zowie on Twitter (@zowielangdon) or via his blog Eclectic Rhetoric.