Big Design 2016: Use Story and Tech to Future-Proof Content

A few weeks ago (September 10, 2016) I had the pleasure of attending and speaking at the 2016 Big Design Conference — an event for user experience and usability professionals, digital marketers, designers, content strategists and developers. It was especially exciting for me to share some of my experience and expertise on story with my peers. Thank you for your support and attendance!

So what made me a fit to speak at a user experience conference? I’m a storyteller and marketing technologist. This means I help companies better understand and leverage how people interact with their brand through stories and technology.

After all, stories are how we make sense of life events.

What were the takeaways from my Big Design presentation on Using Storytelling and Emerging Tech to Future-Proof Your Content?

  1. Marketers need a way to future-proof content despite consumers’ ever-changing content preferences and technology’s fast-paced evolution.
  2. Stories are designed to follow humans’ neurological pathways to processing, retaining, and sharing information about the perceived world and life experiences.
  3. Story structure is the selection of events from the characters’ lives strategically arranged to serve the writer’s purpose such as arousing specific emotions, expressing life views, or inspiring action.
  4. Story structure is used by leading brands throughout a variety of single and multi-channel campaigns, at which these companies report substantially improved marketing metrics compared to campaigns that lack story structure.
  5. Story structure will become increasingly important as technology progresses and takes customers from single-screen devices to open worlds such virtual and augmented realities where the marketer has less control over user journeys.
  6. Story structure provides context to user behavior data, allowing marketers to develop insightful analytics and measurement plans as well as optimization strategies.

Intrigued? Continue reading for a more in-depth recap of what I discussed at Big Design 2016. Watch here as I briefly explain the six takeaways:

Slow Tuesday Night

I read this science fiction story called “Slow Tuesday Night” a few weeks ago. It was written in 1965 and is about the accelerated pace of existence due to advanced technology — such as transportation and manufacturing. In the story, things that had once taken months and years now took only minutes and hours.

Take Freddy, for example. He started work at 8pm and a minute later had developed an idea for a new invention. The invention was manufactured and marketed in another 3 minutes. By 8:10pm every important person had one of the new inventions and the trend had been set. Naturally Freddy became very successful and rich, and the most beautiful women in the city — Idly — wanted to marry him. But Freddy was already married to Judy, who though not as beautiful as Idly was always first to marry the successful men. So Freddy took Judy to small claims court to divorce her, and then married Idly.

An hour of blissful marriage passed and Idly looked down at her trend indicator watch. She observed that Freddy’s invention was losing momentum, and society was getting bored with it. That’s how this society worked. One was fast to succeed but fast to lose it all again. It didn’t help that while some people had three or four successful careers a night, Freddy usually had only one good career per week.

Minutes before Freddy and Idly would divorce, Maxwell released a new philosophy book and was becoming very successful and rich. It was said to be truly one of the greatest philosophy books to appear in the early and medium hours of the night. So Idly divorced Freddy and approached Maxwell, who was currently married to Judy. Maxwell took Judy to the Small Claims Court to divorce her. “I had him first,” Judy mocked Idly as such raced through Small Claims Court.

And on the cycle continued.

The story ends with morning. More inventions were launched and successful, but then crashed and burned at the turn of a new invention. There were more marriages and divorces. People become rich several times in the night only to go to bed poor in the morning.

The Industry Challenge

How many of us feel that the marketing and technology industry operates like “Slow Tuesday Night?” We get a new initiative started, and we begin to make headway, and then something changes. There’s a new update, algorithm change, platform or technology to learn and implement.

How many of us can see that we’re struggling to keep our audiences interested in our content and brand? We constantly have to create new content to meet the standards of the new algorithms, platforms, and our buyers. It doesn’t help that our customers are oftentimes very fickle. Can you really blame them? They have numerous options for where to get content, products, and services. They can be picky.

“Slow Tuesday Night” reminds me of the every-changing relationship we have with customers through content and technology.

While I can’t give you some secret that will keep you from never needing to learn a new platform again, I can share with you how to better develop content for the ever-changing technology. I can share how to keep interest despite people’s fast-evolving preferences for how they receive, share, and experience content.

That content types is stories.

The Science Behind Stories: Making an Inactive Audience Active

Have you ever wondered what it was about stories that influenced people’s beliefs, actions, and perceptions of reality? We become friends with people who believe the same stories as us. We work for the people who believe the same stories as us. Think about it. Our beliefs and lifestyle choices come from the stories we are told or the stories that we tell ourselves.

Thanks to science and technology, we’re learning what exactly happens in the brain when we read or listen to a story.

Story design follows our brains’ natural neurological paths to learning and bonding. Stories activate the brain in a special way that trigger our imagination — our natural virtual reality headset — so that we can see, feel, and hear what is happening within the story as though we were there ourselves to personally experience the conflict and resolutions of that reality.

This is also why stories also make us feel connected to other people. In fact, research has found that children who read have higher levels of empathy.

One example is Princeton University neuroscientist Uri Hasson. Her research found that when different people listen to the same story that they share the same brain activity.

Study participants started out with different brain patterns, but while listening to a common story their patterns aligned. The results were consistent regardless of language, or if the story was paraphrased versus told in full. The only time participants’ brain activity didn’t align was if the story didn’t follow classical structure — such as telling a story is disjointed scenes, mumbled words, or disordered sentences that didn’t make narrative sense. It was only when people listened to story-structured content that particular areas of the brain were activated and participants’ functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans aligned.

This is just one example of research that explains how stories work in the human brain.

What is Story Structure?

There are two descriptions that describe what storytelling structure is.

“Structure is the selection of events from the characters’ lives strategically arranged to serve the writer’s purpose.” -William Bernhardt, author of The Red Sneaker Writers Book Series

Notice William says story structure is character life events arranged to serve the writer’s purpose. And really, isn’t that why we do anything in content marketing? To serve our own purpose? We want to educate customers so they can feel they’re making the best decision by choosing us. We entertain them because we want to build loyalty so they buy from us. Everything we do in content marketing is an effort to serve our purpose. This is important to remember. Our attempts to educate, entertain, and simplify information or processes is always in effort to get a buyer to choose us.

“Structure is a selection of events from the characters’ life stories that are composed into a strategic sequence to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.” – Robert McKee, author of The Structure Spectrum

Notice Robert emphasizes how we want to arouse specific emotions and to express a specific view of life.

This is the structure used in block buster films and award winning books. Not surprisingly, it’s the same structure we’re seeing a lot of successful brands use in their campaigns.

A Diagram of Classical Storytelling Structure

Classical storytelling involves an active protagonist who struggles against opposing forces to achieve an important goal in linear time leading to a conclusive resolution.


Story Example: Google Launches Calendar Goals with Video

Here’s an example of using video to launch a new product. This three minute video by Google follows classical story structure almost perfectly. Watch the video to see the structural components of story at work.

Let’s break down what is happening in this video.

How does the video start? Brad gets broken up with by his date. This is the inciting incident, or the first major conflict that launches the story into action. Notice it takes place only three seconds in the video.

What happens next? We see Brad take action because he is an active protagonist. He sets a goal to do yoga, and downloads the Google Calendar Goals app to help him commit to his new routine.

The second conflict is when Brad is detained from going to yoga because his boss keeps him late at work. The video cuts to show how the Google product helps make sure Brad stays on his goals despite the conflict. We then see Brad completing the goal.

The third conflict is when Brad’s bike is stolen and thus creates a transportation issue. We are shown how the Google product helps Brad rearrange his schedule. Then we see Brad completing his goal — doing yoga.

At the climax, which is the resolution, Brad meets a new love interest. Notice the resolution correlates to the initial conflict / inciting incident.

We’re left wondering if Brad and his love interest will go on a date, or start a new relationship. We also see Brad enter a new goal into the Google app to learn Spanish, which the audience is led to believe is the native language of his new crush. These two scenes together create a sense of continuation.

Google does a fantastic job adding into the script, “Because sticking to your goals is what this story is all about.”

This is a perfect example of a brand using classical storytelling structure for a product launch video.

Story Example: Refinery29 Increase Social Advertising Metrics

Fashion and style publisher Refinery29 found that sequencing ads to tell a story increased view-throughs by 87 percent and email subscriptions by 56 percent. This was in comparison to ads that didn’t follow a story, but included a call-to-action.


Story Example: Intel and Toshiba Appeal to Humanity

This is one of my current favorite examples of storytelling because its interactive and multi-channel in a way that not only speaks to humanity but inspired action from hundreds of viewers.
The campaign “Beauty Inside” uses YouTube and Facebook. Go ahead and watch the two-minute video case study.

“Beauty Inside” is the recipient of 23 awards including a daytime Emmy. It earned nearly 70 million views, and 26 million interactions in just eight and a half weeks.

The campaign gained 96,000 likes on Facebook and a remarkable 97% approval on YouTube. More impressively, the featured brands reported a 300% sales lift in the weeks following the campaign.

“This love story as told by two technology companies was the most shared branded video during the same time span as the Olympics and the release of the iPhone 5. It inspired hundreds of thousands of fans to give and request love advice and discuss their own sense of identity, while celebrating the idea that – with humans and computers alike – it’s what’s inside that matters most.” Read More.

Story Components Every Brand Must Have

Mission-Oriented: Mission is perhaps the most important part of story. It’s the driving force that keeps people interested in the outcome. People want to see if the characters can achieve their goals despite the characters’ external and internal challenges.

Conflict: Conflict doesn’t have to always be someone coming at a character with a machete. It can be delaying information and creating intrigue, or it can be reliving the daily troubles of our buyers. There’s conflict in all of our lives, so we need to understand the conflicts of our audience. Otherwise, how can we provide them with solutions? We need to show we understand that conflict in the stories we produce and the products/services we provide.

Characters: The story characters have to be identifiable and likable to get people emotionally invested and take action. When the audience likes and identifies with characters in the story, and observe characters undergoing similar challenges, people are more likely to imitate the journey of the characters so they can reach similar goals. This is one of the main reasons story inspires audience action.

Telling Truth with Lies: One of my favorite authors, Tim O’Brien, is a famous Vietnam veteran writer. Some of his most famous novels are about the war. There’s controversy on whether his stories are fiction or nonfiction. When asked about the truthfulness of his stories O’Brien is quoted saying, “A thing may happen and be a total lie; another thing may not happen and be truer than the truth.” He further explains, “That’s what fiction is for. It’s for getting at the truth when the truth isn’t sufficient for the truth.”

Take Intel and Toshiba for example. The “Beauty Inside” is a fictional story about someone who changes physical appearance every day. The character doesn’t just change into another ethnicity, but different genders and ages. That’s a lot of conflict. But Intel and Toshiba were able to catch the truth with this lie: that we care about what’s on the inside. We want to be valued for who we are beneath the surface. That’s why the campaign generated so many interactions.

While telling a truth with a lie isn’t required in storytelling like conflict and character, it does help enlighten our audiences and make a message less of a sales pitch and more of a entertainment piece that just happens to share our brand values.

Scalability: The famous writer Hemingway was sitting at lunch with some of his buddies when set a bet that he could write a novel in six words. His friends scoffed at him and accepted the bet. What was Hemingway’s six word novel? “For sale, Baby shoes, Never worn.” If you let that sink in, you can easily derive an entire story from this short description. Did the couple experience a miscarriage? Did the adoption not go through? Did the child pass away shortly after birth? Hemingway won the bet.

Humans naturally create stories from life events. Take for example your life story from when you were born to right this very moment. But there is also a story of one year, one month, one day, and even one conversation that may reflect the story of your life. The fact is, life is made out of a million stories that when woven together create a unique story all of its own. When a storyteller understands the mission, the conflict, and the characters he/she can tell a full story within one tweet or a series of books.

Using Stories in Emerging Technology

I urge marketers to learn now how to apply story structure to content experiences. If you can’t inspire action or influence direction on a single screen or a 6 page app, how are you going to inspire action and influence direction in an open virtual world or 360 video where the user expects to be able to roam wherever he/she wishes? It’s necessary to keep the audience within the parameters of the story, because not all content is going to be developed or even owned by you. That’s why story is so critical. You must inspire the user to take a specific path(s) and have him/her believe it has his/her idea.

Using Story Structure for Improved Measurement

Story helps bring context to your data. This is because stories have strategic lines or paths to follow. Even virtual worlds are not completely open and developed (even though the conflict within a storyline will make the user believe the world is fully open and developed).

If a user goes against a storyline, this will help give you more context as to why they may not have followed that path. It will give you insights on what you should investigate within the context of where and how the audience is interacting with the content. It will also help you investigate what may be optimized within the content to better drive the journey. Was it something in the visual content that guided users’ eyes away from your storyline and resulted in a click that didn’t follow the intended user journey? Are there unnecessary steps or information that loses your audiences interest, so they go looking elsewhere for the content they’re searching?

Story structure also provides an improved approach to content optimization strategy. Author of “Visual Thinking Strategies: Using Art to Deepen Learning Across School Disciplines” Philip Yenawine said, “The viewer’s interpretation of what they see depends on their level of visual literacy.” This means that once audiences become accustomed to a type of visual media, they are better able to comprehend complex storylines and visual content within the medium. Have you watched a movie from several decades ago and though it was a slow-paced movie compared to some of our recent movies? That’s because we can better understand fast-moving plotlines with quick scene cuts, multiple camera angles, and several vantage points.

What’s Your Story?

How are you using story in your content and user experience strategy? Contact me to visit how we can work together to create unforgettable experiences.