One of my favorite movies from the 1980s is “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” a teen comedy about a high school student who convinces his best friend and his girlfriend to cut class and spend the day touring Chicago, while simultaneously convincing his family, his school, his neighborhood, and practically all of Chicago, that he truly was deathly ill — his alibi for missing class. This highly quotable cult classic has a few scenes that I think are particularly relevant to this whole conversation we’ve been having about story and how dramatic arc effects our brain’s ability to remember details.
One of the most commonly quoted lines is from Ben Stein’s portrayal of a painfully boring economics teacher. While taking attendance at the beginning of the movie, Stein gets to Ferris Bueller’s name on the roll call sheet — but Ferris isn’t present — yet Stein repeats his name over and over, again and again “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” in this dry as toast voice to a class who may have cared just a little less about being there than their teacher did.
You’ve probably heard this quote, or even said it yourself, when you’re trying to convey a message but your audience isn’t picking up what you’re laying down. If you are a parent you have surely felt this way with your kids. You just leveraged the latest “teachable moment” to deliver one of your best parenting monologues in recent memory. But when it’s time for your kid to respond — crickets. Bueller? Bueller?
It takes a lot of effort to craft a compelling, or what we’ve been calling “sticky” story. Many stories miss the mark because mission-critical elements are missing. It’s well worth the effort to understand these elements and incorporate them into your content marketing strategy. Science proves that our brains remember and respond to facts presented amidst the action, comedy, and drama of a well-told story with a dramatic arc and “anything’s possible” conclusion.
We hope that you are well on your way to writing sticky stories that compel and sell. But if you’re not, and you need help making those conversion connections, here are a few questions to help you troubleshoot and write a real cliffhanger that will have your customers on the edges of their seats.
1. What’s the structure?
But today we want to call out what we think is one of the biggest reasons stories fail to engage: the absence of, or poorly developed presence of, the dramatic arc. This is the structure on which the details of your story unfold.
From Aristotle to J.K. Rowling, successful writers know that every sticky story has a common structure — like a skeleton — that provides the backbone of a story. Without this backbone the story will flop. The way you flesh out the details is up to your creativity. But the structure should always include the element of surprise, rising tension with obstacles to defeat, and a climax requiring introspection and resulting in transformation, that resolves the tension and rounds out the narrative.
Another aspect of story structure worth considering is plot. Many storytellers believe that there are only 7 universal story structures that all stories follow: overcoming the monster, rags to riches, voyage and return, the quest, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. If you are confused about fitting your brand story into a structure, try one of those and see where that leads.
2. Who is the Hero?
We’ve brought up the idea of the “hero’s journey” in previous posts. What is that exactly? The details are quite fascinating really, and worth investigating, but the basic idea is this: the hero’s journey is the common template of a broad category of tales that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, and in a decisive crisis wins a victory, and then comes home changed or transformed.
In successful brand stories, the hero is your customer. The winning Super Bowl commercials are perfect proof points for this strategy, especially this one. If your story is failing to make a connection it’s probably because you’ve made the story all about your brand and left your customer falling asleep in their seat.
Brand Quarterly did a fantastic job of unpacking what this looks like within the context of marketing and advertising, so we won’t try to reinvent that wheel here, but what we do want to drive home with this point is that the number one reason brand stories fail to connect with their audience is because you’ve made your brand the hero, not your customer. Your story should be told from the perspective of your brand’s benefits (to the customer) rather than it’s features. Color this in with imagery, sounds, and words that draw out the emotional connection, that leads to neural coupling, that transports your viewer into your story.
3. Is there enough tension to retain attention?
You will lose your audience if your story doesn’t capture and hold their attention. There are many ways to capture attention. You may choose the typical comedy, action, romance, or horror type of plot lines; You may decide to draw out your audience’s sense of justice or moral responsibility, or you may use humor and puns, but whatever you use it has to have the dramatic arc’s rise and fall that holds people’s attention. Make the story relatable, and continue to increase the tension — little by little — until your audience is hooked. If your story is missing this sense of rising tension people will lose interest.
All great stories have this tension. Let’s revisit Ferris Bueller. There are multiple levels of tension going on throughout the story but they all come back to the same question: Will Ferris Bueller get caught? As the movie progresses, the antics grow wilder and more risky and you are wondering how on earth this kid can get away with so much foolishness?! You may identify with the principal, or his sister who both desperately want to catch him in the act, or you may see yourself as the best friend who never gets away with anything. Whichever character you relate to most, these storylines weave together, drawing you into a roller coaster of cringe-worthy suspense, laughter and thrills, leaving you wondering to the very end if he will actually get away with it.
So there you have it. These three elements of structure, hero and tension could be the reason why your stories aren’t sticking. Your answers to these three questions may lead you to discover why your stories are not resonating with your desired audience. We think that if you take time to carefully structure the elements of your story, complete with a hero facing a crisis with all the rising tension and resolve you can offer, you will find your audience taking notice and responding in new ways.