Five storytelling rules from a vicar, director, sculptress and restaurateur

Ahead of Cannes Lions, Ogilvy & Mather London's strategy chief draws out lessons from a range of people who tell stories for a living.

It is often said that we are in the business of storytelling. And next week the best storytellers in our business will converge in Cannes.

Clearly, being a great storyteller is a critical skill when it comes to creativity – whatever your specific unit of creativity. From the Sermon on the Mount to The Canterbury Tales, from the Bayeux Tapestry to Harry Potter, stories have been a tried and tested tool in developed society.

Their role has been vital in making the very species survive and thrive. We use stories for purposes of information, rehearsal, education, motivation, closure and even searching for procreation! Stories also fulfil the human search for apophenia – the fundamental human need to see patterns and structure in the world. After all, isn’t God the story we tell ourselves to make sense of our brief time on this rock?

And this storytelling role has continued into the world of advertising, from JR Hartley to John Lewis' "The long wait". We tell ourselves we are storytellers and it’s not hard to see why this is important. 

Humans are 22 times more likely to remember something if you put it into a story vs facts alone (so purely in terms of recall storytelling is a vital tool in the advertisers’ armoury). We know the power of System 1 learning and the role of emotion in terms of getting people to do things, and stories are a vital part of that too. Being relevant – and socially relevant  is the key to efficacy, so this is another reason to become expert storytellers. It is estimated that 65% of all human speech consists of gossip – so we’d better make damned sure our work and our clients products are part of those conversations!

So I got to thinking: are we really storytellers? And if we are, what are the rules of good storytelling? Our "unit of storytelling" is the ad, but do the rules change regardless of what your output is? I started to investigate.

I spoke to a vicar, a film director, a documentary maker, a quilter, a sculptress, a journalist, a restaurateur and a children’s author. All folks who have to build and tell stories in their profession, and something curious emerged. The output might change, but the basic rules do not. 

Tell your story in a way it wouldn’t usually be told 

Find a different, interesting and surprising way to tell your story. It might be a familiar topic or territory, but that doesn’t mean you can’t find a new way in.

The vicar I spoke to said: "Finding new angles or voices for retelling the great story about which people think there’s nothing left to say." (And remember, he was talking about the "greatest story ever told!") 

Get people involved in your story 

Start with your audience and work out how to involve them in the story, bring them along on your journey, know how you are going to compel them to stay to the end.

Children’s author Lisa Rajan said: "Things coming full circle, every twist and turn earning its place and making the reader feel like they own that story."

The head of the Hakkasan restaurant chain described the ambition for his experience as wanting his customers to feel "effortlessly transported" along their journey.

Tell your story in your words 

One thing that came up consistently was to make sure that you speak in the tone, words and style of the person or persons you were telling the story to. As advertisers, we do not spend enough time really making sure we are talking like real people and not "marketers."

The multi-award winning journalist I spoke to said: "Tell a story like you are talking to your friends in the pub. It’s a conversation, not a broadcast." Can’t argue with that for anything we do.

The best stories start with the feeling 

I spoke with a much-lauded sculptress and wondered if the rules would be the same for her as for someone writing an ad. And what she said seemed to be almost the golden rule for writing a compelling advertising story: "The vessel can change but the rules do not. Start with the emotion you want your audience to feel."

The best stories are efficient

I thought this one was very interesting and a pertinent parallel for what we do in adland. The award-winning film director James Watkins (Woman in Black, Eden Lake, Black Mirror) told me: "The key is efficiency. Each scene should drive the story forward and be a beat in the emotional development." We often have only ten, 20 or 30 seconds to tell a compelling story in what we do, so the application of this ruthless principle seemed rather relevant.

Tying all this up, I wondered what was the one fundamental law of storytelling regardless of whether you are telling the story of the Son of God or the "Bear and the hare". And I’ll leave it to the vicar to sum it up better than I ever could when he talked about the overall objective of his sermons:  "Often, what people remember – importantly – is not the exact words but how the whole experience made them feel." 

Amen to that, Father! 

Finally, what do all good storytellers need? They need the permission to tell a good story. I’ll leave the final word to the documentary maker, Morgan Spurlock, who made the epically amazing Super Size Me. He said that the key was "being allowed the freedom to tell a great story".

For all of us storytellers, we need the stage and the room to let our story breathe.

And, for all the clients looking for these stories, they must be discovered and told in places and ways that are often unforeseen.  

Are you sitting on La Croissette? Once upon a time…

Kevin Chesters is chief strategy officer at Ogilvy & Mather London

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