How to Tell a Great Story and Hook Your Audience

Tell a great story

We all have a story to tell, so how will your business tell yours?

The art of storytelling is a key ingredient for audience engagement. When you hear someone tell a great story, you’re hooked. You hone your focus on what they’re saying because you have to know what happens next.

On the other hand, we’ve all experienced the rambling story, or the story that’s so boring you struggle to focus your attention. What’s the difference between the two? The skill of the storyteller.

Telling a great story is an artform. When brands master this art, they can capture the attention of their audiences and cement memories within their minds. It’s a way of differentiating your business from your competitor’s and generating customer loyalty while you’re at it.

Here are some key things you should know about storytelling:

Free download: Great examples of brand storytelling

The science of storytelling

The importance of storytelling has become well-accepted in brand marketing today, but what makes it work so well?

It turns out, our brains are wired to engage with a good story. If you picture your primitive cave-dwelling ancestors gathered around a fire, storytelling was a device for communicating messages that were often necessary for the survival of the species. Tales of where that saber-toothed tiger was and how to avoid or defeat it would have literally saved lives.

Scientific studies show that a good story can light up different parts of our brains. For example, when our emotions are triggered by a story the areas responsible for empathy often light up. Your sensory areas may light up in response to descriptions of smells, tastes or feelings. A good story is an immersive experience which is largely what makes it so memorable.

Tell a great story

Good storytelling isn’t just an art, it’s neurology. Click To Tweet

The benefits of storytelling for your business

In a nutshell, here are a few benefits your business can gain from mastering storytelling:

  • Building a true connection with people.
  • Getting and holding attention.
  • Being memorable in the minds of your audience.
  • Connecting with a core “why” within your customers. A “why” goes deeper than what the product is and does, it is grounded in emotion for the customer. For example, a deep “why” might be “I want to provide for my family.”
  • Helping customers to understand your message better.

The bottom line is, good storytelling is interesting for the audience. Most of us would love to think we’re not boring our audiences!

How to tell a great story

Some people seem to be natural-born storytellers, but it’s definitely a skill you can learn! The best storytellers tend to have practiced and honed their craft over time. Whether your story is written or told in front of a live audience, here are a few key principles for telling it well:

Start with a hook

The “hook” leaves us wanting more information. It might create tension or stir a strong emotion – it always entices us to ask, “what’s next?”

Consider these famous openers:

  • “It was a dark and stormy night…” (Washington Irving – A History of New York)
  • “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…” (Charles Dickens – A Tale of Two Cities)
  • “Let me tell you a story…” (Simple and effectively used by many good speakers)
  • “Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.” (J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

Each opening line here is very different, but all serve to set the scene well. They hook the attention of the audience and capture their imagination. They often introduce or foreshadow a potential conflict. In J.K. Rowling’s example, you can imagine something abnormal may happen to people described as “perfectly normal.”

If your storytelling medium is video, you might use a verbal hook, or open by allowing the scene and the background music to provoke emotion. In any case, you need a great hook to engage your audience from the beginning.

Use descriptive language

Rather than commenting or giving a brief “montage,” describe what is happening so that the audience can picture or feel themselves within your story. When you are descriptive (consider the senses when you do so), your audience’s brains respond as though they are part of the story. It’s the same when you inject emotion into your story.

Consider things like:

  • The scene – where are you? What’s happening? What is the weather/atmosphere like?
  • How were you feeling?
  • Who was there? What did they say?
  • Was there a particular challenge or conflict you had to overcome?

Remember that a good story has a natural rhythm for it. If you’re not sure where to begin, opting for chronological order is often a good way to ensure you don’t lose people.

Have a relatable purpose

In Christopher Booker’s book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, he outlines seven basic plots that account for most good stories:

  1. Overcoming the monster
  2. Rags to Riches
  3. The Quest
  4. Voyage and Return
  5. Comedy
  6. Tragedy
  7. Rebirth

Your story should always have an overall purpose or meaning that is relatable to the audience you want to attract. Each of those seven basic plots are relatable to the human condition. We are enthralled by The Lord of the Rings because most of us have experienced some kind of succeed or fail quest (even if it wasn’t as high-stakes as destroying the One Ring!). We are drawn to the types of comedy that highlight real, human emotions or satirical commentary because we see ourselves and our own emotions in the story.

A good story flows as a sort of journey that you’re inviting others to come on with you. For a great brand example, check out Land Rover’s The Land of Land Rovers campaign. It’s part quest, part voyage and return and part overcoming the monster as brave drivers transport supplies over treacherous mountain roads.

At the same time of course, they’re also saying something about the reliability and durability of their products as workhorses on the road:

Edit for clarity and effectiveness

Sometimes telling everything isn’t the way to a great story. If your quest includes wandering off to buy candy halfway through, this may not add to the story at all (unless something important happened at the candy store).

One way to avoid unnecessary detours is to be clear about what the main message is that you want to get across. There might be small sub-conversations within that main message, but they all should add to the story – give it clarity and color.

Remember that the human attention span is relatively short, but we do tend to pay attention to anything that triggers emotion. Sometimes details will add to a story, but sometimes they will take away from the emotion you’d like to convey. This is neuroscience too – while one section of our brain lights up when we process data, more parts of the brain get involved when we process emotions. We can produce oxytocin and dopamine in response to emotional stimuli, which makes the experience more engaging.

Get our examples of great brand storytelling here

Final thoughts

Learning to tell a great story can be a real asset to your business. You can use this technique to convey a memorable message and engage with your target audience.

Good storytelling is part artform and part neuroscience. We relate to a well-told story on a sort of primitive level, dating back thousands of years. Once you engage your audience with an initial hook, the key is to keep them there through colorful sensory information and emotions. Be ruthless about cutting any details that don’t really add value.

For your next ad campaign or key piece of content, consider how you might use storytelling techniques to attract your audience. What is it that you really want to share?

Avatar for Danny Peavey

Danny Peavey

Danny is the founder and CEO of One Week Website. He is also a certified StoryBrand Guide. When he's not talking about clear messaging or marketing, you can find him drinking amazing coffee, shooting hoops, and spending time with his family.
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