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Good vs Bad Storytelling: What’s the Difference?

Storytelling is effective when it engages creatively with the human experience. As we introduce characters, plotlines and fictional universes, each one needs to present elements that feel natural and relatable to the audience. Even the most carefully written poem will fall flat if its psychological insights fail to ring true for the reader.

Beyond the need to remain true to ourselves, creativity is also central to how a work of art is received. Although centuries of complex storytelling have explored countless themes and interpretations, original ideas are still appreciated and expected by audiences – while overly derivative ‘copycat’ efforts are widely looked down upon.

These two essential qualities of authenticity and imagination are the bedrock of all good storytelling. The task is difficult, yet only by reaching this basic threshold will a work of art inspire audiences to truly connect with it, and invest their emotions in the experience.

Fortunately, human experience provides a giant canvas on which to paint, and a few well-placed examples can illustrate these key principles in action.

 

We will never meet Loretta, and we don’t need to. Nor do we need a timeline of her marriage, or an explanation of what happened. The situation is so immediately clear that, given just the simplest of outlines, our minds can easily color in the rest. Indeed, the temptation to over-explain the setup would significantly dilute the impact. Just like Google’s plain white home screen, this is another case where less is more.

 

In just the same way, the motivation for each character is perfectly clear in the above Volkswagen advertisement. So is the message: The product for sale can make people happy. Sure, there are details and technical specifications they could have added – but the human story is far more potent, so why complicate the narrative beyond that level? There will be other places for Volkswagen to advertise the quality of its engine or the comfort of its seats, and the company was wise to leave that story for another day.

 

Apple made a similar decision in the story for its smart watch, as seen above. Although the Apple Watch is a technology product, we can see right from the first frame of the video that the focus of the story is on people. We see their faces, their handwriting, and their living rooms – and we’re invited into their lives at their most vulnerable moments. They speak to us with natural tones and mannerisms, making them instantly relatable so that we automatically believe them when they talk about their experiences.

The above examples show storytelling at its very best. They take human experience in its purest form, and use it as a base for a more focused message about how technology can improve the lives of real people.

The narrative achievements of Google, Volkswagen, and Apple are all the more striking when put in a wider context. The videos below provide ample evidence of just how easy it is for a poorly told story to fall flat on its face:

 

Any work of the imagination needs to be grounded in a solid understanding of human nature and psychology, so that viewers can empathize with the action they are witnessing. Yet in these politically charged times, the image of multi-millionaire model Kendall Jenner defusing contemporary political tension with a Pepsi is widely seen as insulting to every group that the advertisement attempts to depict (and pander to). In essence, the video implies that our deeply held beliefs about fairness and justice are not to be taken at face value – that they are in actuality just expressions of our own failure to drink enough Pepsi. The fault isn’t with the story, but with the telling of it; there are much, much better ways to handle similar subject matter.

 

When this Peloton ad plopped onto the scene, it was instantly and universally ridiculed across the online world. A particularly evocative review in the New York Post captured people’s sentiments well:

Nothing says your business is out of touch like a commercial that claims to represent the heart and soul of a product — but really exposes bad taste and backward thinking. Take this holiday season’s jaw-droppingly bad Peloton ad, in which a very thin woman gleefully receives the stationary bike for Christmas from her husband.

She documents a grueling year, slaving away on the bike, then plays the video compilation for her smug husband, tearfully claiming, “A year ago, I didn’t realize how much this would change me.” (Note: She looks the same as she did a year before, except perhaps more teary-eyed and exhausted). The added bonus, presumably, is an even more slender wife for what appears to be a creepily controlling husband, as critics observed …

While Peloton claims its customers “loved” the video, the company’s stock dropped more than 9 percent afterward, erasing $942 million from its market value, according to Business Insider.

 

The art of storytelling is a potent force. A well-told story has the ability to reshape our entire worldview, let alone our impression of a single brand – and all it asks is that we remain true to ourselves.

When working with imagery, and especially multimedia, there are always technical details to attend to; and a good idea must always be brought to life by the right pair of hands. But beneath these layers, and down to its very core, every impactful piece of art reflects a single truth: The best stories are, ultimately, about ourselves.

Lexicon is a digital marketing agency in Bangkok, Thailand. We use branded storytelling to connect our clients with their ideal audience through social media marketingwebsite designvideo productionbranding, copywriting and a full range of Bangkok creative agency services as well as our Bangkok translation service. All work is done in-house by our talented internationally-minded team of creative storytellers and every project is created bespoke to suit our clients’ needs.

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