On a beautiful spring afternoon, ten years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both — as young college graduates are — were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these men returned to their college for their 10th reunion.
They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had become entrepreneurs.
But there was a difference. One of them was struggling because no one wanted to buy his product. The other was the owner of a successful million-dollar company with a product used by many.
This story was adapted from what is considered the “The Greatest Sales Letter Of All Time.” This particular sales letter ran from 1975–2003 and sold $2 billion (!) worth of Wall Street Journal subscriptions.
The key to success?
Why Stories Matter
In Chip and Dan Heath’s bestselling book Made To Stick, they discuss 6 principles on how to make your messages sticky.
One of these principles is the principle of telling stories.
Storytelling can create movements that prospects and customers can get behind. Storytelling can make a brand more personal, more human, more memorable.
All of these elements combine to create a brand that spreads by its own and generate word-of-mouth.
However, despite its immense power, storytelling seems to be an elusive skill possessed by a rare few — the Christopher Nolans and Quentin Tarantinos, the Neil Gaimans and Stephen Kings.
Then, how can a brand create compelling stories that eventually spread — and generate word-of-mouth?
There exists a number of storytelling formulas that you can implement immediately to improve your brand storytelling.
These formulas have been used repeatedly, over and over again, by Hollywood executives, fiction writers and screenwriters to churn out entertaining stories that mesmerize for years.
And the best part?
You can use them too.
18 Storytelling Formulas You Can Use Right Away
“The distance between your dreams and reality is called action.” – Unknown
This is one of the most popular and easiest to implement copywriting and storytelling formulas around.
In fact, once you’ve learned this formula, you’ll begin to notice that most pitches, stories, and landing pages are written in this manner.
Before — Show your readers the world with Problem
Paint a picture of their world with the Problem, before your solution. Make sure what you’re identifying is in tune with what the reader is really experiencing.
After — Show your readers what the world would be like with Problem Solved
Describe the future world once their problem is solved. How does it look like? Would they be interested in that world? What benefits do they get?
Bridge — Here’s how to get there
Now that they know what it looks like to be on the other side, show them how to get there… with your solution.
“When you understand that people are more likely to act to avoid pain than to get gain, you’ll understand how powerful this first formula is. (…) It may be the most reliable sales formula ever invented.” – Dan Kennedy
This is another popular copywriting formula. It is simple to understand and can be applied anywhere from Facebook Ads to blog posts.
Problem — Present a problem
First, you introduce a problem the reader is experiencing. Make sure that it is a real problem identifiable by your target audience.
Agitate — Agitate the problem
Intensify and add salt to their wounds by using emotional language that describes what they’re going through.
Solve — Solve the problem
Offer a solution for their problem. This is the moment where you introduce your product or service.
“Consumers do not buy products. They buy product benefits.” – David Ogilvy
This particular formula was designed for product-oriented stories. This helps product designers and managers describe and present their products in terms of benefits, not features.
The facts and characteristics of what you’re about to describe
What the features do.
Why someone should care about the advantages provided.
4. Three-Act Structure
“The three-act structure is intrinsic to the human brain’s model of the world; it matches a blueprint that is hard-wired in the human brain, which is constantly attempting to rationalize the world and resolve it into patterns. It is therefore an inevitable property of almost any successful drama, whether the writer is aware of it or not.” – Edoardo Nolfo
The Three-Act Structure is an old storytelling formula that has been used in many popular plays, novels, movies, comic books, video games and poetry. Most Hollywood movies follow this template, as it has been proven to be a successful method of storytelling.
In the first act, the setup, you introduce the main characters and the setting where the story is taking place.
In act II, usually the longest part of the entire story, the main character will encounter obstacles and problems in the form of people, objects or setting that will deter him from solving the problem. These obstacles will appear in rising frequency, at times seemingly close to solving the problem, yet will be prevented from doing so.
After a period of struggle with his problems and obstacles, the main character will finally prevail and the story wraps up. It is also this period of time where the main character is shown to have grown beyond what he was at the start — and is now a different person.
5. Hero’s Journey
“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won.” – Joseph Campbell
The monomyth, or what is known as the Hero’s Journey is the common formula used in heroic tales where a hero embarks on a journey, suffers a crisis, wins the crisis and returns transformed.
This Hero’s Journey can be found in many myths and legends, including those of great religious leaders like Jesus Christ, Buddha and Moses.
The monomyth was popularized by the great mythologist Joseph Campbell in his 1949 seminal work: The Hero With A Thousand Faces (a must-read!)
First described in 17 stages by Joseph Campbell, the Hero’s Journey has since been shortened into 12 distinct stages by Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler.
The Ordinary World
The hero’s life prior to leaving for his quest
The Call To Adventure
The event that informs the hero a major change is coming
Refusal Of The Call
The hero will first attempt to ignore or avoid the call.
Meeting With the Mentor
The hero will meet a special mentor that will aid him in his quest.
Crossing The Threshold
Your hero finally moves on from his life and embarks on the quest.
Tests, Allies and Enemies
The different people who the hero will meet that will either help or prevent him from completing the quest.
Approach To the Innermost Cave
The hero will be on the verge of fighting his enemy.
The fight between the hero and the enemy.
The hero receives a reward for defeating the enemy.
The Road Back
The hero travels home and fights (possibly) with lesser enemies.
The hero proves worthy of the reward he has received.
Return With The Elixir
The hero finally reaches home and receives his accolades.
6. Freytag’s Pyramid: Five-Act Structure
“Neue minor neu sit quinto productior actu fabula” (“A play should not be shorter or longer than five acts” – Horace
A 19th Century German novelist, Freytag analyzed the stories of ancient Greek storytellers and Shakespeare — and discovered a common pattern in them. Writing in Die Technik des Dramas, he developed a diagram eventually known as the Freytag’s Pyramid that helped writers to organize their thoughts and ideas.
This is the beginning of the story where the setting, the character’s back stories and so on are introduced to the audience.
This is the series of events that creates the setting for the climax, and is usually the most important part of the story.
The turning point that changes the fate of the main character. This is the most exciting part of the story, the moment of greatest tension.
The conflict. The protagonist may win or lose in this battle with the antagonist.
Normality is resumed and conflict is resolved.
7. Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle
“People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And what you do simply proves what you believe” – Simon Sinek
In his New York Times bestselling book Start With Why, Simon Sinek introduces the idea of the Golden Circle — a formula that great companies like Apple use to inspire people and create a movement.
Circle 1 (Innermost): Why — Why does the company exist?
Why does the company exist? Why do the founders or the employees get out of bed for every morning? Why should anyone care about the company?
Circle 2: How — How do they do what they do
Also known as the Unique Selling Proposition, this is the differentiating factor given to explain how the company is better than its competitors.
Circle 3: What — What does the company do
What does the company sell? What industry is it in? What does the company do?
8. Dale Carnegie’s Magic Formula
“When dealing with people, remember you are not dealing with creatures of logic, but with creatures bristling with prejudice and motivated by pride and vanity.” – Dale Carnegie
Dale Carnegie, author of the classic (and still relevant) book How To Win Friends and Influence people, created a simple 3-step formula to capture attention, build credibility, eliminate nervousness and call others to action.
Relive a vivid, personal experience relevant to the point. Telling a personal story helps the audience relate to you as human and sharing similar experiences.
To start off, you can begin by answering this question:
What specific incident inspired the purpose surrounding of your topic?
In order to ensure that the reader or listen takes action, you must clearly lay out the action needed. One cannot assume that the listener will immediately and intuitively understand what is required to be done after hearing your story.
What specific action do you want your listener/reader to take?
And give them one clear, specific action to take.
As Robert Greene writes in the 48 Laws of Power:
“Always appeal to self-interest.”
Sell the action to them.
Why should they do it? What do they stand to benefit?
Clearly laying it out to them will ensure that the listener takes the action you want them to.
9. Dave Lieber’s V Formula
“I believe in the power of storytelling to change the world.” – Dave Lieber
Dave Lieber is the Dallas Morning News Watchdog columnist as well as a popular (and funny!) keynote speaker. In addition, Dave is also a storytelling expert hired by companies like Ernst & Young, American Heart Association and The US Coast Guard to educate, enlighten and entertain.
In his underrated TED talk, he shares the formula he has been using for his stories.
Introduce the character
Introduce the character, who he/she is, the backstory and so on.
Bring the story to its lowest point
People want to hear about failures and how the character turn the failures into a learning lesson or a success. Using emotions, describe how things went downhill for the character.
Turn the story around and finish with a happy ending
Then, after the story has reached its trough, describe how things improved and then end the story on a happy ending.
“Every letter needs a “star” to capture attention, a “chain” to pull prospects along through the sales presentation without losing interest and a “hook” that holds them until they are ready to take action.” – Bob Bly
Many years ago, Dr. Frank Dignan, a consultant from University of Chicago Press created this formula for writing advertising copy.
Create an attention-getting opening that is positive and upbeat
Create a series of convincing facts, benefits, and reasons that transform the reader’s attention into interest and desire.
Create a powerful and easy-to-respond call-to-action
11. The Story Spine (aka The Pixar Formula)
“The way the films look will never entertain an audience alone. It has to be in the service of a good story with great characters.” – John Lasseter
In To Sell Is Human, Daniel Pink introduces a storytelling method in which he calls the Pixar Formula. It is thus named because Pixar has used this particular formula in majority of their animated movies, winning them countless awards.
This formula is actually known as the Story Spine and was first created in 1991 by Kenn Adams, a professional playwright and improviser.
- Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.
12. Michael’s Hauge 6-Stage Plot Structure
“Empathy is something you must create when the hero is introduced. Making your hero a victim in the middle of the movie or showing him becoming kind and loving may make your story richer, but it doesn’t create empathy and identification.” – Michael Hauge
Michael Hauge is one of Hollywood’s top coaches and story experts since 1985 and has consulted on multiple projects starring world-famous celebrities like Will Smith, Morgan Freeman, Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon.
This is his formula for writing a good story.
Reveal the everyday life the hero has been living, while drawing the audience into the initial setting of the story. Within here, the hero is presented with an opportunity, which creates a desire that starts the character on his or her journey.
The New Situation
The hero is now reacting to the new situation that arose from the opportunity. He will try to figure out what is going on, and formulate a specific plan for accomplishing his goal.
The hero’s plan seems to be working as he is taking action towards moving his goal. Somewhere along the way, he must be fully committed to his goal — until the point of no return. Destroying all bridges, he can no longer return back to where he was now that he has set upon his path.
Complications and Higher Stakes
Achieving the goal becomes more difficult. Bigger obstacles start appearing and the hero now will have everything to lose if he fails. He will also suffer what is known as the Major Setback, where it will appear to the audience that everything is lost for the hero.
The Final Push
Beaten and battered, the hero now gives his all in achieving the goal. Every single strength, every courage, everything he has, he will put it all in to accomplish it.
The hero’s objective is finally reached and the audience experiences the same emotions as the hero-excitement, relief, sadness or romance.
“I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.” – Francis Ford Coppola
In Christopher Nolan’s award-winning movie The Prestige, the narrator opens the movie with a description of the Three-Act structure of great magic tricks: The Pledge-The Turn-The Prestige.
Although it is a fictional structure, it can still be applied to tell a story.
Pledge — Promise of something extraordinary
“The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course… it probably isn’t.”
Turn —The apparent revelation
The second act is called “The Turn”. The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary.
Now you’re looking for the secret… but you won’t find it, because of course you’re not really looking. You don’t really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn’t clap yet. Because making something disappear isn’t enough; you have to bring it back.
Prestige — The actual reveal
That’s why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call “The Prestige”
14. Andy Raskin’s Greatest Sales Deck Pitch
“This is the greatest sales deck I have ever seen.” – Andy Raskin
In a popular Medium post, Andy Raskin, a consultant that teaches leaders and companies how to tell strategic stories talks about the greatest sales deck he has ever seen.
It was a deck belonging to Zuora, a Silicon Valley company that sells a SaaS platform for subscription billing.
Andy broke down the sales deck into 5 elements, showing why it was so effective.
Name a Big, Relevant Change in the World
Name the undeniable shift in the world that creates both big stakes and huge urgency for your prospect.
Show There Will Be Winners and Losers
Demonstrate how the change you just mentioned will create big winners and big losers. Meaning: show how adapting to the change will create a positive future, and how ignoring it will inevitably result in a poor future.
Tease The Promised Land
Present a teaser version of the Promised Land, the happily-ever-after your product/service will help achieve. This happily-ever-after conclusion, as Andy Raskin expertly points out, should be desirable yet difficult to achieve without outside help.
Introduce Features As A Way To Overcome Obstacles To Promised Land
Introduce your product and service and position your features as some sort of a magical solution to reach the Promised Land.
Present Evidence You Can Make The Story Come True
Your prospects will be skeptical that you can deliver the Promised Land. Show them it is true, and you can do it by showing the best evidence you can offer.
15. Elon Musk’s Pitch Formula
“Brand is just a perception, and perception will match reality over time. Sometimes it will be ahead, other times it will be behind. But brand is simply a collective impression some have about a product.” – Elon Musk
Most CEOs struggle with 1 company, let alone 2, while Elon Musk juggles 4 (and other commitments not mentioned.)
Is it any wonder that Elon Musk would also have a pitch formula that works on convincing people that his ideas will work?
Name Your Enemy
Don’t talk about yourself or your product. Instead name the thing that is getting in the way of your customer’s happiness.
“Do that by painting an emotionally resonant picture of how the world currently sucks for your customer, who/what is to blame, and why.”
Why is now the time to change for this particular problem? Convince your audience why of all problems, yours is the most important and pressing one to solve.
The Promised Land
Describe to your audience what it looks like in the future. How is it like when everything is solved?
Explain Away Obstacles
Lay out the obstacles and show how your product or service can overcome it.
Win Them Over With Evidence
Conclude your pitch strongly by letting your audience know you’re not lying. Show them evidence how it is already being done.
16. Colin Theriot’s Viking Velociraptor Formula
“This particular formula we will talk about today is all V words, but I couldn’t think of an alliterative title to match, so I called it “Viking Velociraptor” as a joke.” – Colin Theriot
He named it the Viking Velociraptor Formula, a name that came out because of a joke (and also because he wanted an alliteration.)
Call out something the reader has seen, heard, observed or thought.
Validate their emotional gut reaction to this stimulus. Let them know that their internal reaction is correct and valid.
Use the above information to insert the information you wanted to talk about into the conversation.
Share values that you and the audience have in common.
Decry against villains you both stand against.
“He drew comics as a kid, and so he would always talk about how you have to think about, what is that denouement going to be? What is that third step? That ten [twist] that really surprises people. That’s something that has always been very close to our philosophy of level design, is trying to think of that surprise.” – Koichi Hayashida
Kishōtenketsu is a four act narrative structure that describes the structure of classic Chinese, Korean and Japanese narratives.
Also known as the plot without conflict, It differs from Western storytelling formulas because it is not based on conflict and resolution.
Ki — Introduction
Establish the character, setting, situations and so on.
No major changes occur here, as it is merely an expansion of the first act introduction.
Ten — Twist
The story takes a turn into a contrasting situation, a “twist”.
Ketsu — Conclusion
The story resolves and connects all acts.
18. Nonlinear Narratives
“I’ve never read Joseph Campbell, and I don’t know all that much about story archetypes.” – Christopher Nolan
Are you a fan of Pulp Fiction? Or any of Christopher Nolan’s work?
Even if you aren’t, chances are… you have seen one of their movies.
And you probably enjoyed it.
One thing I want you to take away from this post is:
Even if you possess all of the formulas in the world, one of the best things you can do is to break the formula.
Learn the rules…. then break them.
If you truly want to create a story that inspires and mesmerizes…
Then consider creating something that is not formulaic.
And that is incidentally the technique employed by both Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction and Christopher Nolan in most of his movies.
In a nonlinear narrative, the events are portrayed out of chronological order or in any other manner where the narrative does not follow the direct causality pattern.
There are many ways this can be used:
- stories told within another story
- adding multiple flashbacks
- parallel plot lines
- dream immersions
You don’t have to use nonlinear storytelling of course… but if you want to create something that stands out, or something that is truly creative…
You might want to consider doing this.
Create Your Brand Story Now
Here you go:
A full list of storytelling formulas you can use to tell a story about your product that motivates your prospects to buy…
Cements your brand…
And inspires a movement.
Apply these storytelling formulas to every marketing communication you do. Blog posts, advertisements, about pages, YouTube videos etc.
Tell your brand story now, make it stick and change the world.
How do you get other people to tell your story? It’s easier when you know what makes a story Contagious, and which ideas are Made to Stick. Ideas from these bestsellers and more in our comprehensive guide to word of mouth marketing!