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  • Writer's pictureClara Leonard

What Makes a Story Compelling?

Starting off this blog with such a huge question might seem a bit ambitious – but let's dive right in. A compelling story is exciting; perhaps unpredictable. It emotionally impacts the audience. It gets people invested – and maybe more importantly – keeps them invested.

I could go on – and on, and on, and on. But a handful of important elements rise to the surface when trying to break down the makeup of a compelling story, especially in the context of brand management. How do we find ourselves so invested in the stories of people we’ve never met? How does an influencer manage to sell me on a product I’ve never heard of, let alone thought I needed? And how can the combination of a Sarah McLachlan song and some sad-looking dogs raise millions annually? Let’s find out as we talk about main characters, the power of specifics, and clear calls to actions.

The Star of the Show: A Central "Main Character"

Picture a main character as the North Star – it keeps the story on track and gives the audience a focal point. Think of it as the anchor you can hold onto and come back to as the narrative unfolds. Now, let's talk about finding this main character. It's a breeze when your documentary stars someone like Taylor Swift, the obvious main character. But what about when it’s not so straightforward? Could the main character be something besides a person? Could it be an object, idea, or even a place?

The concept of a location functioning as a main character is a technique frequently utilized in documentaries, advertisements, and horror films. Let’s consider one classic example, "The Shining". While the hotel's caretaker, Jack, receives significant attention in the film, one could contend that the Overlook Hotel itself takes on an even more prominent role as a main character. In many ways, “The Shining” is the story of a hotel imposing its will upon all of the other characters and being the primary mover in progressing the story.

So what lessons and skills can we learn from “The Shining”? Let us assume for a moment that instead of Taylor Swift, our documentary must dive into "Food Insecurity in Rural America." Who or what takes center stage? The story could focus on a determined matriarch battling odds in the plains of Oklahoma. Or, the main character could take shape in the form of a small West Virginia town that acts as a case study to represent the nation's struggles by showing the birth, life, struggles, and potentially, the death of rural America through the eyes of the town itself. These characters – people, places, objects, or ideas – act as the heartbeat of the tale, offering something tangible to cling to and – fingers crossed – rally behind.

Zooming In: The Power of Specifics

Why is influencer marketing successful? (And what does this question have to do with compelling storytelling…?). A huge amount of the success of influencer marketing can be attributed to its specificity. It’s a real person, giving specific opinions on a particular product. They dish out every little detail – how that makeup feels on your skin, if that t-shirt survives a spin in the washer, or whether that pricey handbag lives up to its sticker shock. This specific insight is what keeps us scrolling time and time again or even leads us to buy the products they can’t stop raving about.

While stories and sales pitches are not the same – and confusing the two is a frequent mistake brands make (but that’s another blog…) – their success is reliant on the common thread of specificity. Specificity is a game-changer, both in sales and storytelling. Think back to our Food Insecurity documentary with our strong matriarch main character. It’s much more gripping for the matriarch to lay out a detailed "week of meals" her family scrapes by on, compared to a vague "getting food's tough, and we're not eating fancy." The former immerses the audience in the raw experience of food insecurity, while the latter sounds like a given, considering the documentary’s premise.

Sticking the Landing: A Clear "Call to Action"

The phrase you never stop hearing in the branding world: "Call to Action," or CTA. It's the answer to "why" in the question "why are we telling this story?" It’s important to keep the end goal in mind when telling any story. What’s the mission of your brand? The CTA should drive the viewer towards actions that help to further this mission. Whether that’s to buy a product, to donate money, to volunteer, to spread the word; any action we call our viewers to should inch us closer towards achieving the ultimate mission of the brand. THAT’S why we tell the story.


So what makes a story compelling? Here's the bad news: there's no one-size-fits-all manual for telling a compelling story. However, for a head start, cling to a sturdy main character, paint it with vivid specifics, and keep that story's "why" in your crosshairs. Crafting a compelling story demands vision, patience, and a truckload of practice. If you're up to bat for sharing your brand's story, drop us a line. We're all ears and ready to roll up our sleeves.

“...cling to a sturdy main character, paint it with vivid specifics, and keep that story's 'why' in your crosshairs.”

- Clara Leonard


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