This article is based on a workshop led by Jen Thompson at the Product Marketing Summit in Sydney. As a PMA member, you can enjoy the complete recording here. For more exclusive content, head over to your membership dashboard.

Hello and welcome to your storytelling workshop! There are three key things you’re going to learn today:

  1. Some killer storytelling frameworks
  2. How to connect with your audience through stories
  3. How to use storytelling to influence internal stakeholders

Let’s dive in.

The power of storytelling

Before we get into it, I want you to imagine you just got a message from your bestie that says “You won’t believe what just happened!! Major goss. Call me as soon as you can 🚨”. 

How does that message make you feel?

Hot goss

If you’re anything like me, you feel excited. You wonder what it's about. You want to hear the whole story. 

That’s a very human reaction. We’re drawn to stories. Stories are how we’ve communicated since the dawn of humanity. Stories help us to connect. They help us inspire one another. They make us want to engage with each other and unite around a central cause. They motivate us and help us drive action. They get us excited. 

The key thing to keep in mind is that when we tell stories, we want them to be memorable and we want them to create action – especially if we're in a marketing discipline or trying to influence stakeholders. We're not telling stories for the sake of telling stories; there’s a call to action (CTA) at the end. 

As Steve Jobs said,

“The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values, and agenda for an entire generation that is to come.”

That's the power that we all hold because we all tell stories – big and small –about our products. 

Impactful stories follow a framework

Take a moment to recall the most memorable stories you’ve come across. They could be from your childhood, from work, or from TV. 

Got a few? Great.

Even if the examples that spring to mind are as seemingly disparate as Homer’s Odyssey and the plotline of Gossip Girl, there are probably a lot of commonalities between them. You see, all great stories use really similar techniques, and I want to share those with you today. 

Story trunks

It all comes down to what I like to call “story trunks.” Basically, every story has a set of consistent trunks that guide the listener through what's happening and create that emotional connection. 

That means you don't have to reinvent the wheel to tell a compelling story – instead, you can take advantage of the tried-and-tested framework that generations of storytellers before you have refined.

So, let’s take a look at a prime example of story trunks in action, courtesy of Apple. Take a moment to watch this commercial, and we’ll dissect it together afterward. 

Powerful stuff right? Even though there are no visuals to direct what's happening, the words alone create a strong emotional connection. You don't understand how the callers are going to get out of the horrible situations they find themselves in, but you want them to succeed. And then there's a resolution; Apple comes to the rescue, and you feel so relieved. 

From Disney classics to product ads like the one we just saw, powerful stories all follow a very similar structure. We also use this very simple framework to tell stories at Canva, and I’d encourage you to use it too. 

Here are the trunks that make up a great story:

👏 Audience: The audience helps you frame the story. This is who the story’s for. 

👪 Characters: This could be the hero, or it could be the villain who creates the conflict.

🔔 Conflict: This is the problem that your character comes up against. If you’ve come across the hero’s journey before this next part’ll sound familiar: the main character meets a guide, who gives them a plan.

🎆 Resolution: The plan works and the story ultimately ends in success.

Let’s dive a little deeper into each of these elements.

Step one: Define your audience

If you want to excite and engage your audience, if you want them to be able to walk in the shoes of the characters in your story, you need to know who they are and what makes them tick. Your audience determines how you approach the content. 

To give you an example, I went on a little mini-break last weekend. I went for a hike, visited a couple of museums, went out for dinner with some old friends, and got a little drunk. 

How I tell that story is going to differ depending on my audience. If I’m talking to my mom, who never drinks, I’ll probably skip the part about getting drunk and focus on the museums, lest she try to send me to rehab. If I’m talking to my partner, he’s going to hear all about the great night out I had with my girls. Even though it's the same story, I'm tailoring it to my audience based on the information I want them to hear. 

Everyone has different interests, needs, and life experiences, which shape their emotional responses to stories. So, when you choose the audience for your story, you need to make sure you understand those interests, needs, and experiences. That way, you can make the story as meaningful as possible to them

Here are some other vital questions to keep in mind as you consider your audience: