Content Strategy

Storytelling in Marketing: The Essential Elements of Style for Content Marketing Leaders

By Kyle Harper on February 23, 2018

What is the difference between saying and speaking?

They are two words that mean essentially the same thing, but that in context carry different connotations-saying, the running of the mouth; speaking, the transmutation of meaning into language.

For brands that want to engage with storytelling in marketing, this distinction can be an obstacle. It splits the expectations of creators from the understanding of marketing leadership, setting on one side style, purpose, and narrative, while on the other sits marketing needs, goals, and measures.

This isn't a simple divide to address, because it requires agreement from your marketing team. Everyone on your team has to understand what story means for your brand-how it sits in relation to your marketing message-if you're going to be able to effectively carry it out. It is a challenge that lands squarely on the shoulders of marketing team leaders, and one we so rarely equip them to address.

How can you communicate with your team of content storytellers to keep everyone on the same page about your brand's narrative? How can you provide feedback that brings your work ever closer to achieving marketing goals, while also preserving the integrity of the stories you tell?

The Difference Between Communication and Storytelling

Let's just get something out of the way right now: It is absolutely OK to back your stories with marketing goals. Your company isn't a creative media house that also happens to sell B2B software products or consumer packaged goods. Your brand sells products-but your brand also has a story to tell about what sort of world your products and ideals hope to bring about.

That being said, there is a lot of retraining we have to do for ourselves in a world of axioms like "always be closing." We have to understand that there is an essential difference between telling someone about our brand and what it sells, and giving a recipient a look into what our brand is about and letting them know how to proceed from there. This stems from the fundamental difference that exists between communication and storytelling.

In marketing, we can think about communication as the transmitting of information, without requiring context or feedback from the recipient. What it says is what it says-when done well, communication need not go any step beyond this.

But storytelling, on the other hand, is a process of leading your audience to an idea or feeling. Storytelling happens in context-an understanding of what was before, and perhaps what might come after. But most importantly, storytelling encourages engagement from the recipient. It works to evoke emotion, opinions, and reactions.

When we communicate with our audiences, we tell them who we are. When we tell stories to our audiences, we invite them to participate in defining who our brand is.

But how do we translate this into direction for our content teams?

The Parts of a Story

At the highest level, there are three essential elements for creating a story. It's a timeless formula that spans all forms of media. Any of your brand storytelling content should include these:

  • Character
  • Setting
  • Purpose


One of the best writing teachers I've ever had, author Jensen Beach, once shared a trick with my class about how to come up with good ideas for stories: "Start with a character you really, really know, and let the rest organically grow from there."

We often make the mistake when crafting stories to confuse "story" with "plot." Plots are useful tools as they describe the natural progression of escalating events. But not every story has a plot-some look at a frozen point in time, a "slice of life." But every good story has characters who fill distinct places in their world.

Choosing characters for your content marketing can be difficult. Sometimes your brand itself serves as a character, but often this is a tactic we see more in advertising than content marketing. It's the difference, for example, between a major beer manufacturer releasing an ad that says, "We believe in quality and have been using the same recipe for years," versus a brewmaster from another brewery talking about their journey into making craft beer and why they love working where they work. The first approach can convey some historical context and some brand ideals, but the second approach that speaks through a person is able to add unique weight and dimension to the story that makes it more interesting.

In most cases, characters will either be representatives from your brand or representatives from your target audience (they don't have to be customers) who embody the ideals and aesthetic of your brand. For the less journalistic- or documentary-oriented brands, your content creators themselves can act as a personal voice or narrator within your content.

As a content marketing leader, it is imperative to work with your content team to develop what sorts of characters you want to portray. What ideals of your brand do they portray? How do they appear stylistically, whether in personality, speech, or visual aesthetic? What do they care about, regardless of whether it ties to your brand directly or not?

A man observes the early dawn from the beach

Image attribution: Lukáš Rychvalský


Setting may seem like a simple or self-explanatory element when it comes to storytelling in marketing, but it's actually quite a unique and important foundation for effective storytelling.

Setting has two components: objects and scope.

"Objects" is a big catch-all for the things we normally consider "setting"-the where and when of your story. Objects contextualize the actions and motivations of your characters.

While setting provides context, characters are the ones that should be doing the work to carry your story. Towards this end, the goal of your content team should be to only focus on the objects of your setting to establish place without becoming muddled in the details.

To illustrate this point, try to describe a room with as few words as possible and see if a friend can guess what it is. If I'm thinking of a bathroom, I don't need to tell my audience about all the plumbing under my sink or what sorts of towels and soaps I use. Simply stating that the room has a toilet and bathtub should do the trick.

Any further details should only be included if they help describe your character-the number, types, and arrangement of soaps I keep in my shower, for instance, might reveal an important character trait.

The second element of setting is scope, and this is a powerful tool for brands. Scope is predicated on the premise that on either end of a story there is a past and future that isn't described.

Scope is how you determine what the boundaries of your story are in terms of time and description, and controlling this element can suggest a lot about your brand. A technology brand, for instance, might want to be future-facing in their content, sharing their thoughts, hopes, and vision for the future of humanity. Conversely, a brand that makes high-end, handcrafted clothing might want to extend their scope backward and talk about the rich tradition of artisans that their brand is based on.

The key with scope is to focus your content around the moments that matter most to your audience. This is a job that often comes down to marketing leadership, because scope also plays a large part in suggesting the direction and momentum of your brand as a whole.

A street corner in the rain with some hanging paper lamps

Image attribution: Huy Lê


The last powerful piece that ties all of your stories together should be purpose. Every character ever created has some kind of motivation that guides their behavior, which in turn guides how the story unfolds. As Kurt Vonnegut once famously put it, "Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water."

Your brand has goals that matter to your audience. Effectively sharing these goals in a way that encourages your audience to work with your brand towards achieving them is how you establish purpose.

Establishing purpose may be the hardest task of directing your content marketing style. It's the most abstract idea, and one that is likely to change as either your brand or your audience's goals grow over time. For this reason, it is vital that your team talks about purpose from piece to piece: What does this content seek to accomplish, and does this line up with what our audience wants?

The only tangible tactic here is to have a system in place that both keeps your team talking about this topic and takes into account user feedback like social conversions, comments on posts, and web traffic behavior to synthesize a living, breathing understanding of your brand and audience purpose.

Map of California

Image attribution: Spencer Selover

Tying Together Your Story

There is an immense amount of work and information that content marketing leaders need to inject brand storytelling into their marketing. Talking about the high-level goals and format of your content with your production team is a powerful way to get your creators on the same page for a cohesive brand story while also creating a unifying language that makes it easier to advocate for the power of storytelling to executive-level leadership.

And it all comes down to the simplest of distinctions: Do you want to be a brand that talks, or a brand that speaks? Be a brand that speaks, that shares its story rather than selling it, and your production team will never be at a loss for new, engaging content to create.

To learn more about how brands can harness the power of storytelling in their marketing, order Storynomics by Skyword CEO Tom Gerace and renowned screenwriter Robert McKee.

Featured image attribution: Aziz Achark


Kyle Harper

Kyle Harper is a writer, editor, and marketer who is passionate about creative projects and the industries that support them. He is a human who writes things. He also writes about things, around things, for things, and because of things. He's worked with brands like Hasbro, Spotify, Tostitos, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as a bunch of cool startups. The hardest job he's ever taken was the best man speech for his brother's wedding. No challenge is too great or too small. No word is unimportant. Behind every project is a story. What's yours?