How to Tell Stories that Stick

What makes a book an international bestseller? Why does a film dazzle audiences the world over? How do some companies become household names while others die prematurely?

Successful books, films, and companies all have something in common: exceptional storytelling. It isn’t enough to simply be and do good; the being and doing good must be shared.

We recently spoke with filmmaker Jimmy Chin, whose documentary Free Solo won an Academy Award earlier this year. We asked this master storyteller what stories must contain in order to resonate with others. Stories, Jimmy said, need to have universal narratives within them.

It is commonly said if everyone is your user, nobody is your user. Or, if you try to please everyone, you will please no one. How, then, does a brand tell engaging stories to its users while remaining universal? How does a company tell stories within which everyone can find themselves?

We have an idea. But first: why do we tell stories?

Because it makes us human. This article in TIME outlines a study conducted on a hunter-gatherer population – the Agta community in the Philippines’ Isabela Province – with fascinating results. The article says storytelling is a “powerful means of fostering social cooperation and teaching social norms, and it pays valuable dividends to the storytellers themselves, improving their chances of being chosen as social partners, receiving community support and even having healthy offspring.”

In other words, sharing stories is not merely a means of entertainment; it gives you a survival edge, too.

And this is true for companies. Brands telling their stories, and telling them well, have a survival advantage over those not telling their stories.

The Six Human Needs

Back to the question: how do you tell stories that are simultaneously focused and universal? By speaking to the six core human needs. Life coach and author Tony Robbins focuses on six basic needs. While everyone prioritizes these needs differently, they all affect how we operate and make decisions. (American psychologist Abraham Harold Maslow famously created a hierarchy of needs. The needs Robbins focuses on, and those we are about to explore, make the assumption that Maslow’s lower needs in the hierarchy are already met, which are food, water, warmth, and rest).

According to Robbins, the needs are certainty, uncertainty/variety, significance, connection/love, growth, and contribution.

If the stories you tell about your company touch on these needs, everybody will find themselves within your narrative in some way. Here’s a closer look at each one:

CERTAINTY.

Humans like security. We crave safety. This is why we spend so much time doing things we know will produce expected results (we call this the Known Zone – a comfortable place where linear thinking results in predictable outcomes).

uncertainty.

This may seem contradictory, but humans need adventure, too. They need to mix things up, meet new people, and explore new possibilities. This is where new ideas come from, and when you adventure and explore, you enter a territory we call the Unknown Zone.

significance.

Everybody needs to feel significant, and some crave it more than others. Recognition at home and at work is a huge driver of human behavior because it provides us with a sense of significance.

Connection / Love.

We are born seeking connection and love. While this need, like all of them, varies in degrees of importance to each individual, it remains influential in our decisionmaking.

Growth.

It doesn’t matter how good you are in your role at work or at home, a part of you, big or small, desires growth. (Consider this: the self-help industry is a $10 billion market. People really want growth.)

contribution.

Everybody wants to leave a legacy. The contributions we make during our lifetimes are what we will be remembered for when we’re gone, and they connect us to those to whom we contribute.

These six human needs are what your user values, and by addressing these needs head-on, you are implementing the foundation of ideation. Do this by weaving traces of the six human needs into your narrative; it will render your stories, though targeted to your customer, universal. Paint a picture of personal or professional growth when people interact with your company. Show them that by using your products or services, your customers will gain clarity on something important to them (certainty). Give people opportunities to explore (uncertainty) and belong (significance). 

As an example, take a look at the article you’re reading right now. We are talking about growth – how to tell stories for your user while also having universal narratives within them so they will resonate with others. Those less motivated by growth and more interested in connection will find within this article ways to better connect with their customers. Those who seek significance will learn that better stories will produce better results and therefore provide the storyteller with more significance. You get the idea.

The Hero’s Journey

We’d be remiss to talk about storytelling and not mention The Hero’s Journey. In the 1949 book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, author Joseph Campbell points out a narrative pattern in stories from mythology to religion to popular culture, which he calls The Hero’s Journey. The premise is this: the hero receives a call to leave his ordinary world and enter the extraordinary. At first he is relunctant, but with the help of a mentor figure, he crosses the threshold into the special world. Here he’s faced with tests and eventually reaches the crisis. He must undergo the central ordeal in order to overcome the obstacles. He seizes the metaphorical sword (the reward), returns to the ordinary world with his elixir of new knowledge, and shares what he’s learned on his adventure.

Some famous stories with The Hero’s Journey as a backbone are Star Wars, Harry Potter, Moby Dick, and Jane Eyre. Virtually every classic story takes this shape. This narrative arc is omnipresent for good reason. It’s about discovery, transformation, and sharing what you learned. This article is our elixir. And you have elixir to share, too.

Stories are human nature. Some resonate and some don’t, but everybody tells them. Sticky stories are narrow in focus but contain universal narratives. Speaking to the six human needs (certainty, uncertainty/variety, significance, connection/love, growth, and contribution) will help you achieve the universality needed to influence others.

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For more of Studio/E’s metaphorical elixir, visit our Content Library, where you will find stories of adventure, intrigue, and inspiration.

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