The secrets behind award-winning storytelling

Whether you watched the original TV series or you’ve recently YouTubed a classic clip, I’m sure you’ll remember the BBC period sitcom Blackadder the Third and the episode with Dr Johnson and the dictionary. It’s comedy gold, but tucked away in the lines of the script is a visionary message that amply illustrates what’s at the heart of great storytelling.

In one scene, the unfathomably stupid Prince Regent debates the merits of Dr Johnson’s new book by asking him a series of seemingly ridiculous questions.

Dr Johnson starts: “It is a book about the English language, sir.”

“And the hero’s name is what?” says the Prince.

“There is no hero, sir.”

Unperturbed, the Prince soldiers on: “What about heroines?”

“There is no heroine… unless it is our Mother Tongue.”

“Ah, the mother’s the heroine. Nice twist.”

After learning there’s neither a hint of a marriage nor a murder, the Prince can’t take any more: “Well, now, look, Dr. Johnson, I may be as thick as a whale omelette, but even I know a book’s got to have a plot.”

On reflection, it turns out the Prince Regent was not quite as mad as he made out. Quite the opposite: the plot, the hero, the twist and the colour… these are the storyteller’s tools to grip the reader, hold their attention, shock them, make them smile and make them react. And the rules are the same whether it’s a magazine, film, book or blog.

Trouble is, in today’s world of PR, publishing, advertising and marketing, content agencies are coming under increasing pressure to deliver a constant ‘always on’ stream of material that gets a gazillion more hits than the last asset that achieved a gazillion hits. So how do you make sure your content stands out and gives your client great return on investment? As a preview to the 17th National Storytelling Week, here are seven principles we follow at Foxtrot Papa:

Keep it Simple Stupid

There’s no doubt this is the hardest part to get right because there’s always a tendency to add more, not less. Try not to burden the story with excessive brand messages. Pick one or two attributes and talk about them in the best way possible. Volvo’s ‘The Epic Split’ stunt with Jean Claude Van Damme is a prime example. Do it well and the audience will fall in love with the product and your client will love you for it.

Don’t sell it, tell it

Create characters or dialogue that feel natural and believable. This helps the audience create a personal connection between company and customer, so you actually truly care about the outcome. This emotional investment is incredibly powerful and it works because it strengthens the brand, drives sales, enhances customer loyalty and improves retention. 

Authentic, not annoying

Really powerful and successful stories engage audiences because they have purpose and add value. There’s nothing worse than wondering why you’re watching a film or reading an article because chances are you won’t bother. In a recent TED talk, motivational speaker and author Simon Sinek revealed that “people don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” Sinek cites Apple as a case in point, stating that Steve Jobs gained massive market share by explaining why he made computers rather than simply trying to sell computers.

Deliver the proof

Tell people something they didn’t already know. A great way of doing this is with a little bit of science. What I’m really talking about is insight. Persil did this brilliantly in its ‘Free the Kids – Dirt is Good’ campaign. The filmmakers presented the audience with one, jaw-dropping fact: on average children in the US spend less time outside than inmates in a maximum-security prison. What? Really? That’s shocking, which is of course is the whole point. It’s hard-hitting stuff but it leaves people wanting to find out more.

Sprinkle some surprise and delight.

Back to dear old Edmund Blackadder’s infamous twist! At some point in the story there has to be a ‘wow, did that just happen’ moment. This drives interest and debate and will boost shares.

A picture must tell the story

By all means hire the best director or A-lister talent with a million friends and followers, but the level of engagement will sky rocket if you can distil the story into one powerful image. The media will watch the film, but they will publish the image. Take our Train Pull stunt for Land Rover. The hero image showed one Discovery Sport pulling three, 100-tonne Victorian train carriages across an epic bridge. In other words, one small car can pull a massive weight and that’s a very appealing message for potential buyers. It’s so simple that people don’t have to think too hard or invest too much time to figure it out. This simplicity also played out in the film, which is one reason why it received 1.8m views on YouTube.

Hand holding

Don’t let the audience come to their own conclusion about the story. That’s dangerous territory because they’ll invariably get it wrong. Some short, pithy captions or quick-fire, face-to-camera pieces can help, but the over-arching message should be implicit. If it isn’t then start again.


That’s it. Simple! Only joking. It’s incredibly hard to implement all of the above, all of the time. But give it a go. Invest time in telling a powerful, surprising and original story and the audience and the client will fall in love with it.

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