How you can build a storytelling engine for yourself and your brand
Got a new structure for you today. We’ll go deep on one tip to improve your storytelling before studying examples from brands and creatives doing this best.
Let me know if you love it (or hate it). You can read last week’s piece here.
A common phrase among creators is “say one thing 1000 different ways.” This confused me. Isn’t that, inherently, not creative?
Turns out everyone telling stories or producing content struggles with the same paradox.
The best fix I’ve found – building what I call a Storytelling Engine.
What is a Storytelling Engine?
A storytelling engine is a repeatable narrative structure a company, author, or other creative uses to crank out a new but similar version of the same story.
It’s hella difficult to get right.
But if you do, it becomes a goldmine. Here are the 5 steps I took to create my storytelling engine:
1.Tell a lot of stories
There’s no way around this step. You have to put in the reps to get audience feedback on what’s resonating and, just as importantly, what’s not.
Luckily the internet gives us tools to create instant feedback loops.
Write on Twitter or LinkedIn
Post videos to YouTube or TikTok
No point in creating a storytelling engine around a story that doesn’t resonate.
2. Audit the content to identify similar narrative structures and key elements
Alright, you’ve now put a bunch of content into the world. If you post every day for ~3 weeks, in my experience that’s enough to get real feedback. Now it’s time to audit. Look for:
Plot – the arc of the story
Characters – who’s involved
Concepts – what it’s about
You’re looking to pattern match the good and the bad.
3. Templatize those structures
Now you’ve done your audit it’s time to turn that into a template. Here’s an example from my own writing, the story of Formula 1’s use of Drive to Survive.
I loved writing this AND it’s my second-best performing post on Twitter ever. An obvious candidate to be turned into a storytelling engine.
This is the template I created from it.
[X person / company] is [impressive thing].
But [failure that came before]
Then [how it broke through that failure].
Here’s the breakdown or here’s the story:
The first line is the character (Formula 1), the second line is the plot (from not popular to popular in the US), and the concept is within the third line (Drive to Survive as content marketing).
4. Fit upcoming stories into the structures, if possible
You have your templates. Now it’s time to be on the lookout for more stories that fit into the proven mold.
I will bang this drum over and over – coming up with as many story ideas as possible is the single best way to become a better storyteller.
Keep a story log
Stream of consciousness
Simple Notion doc for you to throw ideas in as they come to you
Let me give you two examples of stories I fit into the template from the Formula 1 post:
Both of these did well over 1 million impressions and drove hundreds of new newsletter subscribers.
5. Add your special sauce
The danger of a storytelling engine is letting your story become too stiff and unnatural. The structure should not call attention to itself – the story should shine because of the structure, not the other way around.
Brands and Creatives that do this well
Every 3-5 years Pokemon releases a game that will inevitably sell millions of copies and drive tons of long-tail IP value, but the game will have the exact same story as the previous ones. Here’s that story:
The Hero goes through the same fundamental transformation in each game.
At the start: you’re a nobody who has never even owned a Pokemon.
The bad guys and the goals fill in the middle part.
At the end: you’re the best trainer in all the land.
The result? Nine generations of Pokemon games with three games in each generation. 27 games following the same story! That’s an incredible storytelling engine showing no sign of slowing down.
Nike’s advertising: “Jump like LeBron, run like Ronaldo, and hit like Serena when you wear our gear.”
The result? A simple, effective story Nike will use for another 50 years: “Do X skill like Y athlete when you wear our gear.”
The king of first-person thrillers, Patterson uses the 'hook and hang' storytelling technique in almost every book. Start with action, end with a cliffhanger. Repeat.
When you zoom out to look at his books as a whole, you start to see an even larger storytelling engine. His series Alex Cross is the best example. There are 29 of them, and each is essentially the same story and can be read independently of each other.
The result? Patterson has sold over 400 million copies of his books and his storytelling engine is so smooth he's written (or co-written) 130+ books since 1996.
A message from... Me!
The interest in this tweet blew me away...
One way to become a better storyteller:
Take your two favorite authors. I recommend one non-fiction and one fiction.
Copy, word for word, their best work. Do it by hand.
I chose Paul Kalanithi and Neil Gaiman.
It’s the single exercise that improved my writing the most.
— Nathan Baugh 🗺️ (@nathanbaugh27)
Jan 5, 2023
In my experience, there are two ways to get good at storytelling:
Study the greats (what this newsletter is for)
Practice, practice, practice
I do a lot of practice through StoryWork.
And so many of you liked, commented, and sent me DMs about the practice I decided to turn it into a guided course for you.
Check it out:
While I’m not a web3 maxi by any means, I like learning about the industry. This free newsletter helps me do that. Try it here.
My friend Billy Oppenheimer shared the 7-page memo former Disney CEO Christopher Vogler shared with the company back in 1985. It breaks down the Hero’s Journey better than I’ve ever seen. Read it here.
Dickie Bush wrote a thread breaking down how he says one idea in 1000 unique ways. Read it here.