Great stories succeed because they are able to capture the imagination of large or important audiences.
A great story is true. Not necessarily because it’s factual, but because it’s consistent and authentic. Consumers are too good at sniffing out inconsistencies for a marketer to get away with a story that’s just slapped on.
Great stories make a promise. They promise fun, safety or a shortcut. The promise needs to be bold and audacious. It’s either exceptional or it’s not worth listening to.
Great stories are trusted. Trust is the scarcest resource we’ve got left. No one trusts anyone. People don’t trust the beautiful women ordering vodka at the corner bar (they’re getting paid by the liquor company). People don’t trust the spokespeople on commercials (who exactly is Rula Lenska?). And they certainly don’t trust the companies that make pharmaceuticals (Vioxx, apparently, can kill you). As a result, no marketer succeeds in telling a story unless he has earned the credibility to tell that story.
Great stories are subtle. Surprisingly, the fewer details a marketer spells out, the more powerful the story becomes. Talented marketers understand that allowing people to draw their own conclusions is far more effective than announcing the punch line.
Great stories happen fast. First impressions are far more powerful than we give them credit for. Great stories don’t always need eight-page colour brochures or a face-to-face meeting. Either you are ready to listen or you aren’t.
Great stories don’t appeal to logic, but they often appeal to our senses. Pheromones aren’t a myth. People decide if they like someone after just a sniff.
Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone. Average people are good at ignoring you. Average people have too many different points of view about life and average people are by and large satisfied. If you need to water down your story to appeal to everyone, it will appeal to no one. The most effective stories match the world view of a tiny audience—and then that tiny audience spreads the story.
Great stories don’t contradict themselves. If your restaurant is in the right location but had the wrong menu, you lose. If your art gallery carries the right artists but your staff is made up of rejects from a used car lot, you lose. Consumers are clever and they’ll see through your deceit at once.
Most of all, great stories agree with our world view. The best stories don’t teach people anything new. Instead, the best stories agree with what the audience already believes and makes the members of the audience feel smart and secure when reminded how right they were in the first place.