The 5 W's of Storytelling

Do you remember the television commercials of the 80’s? It may be way before your time, so let me paint the picture for you. Advertisers spent huge amounts of money creating adverts that were over the top in selling consumers a lifestyle. Whether that lifestyle was healthy, or even attainable was entirely beside the point. In fact, the more outlandish the fantasy they created, the more we would yearn for this glamorous, jet-setting life. I remember countless cigarette brands churning out advert after advert depicting beautiful people on yachts living lives that we could only dream of living. They were suntanned, they were the epitome of unattainable glamour, and every single person I knew wanted to be them. The advertisers sold us an ideal that turned out not to be that ideal after all. Fast forward to today, and we know that suntanning isn’t good for your skin, smoking cigarettes causes cancer, and in today’s economy revelling on yachts is reserved for the likes of Dan Bilzerian. Let’s face it, this lifestyle they sold is completely out of reach for the average person. And this is precisely the point, which leads us to the first W.


They sold us a fantasy that wasn’t rooted in reality. Consumers have wised up to this, and advertisers have been forced to tailor their marketing messages to a new breed of consumer who doesn’t just swallow everything they’ve been fed. This is where storytelling can make all the difference to a company’s messaging. The company that is able to speak to the heart of the consumer with authenticity is the company that will capture their attention. Today, people’s attention is divided and speaking to the heart of the consumer is the only way to endear them to you, your brand or your story. Assuming you didn’t start your business just to make money, there has to be a deeper reason why you do what you do. Finding your ‘Why’ is the key to finding your story. Why do you do what you do? What drives you, what problem do you know you can solve better than anyone else?


The Consumer:

Today’s consumer is an individual who does not succumb to herd mentality. He/she is free thinking and able to seek outcomes that will speak to his/her needs. This is a busy individual whose attention is divided and the only way to capture that attention is to reach him/her with authenticity.

The Brand:

The story that you choose to tell can be the story of your company, of your product, or even of yourself as an individual. Every company has at least one story, but often more than one story. The aim is to find the authentic story that will reach the heart of your consumer.

What – Storytelling, the difference between advertising and storytelling:

Years ago, your company’s ultimate goal may have been to sell to the consumer. Sales drove messaging and advertising aimed to take Rands from the consumer and put it into the hands of the company. Often, companies’ only concern was their bottom line. Brand loyalty was almost a given due to limited access to information, pop culture and the sales messaging thrust upon us by commercial giants with big budgets. More and more companies are realising that this approach doesn’t work anymore. Those stuck in archaic mindsets will soon realise their unwillingness to change the narrative will cause them to appear disingenuous. The more enlightened consumers become, the more they lose their taste for anything insincere. Beware though, this enlightened consumer can sense the motive behind the messaging. You cannot simply dress up an advertisement as a story. It smacks of pseudo humility and dishonesty. There has to be a total mind shift. You have to be open to the idea that your story, if told powerfully and authentically, will speak to the heart of an individual and endear him or her to your brand. The end game is far greater than an exchange of money, it is telling your story powerfully, and leaving the response up to the consumer. Nobody wants to be coerced into loving someone else, they want to make that choice themselves because their heart has been set ablaze. THAT is the aim of your story, for you to tell your story authentically, and to trust that those who are genuinely touched by your truth, will come, and they will stay.

When – There is no better time than now:

The first step is to find your story. You will have to dig deep and shed the skin of outcomes based messaging to get to the story that represents you authentically. The goal is to forget, for a moment, that there is a consumer at the end of this process, and to focus solely on who you are and why you do what you do. Once you’ve been able to articulate this in a way that is simple to understand and speaks to your audience, you’re good to go.


Wherever the person you would like to reach can be found. Traditionally television and print media were fail-safe mediums, but there are many consumers that don’t interact with those mediums at all anymore. Is he on Instagram? Is she on Facebook? Find out where they can be found and tell your story on those platforms.

How to bring this all together:

Your choice of platform will dictate the means you use to tell your story. You can use photos, video or words; or a combination of these. As consumers have grown to crave authenticity, they have also grown more discerning in their tastes. For storytelling to make a lasting impact, it needs to not just be authentic but has to be told well and the accompanying visuals have to be aesthetically pleasing.  There is nothing appealing about mediocre messaging. Consumers are able to curate their online experiences to the extent of drowning out everything that isn’t beautiful or well executed, especially on visually driven platforms like Instagram. Make sure that when you reach out to tell your story, the messaging is powerful, and the visuals are captivating so as to not distract from the messaging.

What I’ve done here is suggest a total mind-shift. This has been daunting and for me, it’s is a process that has taken a long time. By no means am I suggesting that traditional advertising has been rendered totally ineffective, but I do believe that storytelling has a place that that place is becoming more significant by the day. I trust that this has planted a seed and that you will begin to explore how storytelling can add value to your business.

I will leave you with a quote by Margery Williams Bianco from The Velveteen Rabbit:

“Real isn't how you are made,' said the Skin Horse. 'It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.'

'Does it hurt?' asked the Rabbit. 

'Sometimes,' said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. 'When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.' 

'Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,' he asked, 'or bit by bit?' 

'It doesn't happen all at once,' said the Skin Horse. 'You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.” 

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