Spoonful of story.004

Back in the day, I wrote and produced hundreds of radio spots. Some hysterical. Some thought-provoking. Some duds. Ok, several.

This one was killer: Michael Angelo painting the Sistine Chapel fighting a leaky roof. The spot was for Robinett Roofing, and it struck such a chord in listeners that calls quadrupled to the client. Even an irate Intel executive called me saying I was making fun of Italians and Catholics. I wasn’t. I was just selling roofs.

I’ve had the same experience with TV commercials. We’d create two spots for the same campaign. One would pull great, the other, not so much.

It wasn’t until we got intentional about using story structure, instead of just relying on our innate storytelling talents, that we could start predicting the success of the advertising we created.

Have you ever wondered what works and what doesn’t in your creative, and more importantly, why?

Keith Quesenberry, a former copywriter and creative director, and now a marketing professor at Johns Hopkins University and author of a study on storytelling in Super Bowl commercials, experienced the same thing:

How do you use story structure to intentionally create great spots?
So he did is research on storytelling in advertising and shared his findings on the latest Business of Story podcast. Here is an excerpt from the show.

Keith: I was the guy trying to come up with the ads that everybody wanted to watch and not go to the bathroom. But what I found was, we weren’t intentional. Sometimes we would do a great story and other times we just try to do a funny punchline at the end of a spot. Or put animals in a spot. It was kind of hit or miss and I didn’t really know what worked and what didn’t.

Park: Were you already somewhat familiar with story structure or just, as you said, doing it innately?

Keith:  It was just something I was doing out of instinct over the years of crafting commercials and seeing what worked and what didn’t. When I transitioned into being a professor, I wanted to do some research that really pulled out the underlying aspect that makes a really good TV ad.

And I happened to work at an advertising agency that ran a Super Bowl rating contest called Spotbowl.com. Every year we ran this contest, people voted for their favorite spots and we were analyzing the commercials and I was on radio and TV and trying to figure out… everyone would ask me “What makes the good spots?” And I really didn’t know. We were all guessing. So I wanted to do this research and find out.

One night, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I always keep a pad and paper next to my bed, and this thought came into my mind. It was a “Shakespearean five-act play,” burst it my mind and I wrote it down and then “Super Bowl ads.” And that was it. I started researching it. And I researched the five act structure, which is based on Freytag’s pyramid which goes all the way back to Aristotle’s poetics. And then we kind of put this study together.

Park: So you had this hypothesis that there’s this story structure in these winning spots, but now you had to go and prove it out. What did you experience as you started watching these commercials?

Keith: Pretty much every year there’s about 60 prime-time national TV commercials that air during the Super Bowl. They’re the ones that they pay the multi-million dollars for the 30 seconds. So what we did was we collected those and then we trained some independent coders, they were grad students. An English grad student and a communications grad student, and we trained them on coding for identifying the five acts.

(Image courtesy of Harvard Business Review in its article: The Irresistible Power of Storytelling as a Strategic Business Tool)

Freytag’s pyramid is this five-act structure where you have the exposition. This is where you introduce location, the background, the characters. And then once you introduce everything, the second act is rising action. Something happens. The characters start interacting with each other, something happens in the environment. The story starts moving forward.

The third act is the climax. That’s where all the rising action comes to this point where you don’t know what’s going to happen next. A decision has to be made. It could go very well or it could go badly for the main characters. And then once that climax happens, you have the falling action. And this is all the action that happens after the climax, whether it was good or bad. And then the fifth act is the dénouement, where everything is resolved and you have that neat little bow put on the end of the story where all the loose ends are tied up.

We had these grad students just watch the commercial. We had no idea “Can you tell a full five-act story in 30 seconds 60 seconds?” We didn’t know. But they went and we found out that you actually can. And then we compared the number of acts to the Super Bowl ad rating polls. We did Spotbowl.com, which is the company I worked for, our rating. But we also looked at USA Today Ad Meter, which is a very popular national one and we directly compared the number of acts in a story that was told, whether it was a full story or a partial story and compared it to the average rating.

So it’s based on a scale of 1 to 10 or 1 to 5 and what we found is the results, the more acts, the more complete story you tell, the average rating went up. People rated the commercial more favorably. And then we had other research that tied favorably to more views online, more shares online which can generate online buzz in all these other aspects.

The results of the study were published in The Journal of Marketing Theory and Practice in the Fall of 2014, and here’s the winning spot/story.

Quesenberry and I talk intentional storytelling, story structure, and how you can use these techniques in your brand strategy and content marketing on the latest episode of Business of Story podcast. Tune in.

(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse)