What Brands need to Know about Storytelling

  Creative minds share the stage and spill their secrets with Yahoo at sfBIG Breakfast

James Robinson speaking at sfBIGLast week, more than 150 advertisers, agency executives and tech partners got an early start to their day to learn about storytelling best practices at a thought-provoking San Francisco Bay Area Innovation Group (sfBIG) breakfast session.

Yahoo executive director Courtney McKlveen served as the moderator of a lively panel of storytelling experts, which also included:

Theo Fanning, Creative Director at Traction Co.
James Robinson, Executive Creative Director at Agency 215
And DJ O’Neil, the Founder of HubStrategy

The goal of the event was to provide participants with insights into how great creative tells stories, and how brands are treated like characters in the media world. Attendees also learned that a brand has to be humanized to tell a story that resonates with consumers, as well as effective ways of telling that story across multiple platforms and at different steps along the way.

Here’s a taste of what each of our experts shared with the audience:

Theo Fanning: Brand storytelling basics

Traction’s Theo Fanning offered what he perceives as the three key elements of storytelling. First, the Message: “In the mind of the consumer, you can only be one thing. Keep your story simple.” The second key element is Tone, for which he explained there can be two extreme ends of the spectrum. A brand can aim for the emotional side (the “ASPCA zone”) or use comedy (“Anything with monkeys in it.”). As Fanning explained, “When we tell stories, our job is to evoke an emotion…but the more emotion we can evoke, the more powerful the message will be.”

Fanning wrapped up with the third element, Structure. He explained that while the traditional advertising story line is problem/solution/results, with stories being told on multiple mediums today, it’s important to consider “how we can take the elements of the story and break them up in a ‘transmedia’ way to allow different parts of that story to take place across different media.”

James Robinson: The principles of storytelling

Agency 215’s Robinson started his address with a basic question: Why do we need to do storytelling? The simple answer is, that’s how human brains are wired. All of us, he explained, have two parts of our brains: System 1 (the Emotional side) and System 2 (the Rational side).

Advertisers should always shoot to appeal to the more powerful driver of human behavior, which is the emotional side of the brain. “The emotional side of your brain actually drives almost all of your purchasing decisions,” Robinson stated. “Stories should be events, and those events should immerse the audience in the brand.” Asking the audience what a brand’s purpose in this world is, Robinson offered, “If your answer is to make money, then that’s not the right answer. It has to be something bigger than that.”

DJ O’Neil: Overarching thoughts on storytelling

HubStrategy’s founder enlightened the San Francisco audience with a variety of insights about storytelling in advertising, including:

“You have to entertain while you sell. Be unexpected.”
“Ask yourself, is it shareable?”
“Conflict is your friend. Build your story around a conflict.”
“Your story should have a point. Be clear in what you want to communicate.”
“You can tell a story with very few words. Let consumers connect their own dots.”
“Don’t be too afraid of offending people.”


To close the session, Yahoo’s Courtney McKlveen asked each of the panelists, “In 10 words or less, what one piece of advice on storytelling would you give the audience?” Here are their responses:

Fanning: “Unplug and look outside the microcosm bubble of technology.”
Robinson: “Don’t advertise to yourself.”
O’Neil: “You have to earn the consumer’s attention.”

At Yahoo, we’re big believers in the power of storytelling, both in our own content and in our advertisers’ messages. Our mission is to make our consumers’ daily habits more inspiring and entertaining, and part of how we do this is by sharing relevant, personalized stories and experiences with our audiences every day. Then we connect the right audiences to our brand and agency partners so that they can share their stories in an engaging, compelling way that delivers results.


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