Share and Share Alike: The Secret to Making a Story Stick

Back in June I left the office behind to attend the debut Future of Comms conference in sunny East London. Shout out to the folks over at My News Desk who put on a stellar event, packed with a weighty line-up of comms professionals.

For me though, there was one star of the show.

Stephen Follows.jpg

Stephen Follows is a writer/producer over at Catsnake Film and one half of the duo responsible for ‘A Love Story in Milk’ - a short film which not only gained attention from none other than the United Nations but also racked up a bunch of awards and, to date, has had more than 1.5 million views.

His talk focussed on why people share stories online and here, I’d like to share the key takeaways with you lucky folks.

Teeny Tiny Stories

I have a confession. I have been known, in the past, to get bogged down by the idea of ‘finding’ stories, hooks and angles - I am a PR, after all. Of course this is an important part of my job here at Distilled — finding content that ‘sticks’ —however, perhaps I have been guilty of occasionally over-complicating things.

Stephen led his presentation with the idea of ‘Teeny Tiny Stories’ and told us an anecdote about esteemed writer and journalist Ernest Hemingway. Over a pint or two (or three, who really knows?) Hemingway was said to have made a bet with his drinking buddies. He wagered that he could tell them a story in 6 words. They disagreed and put their monies on the table . . .

“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”.

He collected his due readies.

Stephen defines a story as ‘an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment’. There’s no need to get bogged down in details. In fact, the simpler the idea, the more ‘sticky’ it is likely to be.

Sometimes you don't need any words at all. 

Survival of the fittest

Well, that’s a lovely anecdote but it doesn’t explain why people share stories online.

Follows says it’s all down to emotions.

“We all enjoy stories, deep down, on a primal level. Stories affect us, we feel connected and personally involved. And they inspire action — far more than logic and reason does.”

Well yes, stories are nice. But why are we compelled to share them?

Why, it’s evolution of course.

Picture this, says Follows. You’re out in the desert with a friend when you’re attacked by a sabre-toothed tiger. You get away by climbing a tree but, sadly your friend doesn’t make it. You run home to tell your friends the story and, thus, they’ve learnt something - if a sabre toothed tiger runs at you - climb a tree and you’ll survive. See, that’s evolution, baby.  (Disclaimer: don’t take this anecdote to heart, I’m pretty sure modern day tigers can climb trees.)

Follows says swapping stories helps us deal quicker and better with threats and that, over time, evolution hard-wires successful traits and makes important things in life more enjoyable. Thus:

  • Fuel becomes cuisine

  • Procreation becomes sex

  • Survival techniques become stories

But wait...

That still doesn’t explain why people share stories. Does it?

Well, yes. And no.

One of the reasons people share, says Follows, is practicality. And that’s where us marketers can tap into our audiences’ inner caveman.

Take this guide to Twitter by Simply Business, for example, it helps small businesses to survive in the world of Twitter. It was shared because it offers practical value.

Now, that’s all very well, but I’m pretty sure the video of a kennel of pugs re-enacting the Game of Thrones I shared the other day had absolutely no practical value whatsoever. Well, hold your horses! Follows says there are four other key elements that can make stories shareable too.

1 - Social Currency

Social currency is all about making yourself look good among your peers - i.e. showing off! Go on, be honest - we’re all guilty of this. The last thing I shared of this ilk was a beautiful ‘Festival Finder’ tool we made for one of our clients. It was my way of saying, “Look what we made! Aren’t we clever!”

2 - Triggers

Follows describes triggers as ‘tapping into familiar items to trigger associations’. What springs to mind here is the kinds of posts you see all too often on Facebook asking you to take action if you’re familiar with something.

Personally, I find these posts to be quite annoying but, considering how often I see them, using triggers is most definitely an effective mode of spreading the word.

3 - Emotion

As Follows asserts, ‘When we care, we share.’ But, he says, some emotions are more likely to drive shares than others. Luckily, his handy little diagram explains which emotions are best tapped into if we want our stories to have any sort of impact.


4 - Public

The final factor that is likely to make us share is ‘public’, which Follows describes as ‘being seen to share and feeling included’. While similar to social currency, this is less about being a show-off and/or asserting your opinion and more about feeling a part of something. The best example of this I can think of is the recent no make-up selfie phenomenon which took Facebook by storm. Although there’s crossover with social currency and emotion, my understanding of ‘public’ was the idea of getting behind a cause.

So, there you have it ladies and gentlemen. The idea that traditional branded content isn’t enough to attract consumers isn’t new, but armed with Follows’ words of wisdom, you should be able to use the art of storytelling to engage your target audiences. Remember, ‘if we care, we share’!

Do you think storytelling can be brought into a content strategy? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments below.

Get blog posts via email