What marketing leaders can learn from screenwriters.

Marketers that adapt their stories to the age-old dramatic structure keep buyers begging for more.

Source: The Shawshank Redemption from Castle Rock Entertainment.

When Kodak marketing executives ask Mad Men’s Don Draper to promote the wizardry of their new Carousel projector, Don takes a different tack with his own slide show, starting with images of his infant daughter. “First you bring her home from the hospital, then before you know it, you’re off to school.”

Don gently continues. “In the blink of an eye, she’s graduating college, then you’re walking her down the aisle … and you ask … where did the time go?” (Good thing the lights are down because the men from Kodak are starting to cry.)

“But aren’t you glad the two of you can sit down and re-live those memories, anytime you want, thanks to Kodak” concludes our clever creative director. Lights up, everyone’s weeping, showing that the best marketing stories are about people, not technology.

Jon Hamm as Don Draper in AMC’s Mad Men.

So, what’s your story really about? Screenwriters answer the question by wrestling their story to the ground using the proven dramatic structure in which the main character struggles with a moral dilemma (or conflict) that begs resolution.

By the end of the story, the conflict is resolved, usually in the main character’s favor and the audience goes home satisfied that they learned something new; that they participated in helping the lead character overcome antagonist forces that initially felt insurmountable.

We humans are hard-wired for stories built on the dramatic structure’s three prongs: character, conflict, and resolution. Dramatic stories keep us engaged; they help us learn. Dramatic stories form memories.

But, we also suffer from attention deficit disorder — and we have little patience for being told that which we already know. It’s why screenwriters religiously use the SO WHAT technique to get to TELL ME MORE. For example:

The Titanic hits an iceberg, preventing its New York arrival.


Though billed unsinkable, the Titanic sinks on her maiden voyage to New York.


While a voyage to America offers a new beginning for a poor artist, it promises to kill the dreams of a young aristocrat. That all changes when the two fall in love aboard the Titanic.


We all know the Titanic’s story (which is why the first two story leads are what screenwriters call throw-aways). The third tells the story of star-crossed lovers that meet on a famous ship, destined to sink. Even though we know the end of the story, we are willing to take the journey. We want to see how the conflict resolves.

Most marketers write Level 1 and 2 stories.

Level 1 is practically criminal because it states what we’ve already known for years! Level 2 is a bit more insightful, but still doesn’t whet our appetite enough to illicit “Tell me More.”

In the following example, the drama accelerates as we push the story through the SO WHAT filter to get to Level 3 (which also makes the story more dramatic and personal).

Level 1: Every company will need to invest in AI.


Level 2: Every company needs to be smart about how it invests in AI.


Level 3: When AI investments that are treated as ‘just another plug-and-play technology’ they generate small, even negative returns (according to our survey of 100 CIOs).


The first two levels are throw-aways because they don’t inform, excite or inspire. The third introduces character conflict, eliciting “Tell me more” which opens the door to resolution:

CIOs that confidently point to AI as a source of business advantage — also invest in organizational transformation, along the likes of Google, Haier, Apple, and Siemens — that augment, versus replace, human resources with the power of smart machines.

It’s easy to tell Level 1 and 2 stories because they are observations that anyone can make. Getting to Level 3 requires you understand the stakes, that you know enough about your character’s struggle to offer actionable advice. For example:

Level 1:

Six states, including California and New York, mandate harassment training to all employees, not just new hires.


Level 2:

Mandatory harassment training forces HR managers to pay attention to the issue because it is still unresolved.


Level 3:

Most HR executives find that harassment training actually backfires, making perpetrators more likely to blame the victims — and the victims more likely to remain silent.


Enlightened HR executives train managers and supervisors how to spot harassment early, then intervene swiftly and effectively to prevent HR escalation in the first place.

You can also think of Level 3 as a teaser story, the type of message that will elicit Tell me more.

  1. Every company must digitally transform.


2. Digital transformation efforts are much different than transformations of the past.


3. CMOs that lead transformation initiatives will fail if they build them on traditional project structures that value the wrong things.


Traditional business cases are built on defined outcomes, which doesn’t work if you’re not sure which digital business model you’ll end up with. It’s why enlightened CEOs treat transformation more like a scientific experiment than traditional technology projects of the past.

Should marketing stories be measured on sales?

No. The goal of any marketing story is to elicit the response, “Tell me more.” That’s because marketing stories (such as elevator pitches) aren’t designed to sell anything, rather open the door to a sales call or the opportunity to go deeper (a free trial, a white paper, or opportunity to talk to an expert).

Marketing stories generate leads. Sales people generate deals.

When well-written white papers, landing pages, or email campaigns don’t perform as expected, marketers tend to blame the format or medium, with statements such as “email marketing doesn’t work” or “people don’t like white papers” when in fact, the problem is the story (especially stories that don’t map to character-conflict-resolution).

Poor performing stories usually omit conflict. Over half the marketing stories we read acknowledge a situation (flat sales, poor service or unsatisfying UX), then rush to resolution, without exploring conflict.

Without conflict, there’s no business case. Without conflict there’s no urgency. If buyers aren’t responding to your call-to-action, turn up the stakes with deeper character conflict. I promise you’ll see a difference.

Many business people struggle with the idea of creating dramatic business stories because we’re taught to keep emotion out of the workplace. But, years of research by neuroscientist, Antonio Damasio shows that big decisions, especially purchase decisions, draw on the brain’s frontal cortex, where emotions are regulated.

Moreover, drama’s origin comes from the Latin word, dran, meaning “to do, to act.” All you’re really doing with drama is setting urgent situations up for resolution (which is where you and your product come in).

Apply the dramatic structure to your corporate story. How did a deep understanding of your buyer’s conflict motivate you to start a company? Why are you committed? Buyers want to know your story, and where you plan to go next (also known as Vision).

Study the job description of your target buyer. You can’t be authentic if you lack knowledge of how your target buyer gets a promotion (as well as what would cause them to lose their job). Use this knowledge to inspire character, conflict and resolution.

Always iterate. You never get it right the first time out. I’ve worked with clients for weeks, often months, trying different story ideas. Start small, then turn up the drama with each iteration. You’ll eventually get to the story that feels sincere and authentic, without being melodramatic.

Finally, study the stories of your competitors as well as providers outside your sector, which often provide more inspiration. For example, Lexus got ideas for its award-winning service from Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts. 3M developed a post-surgery infection prevention solution after getting input from a makeup artist. Elevators in malls were inspired by the mining industry.

The following are Level 1 stories (that make us yawn). See if you can move them to TELL ME MORE by asking SO WHAT? Keep asking until you get to something that will illicit your desired response.

· Every brand must engage its customers.

· Good marketing leaders make data-driven decisions.

· A robust customer experience is key to competing in the 21s century.

· Every company is moving to the cloud.

Richard Fouts is the founder of Comunicado, a marketing communications company that helps brands tell their story.

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