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July 05, 2007

The Nine Best Story Lines for Marketing


Lois Kelly is the author of Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word-of-Mouth Marketing. This is her explanation of the top nine types of stories that people like to talk about. If you’re pitching your company to investors, customers, partners, journalists, vendors, or employees and you don’t use at least one of these story lines, you probably have a problem. And most likely you’re too close to what you’re doing, so you think that you’re uniquely “patent-pending, curve-jumping, and revolutionary.” :-)

  1. Aspirations and beliefs. More than any other topic, people like to hear about aspirations and beliefs. (This may be why religion is the most popular word-of-mouth topic, ever.) Sun Microsystems’ Scott McNealy’s point of view about ending the digital divide is aspirational as is Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s views about how companies can grow by reducing pollution and creating more sustainable business strategies. Aspirations are helpful because they help us connect emotionally to the speaker, the company, and the issues. They help us see into a person or company’s soul.

  2. David vs. Goliath. In the story of David and Goliath, the young Hebrew David took on the Philistine giant Goliath and beat him. It is the way Southwest Airlines conquered the big carriers, the way the once unknown Japanese car manufacturers took on Detroit, and the way social media is taking on the media giants. Sharing stories about how a small organization is taking on a big company is great business sport. Rooting for the underdog grabs our emotions, creates meaning, and invokes passion. We like to listen to the little guy talk about how he’s going to win and why the world—or the industry—will be a better place for it.

  3. Avalanche about to roll. The mountain is rumbling, the sun is getting stronger, but the rocks and snow are yet to fall. You want to tune in and listen to the “avalanche about to roll” topic because you know that there’s a chance that you will be killed if caught unaware. This theme taps into our desire to get the inside story before it’s widely known. It’s not only interesting to hear someone speak about these ideas, they have the ingredients for optimal viral and pass-along effect.

  4. Contrarian/counterintuitive/challenging assumptions. These three themes are like first cousins, similar in many ways but slightly different. Contrarian perspectives defy conventional wisdom; they are positions that often are not in line with—or may even be directly opposite to—the wisdom of the crowd. The boldness of contrarian views grabs attention; the more original and less arrogant they are, the more useful they will be in provoking meaningful conversations.

    Counterintuitive ideas fight with what our intuition (as opposed to a majority of the public) says is true. When you introduce counterintuitive ideas, it takes people a minute to reconcile the objective truth with their gut assumption about the topic. Framing views counter to how we intuitively think about topics—going against natural “gut instincts”—pauses and then resets how we think and talk about concepts.

    Challenging widely-held assumptions means that when everyone else says the reason for an event is X, you show that it’s actually Y. Challenging assumptions is good for debate and discussion, and especially important in protecting corporate reputation.

  5. Anxieties. Anxiety is a cousin of the avalanche about to roll, but it is more about uncertainty than an emerging, disruptive trend. Examples of anxiety themes abound: (1) Financial services companies urging baby boomers to hurry up and invest more for retirement: “You’re 55. Will you have your needed $3.2 million to retire comfortably?” (2) Tutoring companies planting seeds of doubt about whether our kids will score well enough on the SATs to get into a good college. Although anxiety themes grab attention, go easy. People are becoming skeptical, and rightly so. Too many politicians, companies have bombarded us with FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) with no facts to back up their point.

  6. Personalities and personal stories. There’s nothing more interesting than a personal story with some life lessons to help us understand what makes executives tick and what they value the most. The points of these personal stories are remembered, retold, and instilled into organizational culture. Robert Goizueta, the respected CEO of Coca-Cola, said he hated giving speeches but he was always telling stories—often personal ones about how he and his family had to flee Cuba when Castro took control and had nothing more than his education.

    Similarly, when Steve Jobs gave the commencement address to Stanford University in June 2005, he shared his personal story and life lessons. That commencement address, “Stay Hungry. Stay Foolish,” was talked about on thousands of blog and was published verbatim in Fortune magazine. It helped us see Jobs in a new light.

  7. How-to stories and advice. Theoretical and thought-provoking ideas are nice, but people love pragmatic how-to advice: how to solve problems, find next practices, and overcome common obstacles. To be interesting, how-to themes need to be fresh and original, providing a new twist to what people already know or tackle thorny issues like how to get IT and marketing organizations to work together despite deep culture clashes between the two.

  8. Glitz and glam. Robert Palmer sang about being addicted to love. Our society is more addicted to glamour and celebrity. Finding a way to logically link to something glitzy and glamorous is a surefire conversation starter. For example, tagging on to the widespread interest in the Academy Awards, Randall Rothenberg, former director of intellectual property at consultancy Booz Allen-Hamilton, last year talked about the similarity and challenges between creating new “star” product brands and movie stars.

  9. Seasonal/event-related. Last, and least interesting but seems to resonate, is tying your topic into seasonal or major events. Talking about industry predictions around the New Year, advertising during SuperBowl season, executive compensation reform when an executive of a well known company “resigns” with an especially bloated compensation package are examples of this type of story.

Here’s a good exercise for your team: Have it read this posting and then answer the question: What story line does our marketing currently use? Then, if you’re brave enough, ask the question: What story line should our marketing use?


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Here i got nine best story lines for marketing where you can improve your business. For more information about direct marketing just log on to...

The "David and Goliath" post made me think that so many times today the David is eventually bought by the Goliath. Look at Myspace or Youtube, and the repeated attempts to buy Facebook. These companies were all started by young people. It is hard for them to stay steadfast when a 'Goliath' offers them a billion dollars.

Word of mouth is very powerful...when it comes to movies and books.

Don't Lose This Product key!

I have to admire Kelly’s generally optimistic outlook, but it seems to me people like to talk about a lot negative things too. Beyond anxiety, I’d say many stories play on suspicion (“look who’s screwing us now”) and contempt (“I can’t believe they did that”). Think perennial Microsoft stories for the former, and the recent Paris Hilton story for the latter. I guess the lesson for marketing is a little different than Kelly’s stories however –how do you _avoid_ having these stories told about you? To summarize the summary, someone I forgot in the news business once said there are only two stories: 1) Oh, the wonder of it! 2) Oh, the shame of it!

Great post. No question about it, people love the whole "David vs. Goliath" story, or the old garage startup thing. We love the underdog because we can relate and rally around the idea of our own company's successes and growth. One thing not mentioned is failure, or more importantly, stories of coming back from a failure... very inspirational

Thanks for putting this post together. I also ordered the book by the way.

Story Lines are the area where I've always felt I needed the most help in order to do a good job on blog posts, articles, and copywriting.

I think these storylines will also help to take a current hot topic where a BUZZ already exists, and tie it to a post, article, product or service.

I've seen other comments asking how to raise the awareness level of start-ups and tying a start-up to existing hot topics, BUZZES, is certainly one approach to doing that.

This would be a perfect use for this new product being launched at Social Buzz Master

Manual trackback:

Hi Guy,

So do we get quadruple points using four? Six Seconds, The Emotional Intelligenece Network helps people use their full power and potential (aspiration) and discover that while they've been told to leave emotions at the door, actually emotions are a key source of wisdom for good decisions (challenge assumptions). We're a small 501(c)3 nonprofit that now has offices around the globe, and our client list includes FedEx and the US Navy (Goliath who?) -- and our programs keep people from joining the 1 in 6 CEOs who will lose their jobs this year by making poor interpersonal decisions (anxious??).

The problem: These tips work better if you're already a rock star!! Instead it seems to take a lot of 1:1 conversation.

- Josh

Hi Guy !

You and your ideas are so inspiring... even for french peoples like me (even if I sometimes feel more american than I should ;-)

...especially when I just read your posts !

Thanks for sharing all your "stuff" with us !

David Bernard - Paris (FR)

fantastic, love this. we work with so called dissadvantaged young people here in the UK, and we find that all of the above is key to them WAKING UP to what is being offered. knowing that waking up starts on the inside!! i was wondering as i read about the stuff taught in NLP about meta programs and how the story lines seem to gell with those understandings. example: the meta program of 'away from towards', tell me a story regarding the approaching storm, and if i have the program 'away from' running, thats going to motivate me, and it will be outside of conciousness so i am just going to feel like running and not know why!! again thanks mate regards
mark h uk


I read your book "Art of The Start" on vacation in Nantucket last weekend and thoroughly enjoyed it. In fact, the book is covered with notes and action items that I'm busy pounding out this week.

You've hooked me at this point and now I'm reading your blog. Well done.

I liked this particular post so much, I posted it to www.dailyhub.com -- it's right up DailyHub's alley.


A wonderful post.

I believe the two most important ones are #2 (David & Goliath) and #6 (Personalities and personal stories).
We love David and his underdog story. It gives us hope that persistence and belief is so important. In a way, anyone can make it if they want it bad enough. A "feel good" story.
Based on experience, personal stories are a must, and so is honesty in telling them. It brings the speaker to a 'human' level. Showing the reactions in certain situations, and how it is similar to others' reactions. This works great for comedians when they share stories that many people can relate to...turning to their friends and say: "I can't believe it, but I do that".


Great post, Guy, about the power of stories in business and life in general. As I'm sure has been noted before, Christ Himself spoke primarily in stories to those whom He wanted to convey His aspirations and beliefs.

It's interesting to note that He usually had to explain these stories to the knowledgable insiders with whom He worked (His disciples).

Goes to show that, just because we may be well-versed in some aspect of business or life, we may not yet be plugged into how best to convey that to others. Your post helps us to do just that, Guy. Thanks!

Your Friends at Nameless, Faceless Love

Guy, your article cannot be any more timely. I am an advocate of stories especially in business presentations or a speech that educates/inspires. One of the problems speakers have is what stories to tell. This is where your article comes in handy. I picked three top favorites and gave specific examples of how they are leveraged. You can take a look and give me some comments - thanks!


Eric Feng

Can't get your posts to print properly. Would love to share with my team if I could.

I have been selling real estate for about 15 years. When I was lean, mean and hungry, I used to use your first six types of stories, all with good results. I have drifted away from using these stories.

The challenge is how to incorporate the others into my pitch, especially #8 and #9. You got me thinking. Thanks.

Thanks Guy for the summary, I think this book needs a deep read. I putted it on my wish list.

Making meaning, that's the core concept of this article. On the 9 story lines, the secret is to conect the message to user reality. That1's right?

Here's one that I'm surprised didn't make the list.

10. Can't have it
There's nothing more interesting to potential customers or journalists than a product that most people can't get their hands on. Those that do have "it" feel special and want to brag about it, and those that don't have it want to know how to get it.

This may not qualify as a story or pitch, but it sure generates buzz. Great post!


Great timing with this article. I'm actually being interviewed tomorrow, and was literally just thinking about how to make our story really exciting and memorable.

Our story naturally has: Aspiration/Beliefs, David and Goliath, and a bit of Contrarian.

I'm wondering whether it's worth working more in there or if I should stick with the basics and do them well.

Any thoughts?

- Mason

Wow. Your blog is priceless. I'm tempted to set it as my homepage.
I've recently started quite the impractical journey and I would be honored if you'd consider giving me some advice.

One Man. One Year. $100,000. How's he doing it?

You are right, everybody needs a dream, an ideal to fight for.

The right ideas, coupled with aspiration, applied with diligence over time is the key to any "overnight success".

Beliefs is a powerful tool, I'm just not quite sure how well you can convey to your customer their own beliefs, or a new belief. I guess I'll have to read it to find out :)

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