Using stories to create effective videos

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Why create videos that tell a story?

Over 300 hours of video are uploaded onto YouTube every minute, and that doesn’t take into account those on Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tik Tok and Vimeo. Until the early 2000s, companies who wanted to make a video had a choice between a TV ad or a corporate video to use at events and trade fairs. However, in the last fifteen years or so, the world of communication has been flooded with new content: tutorials, branded content, web series, video reviews, unboxing, animated explanations, actual short films and much more. At the same time, the number of screens we have for watching this content has increased exponentially: TVs, PCs, smartphones, tablets, displays at railway stations and many other devices.

PROBLEM: video overload and declining viewer attention

The more this seething mass of video content increases in size, the more the public’s attention decreases. This is the paradox of the attention economy, which has been confirmed by repeated studies: we are all more distracted all the time, and less inclined to focus on marketing content. What can be done about this?

SOLUTION: exploit the power of stories

Making use of the structure of stories may be a winning idea, because stories have the power to recall dynamics and scenarios that are familiar to the viewer. In this article, we’ll discover together why this happens and how best to use a story structure to produce a video that really makes an impact.

Making effective videos, thanks to the power of stories
Making effective videos, thanks to the power of stories

Myths: prehistoric stories

Myths were the first type of story to appear, created when reason did not provide us with sufficient tools to process reality and overcome the fears and worries that arose during our lives. The scholar Joseph Campbell compared thousands of myths from every corner of the globe, and managed to identify a formula that underpins almost every mythological narrative. This structure, which according to the author is carved into the human psyche, involves three key elements:

1) The birth of a hero who lacks something: for example someone with a defect, no parents, or a physical issue. This is known as the Ordinary World.

2) Distancing from the community. Here the hero enters the Special World and faces challenges that put them in extreme danger.

3) Reunion with the community. This is the final step. The hero returns, showing that they have lost something of whatever they were before and gained a lot more: power, wisdom, or a deeper knowledge of themselves, which they can then make available to the community.

Simple "hero's journey" scheme. Source: Wikicommons. Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hero%C2%B4s_Journey.jpg
Simple “hero’s journey” scheme. Source: Wikicommons. Link: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hero%C2%B4s_Journey.jpg

From the myths of the past to Hollywood, in 12 steps

The screenwriter Christopher Vogler turned the structure of the myth devised by Campbell into something fit for the big screen. If myths are universal because they are ingrained in our psychology, Vogler reasoned, a story based on the structure of a myth will be capable of having a profound impact on any human being, regardless of their culture.

Let’s have a look at the twelve narrative steps that form the key elements of a video story, borrowed from the structure of myths and legends:

ACT 1

1. Ordinary World

The hero is presented. They generally have some kind of defect that means they are not perfectly suited to the society in which they live.

2. Call to adventure

The hero receives a call: a message, an event, a suggestion or a threat gives them the chance (or forces them) to change something in their life, and step out of their comfort zone.

3. Refusal of the call

Initially the hero may refuse to change. After all, changes are always scary: even if we’re not entirely happy with our everyday lives, it is not always easy to admit to ourselves that the only thing we want to do is leave our comfort zone.

4. Meeting the mentor

At this point of the story, a very important figure is introduced, who encourages the hero, supports them and offers them physical or mental tools to help them cope with the change.

5. Crossing the threshold

This is the borderline between the first and second act, and features a moment of inertia, which often forces the hero to carry out an initial reappraisal of themselves and their desire to change and develop. They frequently encounter the Guardian of the Threshold at this stage.

In every story the hero has at least one difficult test to pass
In every story the hero has at least one difficult test to pass

ACT 2

6 & 7. Tests and approach to the inmost cave

We are now at the heart of the story. At point 6 the hero encounters their first tests, which lead to a rebalancing of the relationships between friends and enemies. After this, the hero must face their destiny alone (7).

8. Ordeal

Here we reach crisis point: the hero faces the villain (their foe) and risks physical, moral or social death.

9 & 10. Reward and the road back

If the hero manages to defeat the villain, they receive a reward that may be of use later on. Now they’re ready to take the road back, where they will encounter a new threshold.

ACT 3

11. Resurrection

Back in the Ordinary World they started from, the hero must face a final and decisive test to show that they have truly changed and grown. The reward received at stage 9 could be decisive here.

12. Return with the elixir

The hero has succeeded in his endeavour. A final literal or metaphorical reward is received that confirms the shift in the balance of the society he left. The hero has finally found a new place in society and the society has improved as a result.

A specific example: “COMING HOME FROM CHRISTMAS”, a video advertising HEATHROW AIRPORT

This video was one of the most widely viewed adverts of 2016, and the framework we’ve just explored is immediately visible in its plot.

1. Ordinary World

The aeroplane transporting two adorable animated teddy bears arrives at its destination.

2. Call to adventure

A hostess gives the two bears their jackets (they had dozed off) and tells them the flight is almost over. Metaphorically she’s telling them that they have to start their journey and begin an adventure.

3. Refusal of the call

Not present: the two bears, despite being lethargic from their sleep, nevertheless start their journey.

4. Meeting with the mentor

The helpful airport staff, embodied by the numerous small ways they help out our two loveable heroes, represent the mentor, always ready to intervene when necessary to support the protagonists.

5. Crossing the first threshold

A customs officer checks their documents carefully. His two expressions are typical of the character of the Guardian of the Threshold: a severe look when checking that everything is in order, and a welcoming smile as soon as the test has been passed.

6, 7 & 8. Tests

Deep inside the airport, which clearly represents the Extraordinary World, the two soft toys face various tests: jumping onto an escalator, using signs to find their way around and, most difficult of all, grabbing their suitcases from the conveyor belt. Luckily, a member of staff (the mentor at work once again) helps them with this task.

9 & 10. Reward and the road back

After causing a mini disaster when buying a box of biscuits, they are on the road back, at the exit of the terminal.

11. Resurrection

Now comes the difficult part: identifying their family amongst the crowd. But it’s OK – the grandchildren are very excited, and run to meet them.

12. Return with the elixir

In the final embrace, the teddy bears suddenly return to being the human grandparents they had always been. A phrase appears: Coming home. The best gift of all, and the advert ends with the Heathrow Airport logo.

As we have seen, in this case it is the airport staff that act as the mentor for our teddy bear heroes. But what does this mean? The Heathrow Airport brand is positioning itself on the market as the ideal travel partner for all customers, who are presented as the heroes. But if there is a hero, there must also be a villain, right? Where is the villain in this video? It is not much of a stretch to say that the advanced age of the two cute stars of the video is their only true adversary, and so it is this that takes on the role of villain.

An example you’ll either love or hate

In the mid-1990s, the agency Lowe Lintas Pirella Göettsche was commissioned to produce a series of TV ads for Superga, and created a campaign that managed to capture the imagination of many Italian teenagers.

Here is one of the ads from the era:

A smartly dressed man, sat on the back seat of a chauffeur-driven luxury car, finds himself blocked in the street. Outside, chaos ensues: a group of men wearing disturbing animal masks are protesting, seemingly about an environmental issue. It all leads to furious urban guerrilla warfare, and the police do not hold back in their beatings, smoke bombs and use of truncheons. In the struggle, one of the demonstrators, with a rabbit mask, ends up on the bonnet of the car, and loses a shoe – a Superga – before managing to escape.
We then jump to the home of the same man, in the middle of a classic family dinner. His eldest son, while kissing his mother, pushes a newspaper from the table to the floor, pretending to do it accidentally, but encouraging his father with a glance. His father bends down to pick up the newspaper, and notices his daughter is missing one of her two Superga shoes. He looks at her, and she returns his gaze with eyes daring him to say something. The logo and slogan appear: Superga. Si odia. O si ama (“Superga. Love them or hate them”).

One possible interpretation

This is a story laden with conflict, expertly compressed into just one minute. If we consider the girl as the heroine, the father must therefore be the villain. Losing a shoe in the middle of the conflict is therefore her moment of crisis (the protagonist risks a lot at that particular moment). Luckily, our heroine receives her escape to safety as a reward and, once back home, she has to tackle her father, the villain, who soon realises the truth: she was the revolutionary he almost ran over a short time earlier. At stage 11 (Resurrection) the advert stops masterfully, leaving the public unsure as to how the conflict will play out.

Another viewpoint

However, in line with the ambiguity of the slogan at the end, we could also adopt precisely the opposite viewpoint. A businessman in his fifties may find it more natural to empathise with the father, and see him as the hero. In this way, his daughter becomes the antagonist. It is this duplicity, this Manichean conflict between black and white, that gives the story its explosive power, and its success in reflecting the unrest of a generation of teenagers who sought to define themselves by pitting themselves against their fathers’ generation. Superga, thanks in part to this TV ad, became associated with values such as transgression, non-conformism and the courage to be different and caught the imagination of thousands of teenagers and young adults.

Videos and stories: what have we learned?

Stories grab our attention more than other content because they have always been part of us and because, before appearing on cinema screens or on the pages of novels, they were written inside our very beings. In a way, we can say that stories represent the machine code of what it means to be human. That’s why getting to know them and applying their principles can be an excellent way of creating effective videos that will have a profound effect on viewers.

Now, why not watch this fantastic video, and try to identify its key structural elements?

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