If I show you a picture of myself smiling, what would your reaction be?
You’ll likely either have no reaction, or something along the lines of “okay.”
But what if I show you that same picture, but with a caption describing how I was born blind and this was my first time seeing anything after getting an advanced medical treatment?
If you’re human, you’re going to feel some positive emotion.
Now, I was never blind, but these types of stories get shared widely on Reddit, Instagram, and other social media platforms. An ordinary message is transformed into an impactful one through storytelling.
A good story compels action, whether that action is sharing, clicking, or buying something. And stories are much easier to remember than business statistics, charts, or reports.
We can use frameworks to create compelling stories for our brand, businesses, non-profits, and products.
Freytag’s Pyramid (or triangle) is a famous storytelling structure that has been used for centuries, and I believe that marketers can use it as well.
This guide will teach you about Freytag’s Pyramid, with examples and an actionable plan to start incorporating it in your marketing.
- The Elements of Freytag’s Pyramid
- The Science of Storytelling
- Using Freytag’s Pyramid to Craft Better Marketing Stories
- Marketing Examples of Freytag’s Pyramid in Action
- A Simple Step-by-Step Checklist For Using Freytag’s Pyramid
Freytag’s Pyramid was created by the German writer Gustav Freytag.
He was a recognized author, and despite being racist, knew his stuff when it came to storytelling.
Here’s the legendary pyramid:
There are 5 main acts to a story, according to Freytag:
- Exposition: The beginning of a story that introduces crucial background information. Often done through narration, flashbacks, and dialogues. The end of this stage is marked by some type of conflict that sets the story in motion.
- Rising action: The sequence of events where action is taken by the protagonist to try and solve the conflict, working towards the climax.
- Climax: The biggest moment in the story, and the first major turning point. Could be a big positive or negative event.
- Falling action: Another sequence of events where the initial conflict that began the story unravels, building to a final big event where the protagonist succeeds or fails.
- Dénouement: Any final events needed to wrap up the story and potentially set-up another one. This is where any consequences and anything else still unknown is revealed.
Reading through those, you could probably match each part to almost every fiction movie you’ve watched.
Note that the pyramid typically applies to fictional works of Freytag’s days (think Shakespeare and short stories).
However, it still all applies well over 100 years later, but we will have to tweak small parts later on to make it applicable to marketing messages.
The Science of Storytelling
Storytelling has always existed once humanity found ways to communicate with each other.
Stories can make us feel powerful emotions, both good and bad. You know this intuitively.
Make me care: In this video, filmmaker Andrew Stanton shares the elements of a good story. Stanton’s films include Toy Story, WALL-E, and John Carter.
Stories, Emotions, and Action
But does this lead to action?
Let’s look at a few of the studies.
First, a research team set up an experiment to see how motivated people were to donate after an emotional story.
Participants were split into two groups, one of which watched a short video. The video was a story about a 2-year-old child with terminal cancer and his father.
After the video, they were asked if they wanted to donate part of their earnings from participating in the study to a cancer charity.
Does Storytelling Increase Non-Profit Donations?
Not surprisingly, donations were significantly higher in the group that watched the emotional video.
By measuring a variety of biometrics, the researchers found that oxytocin and cortisol were both released while watching the story. Both are powerful hormones.
Storytelling as a Prompt to Effective Action
In another study, researchers at University of Massachusetts Medical School showed a video to patients with hypertension (high blood pressure). The video was a persuasive story that focused on the benefits of taking action to improve blood pressure control.
The results were impressive. The story produced a strong enough emotional response to cause viewers to take actions well after the viewing.
The viewers experienced a 10 mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure relative to the control group.
It can also increase your chances of going viral. In Contagious Jonah Berger lists stories as one of the key elements of viral content.
Video: Jonah Berger discusses the key elements of viral content, identifying stories as a tool to create content worth sharing.
Using Freytag’s Pyramid to Craft Better Marketing Stories
That all sounds neat, but how do you actually apply this to marketing?
If you just start writing stories with no structure, chances are that no one is going to read them.
There’s just too much content online competing for the attention of your target audience.
Video: The Johnny Bobbitt story had many of elements of Freytag’s framework: including an emotional hook and a call to action. The story led to a remarkable round of feel-good fundraising for the homeless vet. But when the story was revealed to be a scam, the central characters found themselves at the center of a new — and equally dramatic — story, one told by prosecutors and police.
You Need a Hook and a Call-To-Action (CTA)
So there are 2 major modifications we need to make.
First, you need to add an emotional hook. You do this through a strong headline.
Something that’s interesting enough to get someone to start reading or viewing your story in the first place. From that point, a well-crafted story will keep their attention.
Second, you need a strong call to action (CTA) at the end. You could argue that a CTA could fall within the dénouement, but you should make it a clear and distinct element for a marketing story.
A decent number of small and medium-sized business are already applying Freytag’s framework.
It works well in short or long messages. So it can really be used for storytelling in a variety of marketing forms:
- Case studies
- Blog posts (content marketing in general)
- Social media (Instagram stories, Twitter, etc.)
- Email marketing campaigns
- Landing pages
Here are a few examples that we can outline in more depth.
Example #1 – Social Media Storytelling
Let’s start with a quick one, a Twitter thread by the founder of Product Hunt.
After being acquired by AngelList, he starts off with an enticing hook to grab attention:
That’s followed up with a quick Tweet with background information:
After he explains Product Hunt’s core goal and mission he moves onto the climax – their accomplishments from those actions.
Finally, he explains what will happen in the future, and ends off with a CTA.
I think it could have been structured a bit better, but he has all the core elements of the triangle there.
Example #2 – Case Study Storytelling
The next example is a marketing agency’s case study about work they did for Patagonia.
Setting the scene: The case study web page begins with background information about Patagonia to set the scene for the story:
Then, it ends the exposition with a clear “conflict” that Patagonia was trying to overcome.
Next up are the rising actions, where the case study explains how they approached the challenge and worked towards solving it.
Finally, after all that work, a final approach to solving it was put in place, leading to the big turning point and climax.
In this case, they went on a tour. The case study includes pictures and a map of the tour. The tour is the fallout of the climax or the falling action.
The case study then gets to the results:
And finally, it has a CTA at the end for people to contact them.
To use a framework, you should always have a list of things you need to follow to simplify it and make your results consistent.
So I’ve put together a list of questions that will guide you through the process and leave you with a solid structure:
- Do you have an emotional hook?
- Is there any crucial background information a reader need? (Exposition)
- Why are you telling this story? (Conflict)
- What makes your approach unique or interesting? (Rising action)
- What is your solution (product, blog post, etc.)? (Climax)
- What went into making your solution? (Falling action)
- How has your solution helped people? (Dénouement)
- How can your customer access your solution?
If you answer all those questions, you have all the main parts of a story there.
Depending on the medium, you may have to edit and flesh out parts to connect each answer to each other.
Now you’re ready to set out on the path to crafting stories, not just creating content.
Depending on your background, storytelling may be quite difficult and will take some practice.
What’s Next? Recommended Reading
Here are a few other resources that might helpful in advancing your marketing.
How to start email marketing with your business today – Includes templates that incorporate storytelling specifically for email marketing.
A guide to emotional intelligence – Storytelling is all about emotion. This guide will help you learn how to become more emotionally intelligent.
Marketing ideas on a budget – Provides other marketing ideas besides storytelling that can be done on a budget for SMBs.
Contributing Editor: Bronwynne Powell