If storytelling is such a great sales technique, why do most marketers get storytelling wrong? Put simply, they don’t understand the individual elements required to make up a story.

As a storytelling coach and consultant, I work with executives and teams on their origin, company, and brand stories. I love seeing headlines that promote the benefits of storytelling. This Forbes article is a great example: “15 Minutes Of Storytelling Could Boost Productivity By 23%.” Content like this should help me grow my business, right?

Unfortunately, the headline is misleading. The research they used is actually based on “individual reflection” not “storytelling.” The research shows that “when employees spent just 15 minutes per day reflecting on what they learned that day, they began to perform 23% better after just 10 days.” However, “individual reflection” and “storytelling,” aren’t the same thing. Yet, I see this happen all the time. Authors throw the word around all the time and get it wrong. They use the word “story” instead of a description or basic information. However, a story isn’t just a description or basic information. A story is a story! (Side note: I spent five years studying narrative techniques and strategies at UT-Austin while getting my Ph.D. So I confess, I’m a bit of a purist when it comes to defining what a story is–or isn’t.)

But think about it. Do you want to spend $15 at a movie theater to see someone sitting around “reflecting on what they learned at work that day?” No. Because it’s not a story! Instinctively, you know this. But marketers try to use the concept of storytelling to sell everything. For example, how many times have you heard phrases like this?

  • “Your car tells a story.”
  • “Our data tells a story.”
  • “The food you eat tells a story.”
  • “Clothing tells a story.”

No, they don’t! None of those things, by themselves, tell a story. None of these things, without context, tell a story. They might reveal information, but they do not tell a coherent story. When marketers use empty language like this, beware. It’s a gimmick.

The benefit of storytelling is in how the information is structured, not just the information itself.

A lot has been written about why storytelling is such a compelling marketing tool. And, a lot has been written about the role of storytelling throughout human history. Our brains are literally hard-wired to understand stories. So, it makes sense that marketers would use this format to try and sell us stuff. The problem is that so many marketers and companies use the concept of “story” within their marketing–but have no idea what a story actually is. That’s why they often get it wrong.

So, what are the five basic elements of a story?

  1. Context
  2. Conflict
  3. Action
  4. Resolution
  5. Conclusion

The most basic explanation of a story is that an individual experiences conflict and attempts to solve it. (Think of every book you’ve ever read or every TV episode or film you’ve ever watched. That’s it.) In a classical sense, the narrative progresses through causal events and occurs in linear time and space. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Of course, there’s more to it than that. A good story requires emotional stakes so the audience actually cares about what happens to the main character. And, the protagonist will vary depending on what kind of business story you tell. But put plainly, that’s it.) According to Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal, “Stories are problem-solution structures.” That’s the basic structure our brains are hard-wired to remember.

That’s why a car or clothing or food, by itself, doesn’t tell a story. That’s why data, by itself, doesn’t tell a story. Companies from every industry will try and convince you otherwise, but they’re wrong. Just because they use the word “story” in their marketing materials doesn’t mean their products are actually telling a story. They’re simply using the word to leverage the neuroscience and evolutionary research associated with it, despite having no real connection to it.

So, the next time you hear a company or marketer make a claim about storytelling, ask yourself the following question. “Is there a clear protagonist who experiences a problem and takes action to overcome it?” If the answer is no, they’re not selling you a story; they’re just selling you a line.