Endings—where stories leave the audience: Part two

In the first part of this story, we looked at why endings are such a make-or-break element in storytelling, and how weak endings break the trust between the audience and the storyteller. In this second part, we’re going to explore how brands can consistently create good story endings by considering their company values, key personality traits and media goals.

One of my favourite lecturers at university spoke about how a mediocre work of art would lead the observer towards entertainment, a good work of art towards inspiration, a great work of art towards insight and a masterpiece towards realisation. This always stayed with me. Now I know that this applies a little differently to all forms of expression, including stories.

From our experience at Public Works, the ending of brand stories are most successful, consistent and memorable when they are connected to your brand personality and values. Some brands want to inspire, some want to entertain, some like to give insight, and others like to make a connection. In our storytelling process, we identify these aspects of a brand with the involvement of the client, at the very beginning of our work together.

We ask them questions about how they want to be remembered, how they want to influence the world, how they want to connect with others, and what they themselves are seeking for. Depending on what the client brand identifies as their preferred point of influence, connection, exploration, and legacy, we consistently build stories that lead to endings that generate the right brand perception. 

In commercial storytelling, it’s through these desired brand perceptions, that storytellers can craft the most successful endings; Consider if your brand should be delivering the audience with endings of justice and satisfaction, surprising twists or thrilling cliff hangers; or is it a brand that delivers happily-ever-afters? Endings left unresolved, or abstract, can be tricky—unless the storyteller can make a point out of that uncertainty. In commercial storytelling, we find that endings with a ‘zoom out on a big picture’ work great for brands that want to deliver insight, while endings that create relief through a solution are particularly good to show how certain problems can be resolved.

Endings with prompts are particularly useful to inspire people to do something, or become part of something. One of my personal favourite endings to storytelling is ‘closing the circle’; returning the story observer to the beginning. If we’ve done our job as storytellers, ‘closing the circle’ type of endings highlight to the observer how their own understanding has shifted through the story, creating a sense of awe and a greater appreciation for their experience. Much of storytelling is cyclical. Sometimes it’s a metaphorical return home, such as in ‘The Hero’s Journey’ story pattern, while in other cases, the cycle is quite literal with the story ending where it started.

An all-important aspect to consider when crafting successful endings to brand stories are the current media goals of the client. What is the client intending to achieve from the stories? Sell? Inspire? Invite the audience to participate in an event? Build brand awareness?

These are important conversations to have at the beginning of the storytelling process. Of course, media goals shift over time; and we recommend clients to realign them to coincide with changing business strategies and market contexts every six months to one year. Framing story endings with media goals has given our clients stories that consistently contribute to their business.

Endings are one of the most important, effective and interesting aspects in storytelling; to understand how you can create stories with endings that lead to better business, get in touch with me at our storytelling studio Public Works.

Endings—where stories leave the audience: Part one

I don’t judge a book by its cover, but I definitely judge it by the ending. I always read the ending of a book before I delve fully into it. If the ending is weak I usually become hesitant about investing my time on that book; And, I don’t think I’m alone there. 

There’s no question about the significance of endings when it comes to stories. From the perspective of the observer, the ending is their last interaction with the story—the place where they leave the created world in the story, and return to their reality; It’s their moment to decipher meaning out of the story experience; the final takeaway. From the storyteller’s perspective, it is the last impression you get to make in your audience’s mind. It’s what we leave the audience with; it’s where you send them off to arrive at meaning. 

1909, Meredith, George. The adventures of Harry Richmond published by Constable, London.

As storytellers, we pay special attention to the ending for two major reasons; First, because we owe the audience an ending that returns the value of the time they invested into the story. This is why weak endings—worse, lazy and inconsiderate endings like ‘it was all a dream’—break the trust between the audience and the storyteller; in the case of brand stories, you can see why consistently weak endings definitely harm the consumer perception of your business. The ending must deliver something worthwhile to the audience. The second reason why we pay special attention to endings in the storytelling process, is that it is the component that audiences most consistently retain. Think about how much you remember from the ending of your favorite movies versus their beginning. People usually remember endings better. In commercial storytelling, this is why the ending is where a prompt, also called a ‘call to action’, is most commonly brought in. 

If an audience invests time into a story, the storytellers must deliver an ending that reciprocates the value of their time. Weak endings break the trust between the audience and the storyteller. Your stories should never waste their time.

How do you make sure that an ending is good? How do you ensure the quality of the final takeaway you give your audience is retained consistently? You give the audience something of value. You give them insight, entertainment, inspiration or a solution to fulfil a need; you reciprocate the investment they made with their time. With our work at Public Works, we often use a combination of image, sound and word to create effective endings that deliver heightened emotivity and interest to the audience. 

In the second part of this story, we’ll talk about our process to create brand-appropriate endings and how story endings connect to company values and personality. Endings are one of the most important, effective and interesting aspects in storytelling; to understand how you can create stories with endings that lead to better business, get in touch with me at our storytelling studio Public Works.

Can stories be made as contagious as viruses?

What makes a story worthy of your attention? What makes it worth sharing with someone else? What kind of stories can move people to act upon an idea? This is something we’re constantly studying and analysing. When clients tell us that they want a story that ‘goes viral’, we know that it’s never as simple as creating great copy and visuals. We’ve been looking at why some amazingly told stories never catch on, what makes some stories gain momentum only years after and how some ridiculous ones get spread around enough to make us question human intelligence. 

Last year, we had an interesting insight to how stories spread when my partner Alain Parizeau got into the book ‘The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,’ by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell compared how ideas spread around to how viruses transmit, drawing quite interesting parallels between the two phenomena. We both thought that Gladwell’s analysis was quite spot on; especially because we were right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic at the time. Gladwell’s thoughts on how stories or ideas spread very much like a virus hit home with us as we watched the pandemic unfold in real life. Although the book was written over ten years ago, the insights were still very relevant. 

Gladwell pointed out three key consistent elements in ideas that would reach a tipping point and ‘go viral’, so to speak. Although described and coined differently, Gladwell’s three-ingredient formula for the transmissibility of an idea made perfect sense with what we have been studying about stories ourselves. These were, having the right community, relevance and context. If you’re interested in learning what makes a story that spreads like wildfire, here’s a quick look at what we know. 

1918, Douglas Fairbanks speaking in front of the Sub-Treasury building, New York City, to aid the third Liberty Loan. Paul Thompson. War & Conflict Book.

Find the few who want to tell your story
After hearing my partner analyse Gladwell’s first factor of a viral story—the law of the few—it became apparent to me as the phenomenon we all now know as ‘influencers’. What Gladwell calls the ‘law of the few’ identifies how a small number of people do the most important leg work in making a story popular. This is not difficult to understand today because we’ve all seen how social media influencers and celebrities make stories go viral within a matter of minutes. But, not everyone can afford to get Beyoncé to advocate their brand. So, how does this apply to your business? As part of our story design process, we always get clients to define their target audience, and within that, identify people who have actively shared the brand’s stories, participated in activities or events, and made attempts to connect with the brand in some way; These people become very important in the process of spreading brand stories to wider audiences. We think brand faces, or influencers are great, but only when these personalities are true embodiments of the brand’s own values. After Gladwell’s book, we started paying more attention to another group of people from the brand audience—these are the connoisseurs of the product or service of our clients’ business. Involving these experts from the audience is a great way to get the conversations going while building reliability and trust between the brand and its audience. 
Creating stories that are specific to the interests of these different niche groups is a sure way to get them involved in a meaningful conversation and get the story spreading for the right reasons. This, we find, is a far more effective way to get a story to spread, than placing an advertisement in a newspaper. 

From our experience in creating stories for brands, we know that precise targeting of conversations, even to the degree of niche topics for hyper-specific audiences, is a great strategy that delivers results. This is because the storytellers then have the ability to analyse exactly what the audience is into at that given time, identify key narratives that are moving them, and create stories that bridge the brand and its consumer.

Make it relevant to make it memorable
Something we can’t compromise when creating stories for brands is relevance. This means creating stories that actually bear relevance to what the audience is experiencing in their lives. When my partner was dissecting Gladwell’s book, this is what was highlighted as ‘the stickiness’ factor. A successful story is memorable. What makes a story better remembered is how effortlessly it can be retained in memory; This is especially true in the current media landscape, where we are inundated with information all day long. If a story appeals to what a consumer’s mind is already occupied with, it is much more likely to be remembered. This is why relevance is so important to brand storytelling.

How do brands build relevance? Research, research, research. We always encourage our clients to understand what their audiences are going through in life, even at the most gross, peripheral level that a brand can access. Even a little research is better than no research. Researching the audience is one of the most important steps in successful storytelling, and we’ve shown clients how their investment in audience research can go a long way when it comes to creating stories that drive sales and build brands.

Context is everything
I remember how quiet our city street became when more people started working from home. One afternoon, a vehicle was parked outside our studio with a loud speaker attached to the roof; promoting something. The message and the company being advertised may have been relevant to us, and under different circumstances, we would have even found the story memorable; But, it was lost because of the inconsiderate ways of communicating, and the displacement of the message in our neighbourhood. This brand story simply had no context to the audience it was speaking to. We simply wanted the driver to leave the neighbourhood and for the quiet to return. It’s hard to think of any context where this form of brutal advertising strategy would be effective. So, the context is not just who is spreading the message; it’s also where it lives. The level of empathy, tact, and patience a company has when telling stories influences the contextual success; to gain someone’s attention, and maintain it. 

So, the answer to the question ‘can stories be made as contagious as viruses?’, is ‘yes, they certainly can’. Often enough, we see this happen organically; But, devising a story to reach that tipping point and go viral, is a complex enough process that is worthwhile studying and understanding. If you want to find out more, talk to us at Public Works. We’re always up for making a great story.

Making and managing meaning

When people ask me what we do at our storytelling studio Public Works, I often start with our defining line—Making and managing meaning. What does that mean? How do we ‘make meaning’ or manage it? This is a little story that explains how meaning is made and managed. 

I live near a church. I’m not a religious person; but, I love most spiritual centres as they often have an architecture that points you towards something greater and beyond the everyday world. This church exudes that same sense of otherworldly serenity into our neighbourhood; On the nights that its choir sings, everything gets covered in a layer of twinkling magic made by gospel music.

This church has a big bell with deep tolls that resound throughout our neighbourhood. Every morning, sharp at six, at high noon, and six in the evening, this bell would echo identifying the beginning, middle and end of each day—significant points in our communal framework of existing within standard time. On Sundays—the day that the church encourages its community to spend in spiritual growth—the bell was sounded thrice at seven am before mass. It sent a message to everyone—including us non-churchgoers—to remember to take a step back from the race and spend time in communion with our inner world. It made perfect sense; it was beautiful, and most importantly, it was meaningful. It was meaningful—not because hitting a big metal dome had any inherent meaning to it, nor because the bell-ringer was a divine being that brought meaning to it—but, because it was made meaningful.

The meaning came from the conscious intention in the act that stemmed from the church’s values, a rational relevance built with a universal framework of time that everyone understood, and the ritual consistency with which it was done. Because of these considerations, it became meaningful not only to its direct audience of churchgoers but also, to everyone else around. 

Earlier this year, the church changed its bell ringer. The new bell ringer rang at five minutes past six, or sometimes even ten past six. He rang it thrice, four times, and occasionally nine or ten times; On rainy days, two feeble chimes would escape the bell before the act was abandoned in an obvious hurry. The lack of intention and consistency was evident. The church bell lost its meaning to a significant degree. Its message no longer had clarity and joined the meaningless chorus of traffic in the neighbourhood. Although the church itself remains beautiful—and I have no doubts that it continues to serve its devotees the same spiritual connection—it lost one of the most meaningful interactions with its neighbourhood. 

Brand conversations are also like this. A successful brand conversation is built upon conscious intention that comes from your company’s values, a rational relevance built to your audience through the message, and the ritual consistency of a well-rounded brand personality, language, voice and tone maintained right throughout. Without these elements, your brand stories will also remain lost in the digital noise, deleted unread from inboxes, or overlooked on the feed.

In our work methodology, we construct specific tools like the Public Works’ Brand Articulation Framework that facilitates meaningful conversations. Essentially, they connect the brand personality and values to the interests and concerns of an identified audience. When on-brand messages that are current, interesting, and relevant to the target audience get presented with a consistent brand voice, the conversations become meaningful. This is what lies at the core of creating stories that generate sales and business for our clients. Want to find out more about how we work? Read more about our process here.

Is ‘meaning’ built on words?

How is ‘meaning’ constructed in our minds? Can we make meaning out of something without words? Is it through words that we understand the world? Let’s look into that.

It’s hard to even imagine interacting and making sense of the world without words. It almost seems that words are the very architecture of thoughts, and the memories formed thereafter. Is it possible to think without words? The answer to the question depends on what you mean by thinking. I think, thinking is a response, a way of making sense of things; it is an attempt to understand; an active derivation of meaning. Thinking is, essentially, processing life. Words are probably the most obvious way to think. Can you think without words? You can definitely feel and experience without words. But, experiencing pain is not the same as processing pain and understanding it. Experiencing music is not the same as processing it and deriving meaning from it. 

Oscar Wilde called language “the parent, and not the child, of thought”, suggesting that thinking is shaped by our words. He’s not entirely wrong.

But, we know artists and musicians who think in image or sound. The mathematical genius Daniel Tammet processes numbers by thinking in landscapes. Another interesting thing is how hearing-impaired people, who are cut off from both spoken and signed language, would think. There are records of a fifteen-year-old boy with hearing disability, who wrote in 1836, after being educated at a school for the deaf, that he remembered thinking “that perhaps the moon would strike me, and I thought that perhaps my parents were strong, and would fight the moon, and it would fail, and I mocked the moon,” before he was initiated into language. This is definitely thinking, processing concepts like ‘strong’ and ‘mocking’, and shows how thoughts, even somewhat complex ones, can be created without the help of words. 

So, does that mean that word and thought are independent? Not entirely. Mundurucú, a remote Brazillian tribe, has only words for numbers up to five. When studying their capacity to understand the concept of a number higher than five, it became evident that for many Mundurucú, the idea of greater than five was a difficult one to grasp. Although some showed signs of understanding the idea of ‘something bigger than this’, they were quick to categorise it as ‘a lot’, rather than attempting to define it more specifically.

We can certainly think and process information without words; using comparison, physical memories and associations with shapes, and colours; perhaps even symbols, sound, and movement. However, some meanings can only be completed in the presence of the word.

Mundurucu during a funeral process. Their perception of the world was limited by the extent of their language.

Mundurucú’s limitedness in grasping simple numerical concepts show that although ideas and concepts can be actively processed without words, they may not be fully understood in such cases. Certain ideas or concepts— most certainly numerical ones, as the study with Mundurucú suggest— cannot be grasped fully without the clarity and definition that a word would lend. That is to say, that there are certain kinds of thinking that are made possible only by words. 

Words are symbols, or pathways to symbols, that we can use to define, and zoom out of ideas in order to observe them. This means that, despite words being a very precise way to understand something, they are actually fundamental to abstraction and meta- thinking. Without words, it’s quite possible that we wouldn’t know that we’re thinking, because we would not be able to isolate the concept in order to perceive it. Sure; but, what does that mean?

How the brain processes language and meaning has interested scientific minds throughout time.

This means that for brands— whether personalities, businesses or organisations—words become fundamental to define and set themselves apart as a singular entity in a market. Brands are entities based on operating through a certain identity, and on the basis that the audience has good reason to choose their ideas, services, or products, over or in addition to others’. This decision of the audience to choose your brand is always made through a defining identity that sets you apart. Articulating this exact definition is where words become paramount to brands.

Writing content for a brand must begin with an articulation of what that entity is, and what it stands for in this world. This is why our studio Public Works often recommends new clients to invest in a brand articulation before purchasing any written content from us. It’s the most effective way to draw the true power of a medium as precise as the written word.

A brand articulation is a process where tacit knowledge about the brand is transformed into explicit knowledge. We sit down and outline the ideas, statements and personality frameworks with the involvement of its founders and key decision-makers as a workshop, or through an online questionnaire that the clients take responsibility to complete and submit. The outcome is a consciously articulated definition of your brand framing its core concepts, reason for being and the experiences that it delivers. In the brand articulations that we deliver from Public Works, a brand is first put it into words this way, then followed by a visual articulation that suggests the direction of the brand’s visual identity (depending on which point the brand is at, in its evolution). These are the most important elements for standard communications. A well articulated brand has solid ground to stand on, and speak confidently to its audience. It is from this brand articulation that all communications are drawn out from; In the case of new brands or those coming to a significant shift, sometimes even the name and visual identity are derived from the brand articulation.

Before words are strung together to communicate complex ideas, emotions and values, they are used to define fundamentals, at seed-level. Before a brand uses words to share its stories with the world, it must use the word to define itself at the core.

This is where words become fundamental to businesses. Most businesses would use words for communication—at the periphery of where a brand operates, and engages with its audience; and that is a good use of words. But, a great use of words is at the seed of a brand where it needs to be defined against the world, and brought fully into the light of our perception. It’s where everything begins.

If you want to learn more about the process and outcomes of a brand articulation, send me a message to find out how we do it at Public Works.

References

  • Danielle R. Perszyk, Sandra R. Waxman. Listening to the calls of the wild: The role of experience in linking language and cognition in young infants. Cognition, 2016; 153: 175 DOI: 10.1016/j.cognition.2016.05.004
  • Brenda Schick , Jill de Villiers , Peter de Villiers and Bob Hoffmeister. Theory of Mind: Language and Cognition in Deaf Children. DOI:10.1044/leader.FTR1.07222002.6
  • Pica, Pierre & Lecomte, Alain. (2008). Theoretical Implications of the Study of Numbers and Numerals in Mundurucu. Philosophical Psychology. 21. 507-522. DOI: 10.1080/09515080802285461