You've Been Lied To. What is storytelling? This Animation Shares The Truth

What is storytelling? Is storytelling simply the culmination of facts and sequential events, or do stories require more depth?

Let's take a look at exactly what storytelling is. But first, let’s look at what storytelling isn’t.

The debate of story vs. stats is all well and good until somebody’s life is on the line–then it’s simply about results. In 2014, we got the opportunity to do a spot for a cancer hospital. The in-house filmmaker had come to one of our workshops and loved our approach, so he referred Stillmotion to the agency who was tackling the campaign.

It appeared as though they too really enjoyed what we did, and we were excited to help create this film. We all wanted to tell a powerful story to help people see how they could get better cancer care if they went to this one place.

At least, that’s what we thought. We crafted what we felt was a very emotional story led by one woman and her story of surviving cancer. It had all the elements of a really powerful story (which we’ll dive into below).

Yet when we sent the first draft to the client, alarm bells started going off. It wasn’t anywhere close to what they wanted and this was a big campaign with the clock ticking.

As we tried to work through their concerns one thing became super clear: we were operating on two totally different understandings of what the word story means.

If you asked us both to define the word and then you compared the two, they’d likely be far more disparate than similar. And so we had a bunch of creative challenges. On top of that, we felt horribly. We felt like we weren’t delivering. We’d worked so hard yet we were far from making the client happy and they were starting to have some real concerns.

All of us—the entire team at Stillmotion and our client—wanted to achieve the same great results. And we both believed that story was the way to get there, but it occurred to us that our client would have a completely different answer to the question, “What is storytelling?"

They believed that, if we told a story, we would be able to stir their audience into action and deliver the results they wanted to achieve. They weren’t wrong. Storytelling is the most effective way to stir emotion and connect with an audience.

But what they wanted us to deliver wasn’t actually a story at all. And we weren’t going to be able to give them what they had in mind AND deliver a story.

You see, what they wanted was more a blanket of facts. It’s not their fault. They, like most people, have been lied to about what storytelling truly is.

Storytelling is a highly influential means of communication and so much more than a form of entertainment. It’s incredibly effective at driving action, changing beliefs, building communities and brands, and spreading ideas. Story is powerful—so powerful that it has garnered a lot of attention in recent years and storytelling has become a buzzword. It gets thrown around, used, and abused.

From yogis and advertisers to business developers and data analysts, people in every industry are trying to brand themselves as storytellers. And sometimes, they might do incredibly well at capturing the essence of an experience and retelling it, but sadly, this is not always (or even usually) the case.

The problem is, most people have been misled as to what a story actually is; they’ve been led to believe that everything is story.

To be fair, the word story is often defined as the retelling of events. But such “stories” don’t always connect with audiences. An effective storyteller will reach people on an emotional level and their stories will be remembered. A good story needs to be so much more than the culmination of facts or a sequence of events. It needs to take the audience on a journey.

Let’s look at the example of the data analyst. She might claim to be a storyteller, suggesting numbers are the footprints along the path of a business's target market. And while these numbers might very well be telling of the results of an individual’s actions, they certainly don’t capture the emotional core needed to engage an audience.

So, now that we’ve explored what storytelling isn’t. Let’s look at what storytelling is.


We made this short animated video to explore that question. It looks at what story isn’t, but it also shares the critical elements that nearly every strong story has (nearly, because there are exceptions to every rule).

You’ll see the story being built in front of you, and as the elements change, you can see how it becomes a much stronger story.

A strong story moves your audience emotionally, it’s remembered, and it generates results. But a strong story needs to be so much more than the simple retelling of events.

A strong story moves your audience emotionally, is remembered and generates results.

Strong storytelling needs to revolve around a singular character (whom we refer to as the Heart of your story). This person needs to have a strong desire. It’s this desire that allows audiences to fall in love with the character–they see that desire and we want it for them.


More than just desire, we also need conflict. Conflict pulls the audience in and presents a challenge for the Heart to overcome. It tests the depths of his desire.

These three things—the Heart, desire, and conflict—are critical in telling stories that connect with audiences and drive the preferred reactions.

So you see, not everything is a story. And, to be fair, not everything needs to be story. But if you arm yourself with the knowledge of what strong storytelling IS and what it ISN’T, you will be far more likely to reach your audience effectively.

Here are three helpful ways to apply these ideas to what you do:

  1. Make sure you and your client are clear on what "story" truly is and that that’s what you want to create together. This animation is a perfect thing to share to help your clients gain a deeper understanding. As you look to build out your story, always ask yourself who is the Heart of this story?
  2. Search for that singular person with strong desire that can connect your audience. Inside Muse, our storytelling process, we take this a step further and share the Big 3 Things that every strong character needs.
  3. Look to find a conflict that got in the way of the Heart’s desire. This can be harder to find as it may have happened in the past. And your client may shy away from it because it feels negative. But again, it’s critical that you help explain the role of each of these elements in creating a strong story and getting the results they want.

We want to hear from you.

Has there ever been a time when your client said they wanted a story but was caught off-guard when what you delivered was an emotional, character- and conflict-driven story? If so, share your story below. We can form a little support group of sorts to help each other.