Master Content: A Breakdown of a Great Story in the Digital Age

Even in a data-driven world, the ideal way to receive communication is still through a story.

“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel… _There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you.” _— Maya Angelou

Even in a data-driven world, the ideal way to receive communication is still through a story.

Great stories move people. They stick. They inspire people to do the impossible: to change.

But these stories — the ones that leave you better than before — are becoming scarce.

What makes great stories so rare?

In this day and age, people get most of their reading done online. And online content creation has been incentivized incorrectly for years.
Ever since the SEO games began, it’s been a race for quantity at the expense of quality. Because quality was more difficult to measure, the priority was in getting content discovered and clicked on, amid all the other content noise.

As speed has been the driving force to win eyeballs, it’s been too easy for creators to get distracted and forget the purpose of content entirely — and miss the opportunity to make a transformational impact.

What makes content “great” vs. mediocre?

Great content 1) solves a problem and 2) tells a story.

When creating great content — a creator takes the time to understand their audience through empathy and context. Still, it doesn’t mean it has to take months to craft a great story. Here’s how I learned to keep the creation process efficient while never sacrificing quality.

The 3-step “great story” framework

What I’ve learned in 20+ years of creating content, studying the storytelling greats of our time, and working as a solution consultant at Adobe — there’s an intrinsic repeatable framework that makes an excellent story.

Let’s take a few great stories today. To name a few, some movies you might recognize are: “The Shawshank Redemption,” “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” “Christopher Robin,” “October Sky,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “Life is Beautiful,” “Bella,” “The Count of Monte Cristo,” and “The Notebook.”

What do these stories have in common? The key ingredient is a distinct transformation of the character, that elicits a transformational response from the other characters and, ultimately, the audience. And that transformation is told in a story and at a pace that’s relatable, engaging, and aspirational.

The framework is:

Step 1. Start with your “why”

A solution story has typically followed this structure:

What → How → Why

We’re going to flip that — and start with the “why.”

What’s Adobe’s “Why?” We change the world through digital experiences.

Why start with why?

As expert storyteller Simon Sinek says, ”People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it. Ultimately, they desire the fruit, but will take action on the authenticity of the root that produces that fruit.”

Take 5 minutes to change how you see stories at the core from Simon Sinek.

How do you find your “why?”

Try filling this out:

AS A (INSERT YOUR ROLE), I NEED TO (DO WHAT?) SO THAT (WHY: The ultimate reason you do what you do).

On your why, continue asking yourself why until you get to your core why.

When you know your why, your what becomes more impactful because you are walking toward your purpose.” —Michael Jr.

Step 2. Visualize the before/after journey

After the foundational why is solid, we move to the how.

Know your audience. Empathize. Listen to and learn about audiences. Understand where the audience is today. Understand their successes, their challenges, their motivations. Meet them where they are. Where are they starting from, and where should they go?

Make sure the audience starts where they’re at now in the story and help them visualize where they can be at the realistic transformed state.

Some shortcuts I use to showcase a tangible “before/after” transformative feeling are with data, such as:

When delivering the audience transformation story, whether it’s visually or in writing, be sure to use the Narrative Structure Framework (from Gustav Freytag):

  1. Introduction/Exposition: Understand the current environment. Who are the “characters” today, and who’s the protagonist (the audience)? What’s the baseline/ everyday scenario for this person? Bring them there. What motivates them? What has hindered them? What is “normal?”
  2. Inciting incident: What’s the big challenge that enters the audience’s life, where do they begin to question the status quo? (That will be solved at the end of the story.)
  3. Rising action: What new problems are coming because of the inciting incident? How has this problem increased internal tensions in a way in which the audience can relate? They know they need to change, but there’s resistance — where they must persevere through change management.
  4. Climax: Now, something must happen where the protagonist is at a crossroads and has to make a decision. Either go back to the old way or begin implementing change (e.g., the “Get busy living, or get busy dying” moment in “The Shawshank Redemption”).
  5. Falling action: There’s a new normal. What’s the new baseline? The audience is implementing and committing to a new way.
  6. Resolution: Come full circle. We’re back at the same environment as the beginning, with the same goal — but now faster, better, more affordable. In other words, transformed.

Step 3. Make it emotional

You’re so close now.

You’ve filled in the important events. The framework is done.

Now, it’s time to go over and add in more visual and emotional cues — sprinkling in the details that make your story more special, engaging, personalized, and memorable.

Unique visuals are powerful to use, again, as we’re a visual recall culture. And emotional cues are tied directly to the narrative structure — and if your audience doesn’t feel from your story, it’s not a great story at all. These “feelings” manifested in the audience are hormones being secreted in their brain.

The checklist of hormones to release in every great story are:

  1. Oxytocin
  2. Cortisol and adrenaline
  3. Endorphins
  4. Dopamine

The release of hormones fits into the narrative structure:

And how each hormone works in inciting an emotion that connects your audience to your story on a deeper level:

David JP Phillips shares key neurological findings on storytelling — inducing in us the release of four neurotransmitters of his choice. Check out his 15-minute TED Talk on The Magical Science of Storytelling.


_Test-drive the framework. Go tell your story. Try it out on internal audiences or even your kids (that’s what I do).