Lessons from ancient Greece - Aristotle on storytelling
Storytelling is an ancient art that is still very much alive. Being able to tell a story your audiences will enjoy, remember, and engage with, is both compelling and difficult to accomplish. There are many ways to tell a story. What does Aristotle teach us about storytelling and how does that relate to PR?
Pity, Fear and Catharsis
According to Aristotle, a story must have pity, fear and catharsis. These are the basic elements to a compelling story. The main lesson in this is to keep your focus on the audience, and not on your characters, plot, or yourself as a writer. The concepts Aristotle mentions are chronological.
When creating a piece of content such as a blog post or a video, you are creating content to entertain your audience. In order to do that, your audience needs to feel some kind of connection to the characters of your story. They need to feel sympathy for your characters to be engaged with the story. The main character of an engaging blog might be the writer, an expert or a PR professional, for example.
When the audience feels sympathy for the characters of a story, they are compelled to continue reading or watching the story. If nothing noteworthy happens in a blog or video, it is not worth to continue following the story. A conflict of some sort is needed.
Ending a story with some sort of conclusion is the final step. This doesn’t have to be a happy ending, obviously you can write an unhappy ending also. But it does need to be an ending to the story which creates the catharsis. Leaving out an ending to any piece of content you create will leave the reader or viewer unsatisfied.
“When you release the character from the jeopardy of whatever problematic situation they’re in, then the audience experiences catharsis. A sigh. Whew. That’s over!”
Aristotle’s Framework for storytelling
Next to the three big ingredients for a story mentioned above, Aristotle thought of a valuable framework for stories also. In order to create a good story, you will need to create and think of these seven essential elements:
Before you start with your story, big or small, think of how these elements will contribute to the story and what they will consist of. All elements support each other and make up a good story. Thinking through what the framework of your story will be, gives you the opportunity to connect all these elements and prevent loose ends or plot holes. Start, for example, with a bulleted framework when writing an article to make sure you touch upon all essential elements.
The plot is, according to Aristotle, the most important aspect of a story. The plot defines what the story is about, and what your audience will experience. It includes a change of fortune that affects the main characters and will make your audience feel emotion(s).
“The first essential, the life and soul, so to speak, of a story, is the Plot.”
The plot will state what the essence of the story is. A good story will have a simple plot, that can be explained in just a few sentences. Your audience wants to be entertained by a believable story they can understand, a simple plot will do just that. Take, for example, Star Wars films. The plot is simple: in a far away galaxy, the good guys try to solve or prevent a war with the bad guys. Every film revolves around this basic idea, the characters and theme vary.
No story can do without characters. The characters are the main elements that will create action, arouse emotion and connect with your audience. Your characters can be human, animals or even objects. Aristotle defined four character traits to keep in mind:
a character must have one or more ‘good’ qualities that wins the respect of your readers
the qualities of the character must make sense based on their identity
the character must be believable
the character must have consistent traits
A character which is shy and timid on one page and arrogant on another doesn’t make sense, a housekeeper that owns a castle and an expensive sports car neither. Make sure the character traits and lifestyle you pick to include in your story, make sense with the character’s background, personality and society you place them in. If you are talking about the professional life of an industry expert, it might be irrelevant to include their hobbies or household. This way, the main characters are easy for your readers to connect with and trust.
Theme is a pretty word for setting or surroundings. When creating a story, there is an environment involved that directly and indirectly affects the story, storyline and characters. Think about where you want the story to take place and how this will affect the characters, plot, actions and atmosphere of the story. Theme, or thought, is an essential element to the character and the plot.
This might be more directly relevant for fictional stories, but don’t skip this step when you are creating non-fictional professional content. You are creating an experience for your readers or viewers, what are the surroundings you can include to support the story and experience? Are you using a colourful quote, images or example to create a certain atmosphere? Is there any background information on interviewees you can include or information about your company that might support the plot of your story? Take TOMS Shoes for example. Their brand story has a particular setting that is vital to their identity: founder Blake Mycoskie was travelling through poor parts of Argentina when he thought of the idea for his business, he felt the need to help. Creating a compelling and interesting theme or surrounding for your story might just be the difference between a good and an excellent piece of copy!
“Thought, on the other hand, is shown in all they say when proving or disproving some particular point, or enunciating some universal proposition.”
Diction, choice of words or tone of voice are of vital importance to make sure your story resonates with your audience. Are you speaking the same language? Is your tone supporting the message you want to convey? And is the platform you chose complementary to the story and diction of your story?
All too often content is being produced without taking a proper look at diction. Take a second to think of the choice of words that will suit your brand story, plot, audience and platform of distribution. Do these connect or is there any friction between the preferred tone of voice of one of the elements and another? The right tone of voice for a brand is not set in stone, especially when communicating with different audiences who have different needs.
When thinking of melody, music and audio is what comes to mind. A recognizable melodic tune is a great way to brand your content, audiences who have heard the tune before will instantly recognize the music. Think of the tune of the Star Wars movies, hearing the melodic tune from these movies will instantly bring you back to the emotions you experienced when watching it.
But melody is much more than just music. The theory of Aristotle describes certain recognizable structures and patterns that can be used to communicate effectively with your audience. Using a recognizable lay-out for your website or blog post, a standard structure for your YouTube videos, the same host or model for your presentations and flyers will help your audience recognize your brand, your story and perhaps even your industry. Take Apple and McDonald’s. Any and every piece of their brand story is being recognized instantly all over the world, because these brands use a certain melody or structure in their PR and communications.
“Privilege [..] dialogue over visual spectacle”
The decor is the design of the surroundings of the story. Your story will take place in a certain setting or theme, that has a certain look and feel. This also goes for your brand story, blog post or video. What does your website design look like and how does this support your story? If you are creating a blog post or video, how does it look for your audience?
Think about the visual aspects of your content – your audience does. In fact, 90% of data that the brain processes is visual and 65% of people are visual learners. Look at Nike, their story focuses on a ‘hero’s journey’. Their decor is challenging, of humble origin and creates a believable setting for a hero that needs to take on a challenge on his or her own. Using a strong, understandable and believable decor for their story, they successfully inspire others to be their own heroes. Don’t miss out by forgetting to think about the decor of your story.
Aristotle defines spectacle as the stage appearance of the actors, or everything that is seen and heard on stage. This obviously derives from theatre that is performed on stage, but how does this translate to the content within your PR strategy? Think of your blog, social media platforms and events as ‘stages’ and think of all the action going on on these stages. Any visual display, spoken word, nonverbal communication and the written word all make up the spectacle.
Any written word on your website is essentially an indirect dialogue with your audience. Think of all the elements in your PR strategy that can be defined as spectacle, and think of the fact Aristotle classified this as least important for your story. Usually, the actual spectacle is viewed as most important. It is the actual product, the fruit of your labour that you will send out to the world. Take Dove, for example. Their ‘Mission: Care’ campaign centered around fathers that are away from home and their children. By focusing on the emotions and the story, there is no need to market the product. While the actual product or service is important, make sure you place value on other elements of your story.
Lessons learned from Aristotle
Taking into account the thousands of years old lessons Aristotle teaches us, there are a few main things to focus on. Firstly, prepare the stories you want to tell your audience thoroughly. Stories worth telling usually contain all the elements Aristotle defined. Preparation is key. Secondly, prioritize the elements of your story. What is most important to share with your audience? Make sure your plot is simple, compelling, and it contains the essential concepts of storytelling: pity, fear and catharsis. If you get the basics straight, it’s a lot less difficult to write amazing stories.
Learn more about the power of brand storytelling to build awareness, interest, and engagement.
Story structure: Pity, Fear, Catharsis
Pity, Fear and Catharsis
Aristotle’s framework for storytelling
On the art of poetry
How Aristotle can help you become a better writer
The tone of voice is essential for the CATI survey
Aristotle on storytelling in user experience
Visual Content: The Key to Effective Brand Storytelling
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