There are two traits that all humans share: we’re wired to look for patterns and we love stories. When we see separate pieces of information, we have a tendency to connect them and identify the hero, the antagonist and the underlying plot.

What does this have to do with your firm’s marketing? Virtually everything. If your messaging isn’t intentional, people will fill in the gaps and come up with their own stories—whether they’re right or not. To ensure that your intended message is getting across, you have to create a clear and intriguing story about your firm.

The power of storytelling was a big topic of conversation at this year’s PRSA Western District Conference. At one session we attended, the speakers shared their tried-and-true storytelling tips, which we’ve summarized here. Next time you need to communicate a message, try using one of these models to “story-fy” it and capture your audience’s imagination.

The Problem-Solving Model

Business is about solutions, so we usually avoid talking about problems. Lawyers especially want to be the solution to all of their clients’ challenges, so they tend to focus only on positive outcomes and million-dollar verdicts. While focusing on the positive is done with good intentions, it doesn’t make for a very compelling story.

A tale with no conflict feels incomplete and isn’t memorable. Instead, a strong story has three elements: the setup, the problem and the solution. Lawyers are natural problem-solvers, so apply those instincts when telling your firm’s story. Don’t be afraid to talk about the challenges; this gives you a natural entry point to talk about how you overcame them—making you the heroic protagonist of your story.

The ABT Model

When communicating, most people use “and, and, and,” simply adding more pieces of information. This isn’t really storytelling, however; it’s just listing things with no conclusion or challenge overcome. Instead, try using another powerful way to tell stories with the ABT model:  “and, but, therefore,” which naturally turns information into a story by creating and solving a problem.

To use the ABT model, start with “and”: make a declarative, universally true or relatable statement, and use “and” to emphasize the importance of the statement. Then add “but”: discuss a conflict that challenges the first statement. Finally, end with “therefore”: resolve the problem you just created. An ABT should be short and concise—no more than 50 words—but packs a powerful punch.

The 4Ws & A

You’ve probably heard of the 5 Ws (when, where, who, what, why), but do you know the 4 Ws and A of storytelling? Dating back to the first days of human communication, stories have included these five primal elements: when, where, who, what and the “aha!” moment.

  • When: Begin each story with a time stamp. Giving the audience a time frame helps them understand what comes next.
  • Where: Your story needs a location, too. Once a time and place are established, it signals to the audience that a story is about to begin.
  • Who: Stories need characters. It’s a good idea to tailor your characters to the audience—the more relatable the protagonist is, the more engaging the story.
  • What: What does your main character do in this time and place? What is the conflict? How is it resolved?
  • Aha: A universal truth or lesson that is revealed through conflict and resolution. This is what makes it a true story and not just a retelling of facts.

When telling your firm’s story, be sure to ground it in a specific time and place. And don’t forget to include the “aha!” moment that sparked the successful ending.

The 10-Step Story Cycle (or Hero’s Journey)

Everyone is the hero of their own life story. For this reason, any event can be turned into a 10-step “hero’s journey”:

  1. Backstory: A brief history of where the main character has been and where they’re going.
  2. Hero: The protagonist of the story. Who are they? What are their values?
  3. Stakes: What happens if the hero fails on their journey?
  4. Disruption: Something must happen that challenges the hero. This can be an external or internal disruption.
  5. Antagonists: People or obstacles that challenge the hero. They can be external or internal, too.
  6. Mentor: A wise counselor who guides the hero through the disruption.
  7. Journey: What happens along the way?
  8. Victory: After all the challenges, the hero achieves their goal and reaches the end of the journey.
  9. Moral: The takeaway that can be concluded from the story.
  10. Ritual: The story begins again.

One thing to note if you’re using this storytelling model: your firm is not the hero. Your client is the hero. You and your firm are the mentors, helping the hero-client overcome their obstacles and reach the end of their journey.

This is also a great way to understand your client’s mindset and the obstacles they face. If you’re getting to know a new client, try filling out this cycle to learn how you can better help them face their disruptions and antagonists.