Based on A “True” Story

At the opening of some movies, you see the phrase “Based on a true story.” These five little words are not just a disclaimer, they’re a purposeful storytelling technique. They set the expectation that what you’re about to see might be so fantastical as to seem impossible. 

However, these words inform you that the story is mostly true. It’s that word “true” that can be a bit troublesome.

The topic of “truth” is popular right now. During a news report about a recent controversial documentary, the filmmakers were asked, “Does a documentary need to present both sides of a story to get to the truth?” They very quickly said “No.”  They explained that they’re telling a story and, thus, are presenting a specific perspective. They’re presenting their truth – the truth of the hero of their story.    

It’s not that these storytellers are at liberty to alter the facts to fit their truth. That’s just lying. Rather, they know something important: Fact is not the same thing as truth. As my screenwriting professor Robert McKee used to say, “What happens is fact, not truth. Truth is what we think about what happens.” 

Storytelling is the act of choosing what happens and in what order to create the truth that changes an audience’s perspective.  

All brand content is “based on a true story.”

One of my favorite examples is from Apple. Have you seen the amazing videos of people assembling complex presentations using their iPad Pro? I’m sure everything they’re doing can actually be done. It’s fact.

But here’s the thing. No one I’ve ever met (and I see a lot of business presentations) has actually created their sophisticated keynote presentation using the iPad Pro. It doesn’t matter. The Apple video is simply based on a true story.

We can learn from this storytelling technique as content marketers, too. When we write a white paper or a blog article or a case study, our goal should be to tell a story, not just relay the facts. 

I recently worked with a company that makes a special kind of wiring conduit to improve a thought leadership paper they’d created. The white paper walked the reader through the applications of conduit. Lightweight conduit is better when it needs to bend; rigid conduit is better when it needs to withstand weather. And some conduit, made of special materials, has the benefits of both strength and flexibility. 

When I asked the marketers about their story’s perspective, they told me it was that these new materials could make for more effective and efficient infrastructures. I asked them if we might change the story to talk about how engineers were creating the cities of the future by using these advanced materials. In other words, I asked if we might give their audience something that is based on a true story.  

Now, I’m not suggesting that marketers lie. I subscribe to Seth Godin’s point of view in the preface to his book All Marketers Tell Stories. He wrote, “I have no intention of telling you the truth. Instead I’m going to tell you a story. This is a story about why marketers must forsake any attempt to communicate nothing but the facts and must instead focus on what people believe and then work to tell them stories that add to their worldview.”

That is our truth. And we can base all our stories on it.

It’s your story. Tell it Well.

Robert Rose
Chief Strategy Officer at The Content Advisory
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS.

Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.
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Author: Robert Rose
As the Chief Strategy Officer of The Content Advisory, the exclusive education and consulting group of The Content Marketing Institute, Robert develops content and customer experience strategies for large enterprises such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Oracle, McCormick Spices, Capital One, and UPS. Robert’s book, Experiences: The 7th Era of Marketing was called “a call to arms and a self-help guide for creating the experiences that consumers will fall in love with.” For the last three years, he’s co-hosted the podcast This Old Marketing, with Joe Pulizzi. It’s frequently a top 20 marketing podcast on iTunes and is downloaded more than a million times every year, in 100 countries around the world.