The Art and Science of Storytelling in Advertising

Firstly, a big thanks to Northern Beaches Secondary College who invited me along to present as part of the Australian Business Week Enterprise Education Experience. This article is a summary of the presentation.

What makes a great advertisement.

There are several common building blocks among the best-performing ads, regardless of category or brand.


Great advertising almost always tells us a good story. Stories pull you into the world of the brand. They do that because they’re entertaining, convincing and clear.

As an age-old medium for human communication storytelling is hard wired into our DNA. Effective stories are anchored in a situation that the audience can relate to, before taking them on a journey through struggle, challenge or elation; somewhere new and exciting; somewhere they want to go.

Storytelling is widely studied and who better to look to than some of the most successful storytelling agencies of our time.

Pixar’s ‘Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.’ was the narrative structure behind the likes of Toy Story and Finding Nemo.

Andrew Stanton, the writer behind Toy Story, delivers a fantastic TED Talk ‘The clues to a great story‘ if you’d like to spend 20 minutes on the topic.


A simple story well told is easily remembered. Complex stories create confusion and obscure your storyline.

This confronting message is powerfully delivered through a situation many can relate to, yet what I admire about this campaign is the simplicity behind the concept – it surely delivers on the notion that ‘concept is king’.

Side note: In his now-famous internal memo to Disney executives, Jeffrey Katzenberg preached:

In the dizzying world of movie making, we must not be distracted from one fundamental concept: the idea is king. If a movie begins with a great, original idea, chances are good it will be successful, even if it is executed only marginally well. However, if a film begins with a flawed idea, it will almost certainly fail, even if it is made with ‘A’ talent and marketed to the hilt.

Relatable Situations.

Ads that are “for people like me” are more effective. They speak directly to the consumer and what they care about. Including situations and characters that viewers can relate to makes it easier for viewers to engage and care about your advertising.


If you can uplift your audience, you will be a great deal more memorable. Keep in mind the golden rule of humour, ‘audience-appropriate’.


The best ads have strong branding by definition. An ad can’t be a strong ad if no one remembers that it’s for your brand. Well-branded ads communicate their brand through both audio and video, and they use brand cues early and often. Often, they use mnemonic devices—iconic characters or music that immediately identify the brand.

The Art of Storytelling and the 4 P’s.


Why should anyone care about this?

In the advertising context there are two parts to the purpose equation; the brand purpose and the campaign purpose. Being able to answer these to parts with succinct 1-line answers provides a solid foundation for the rest of your production process – it will allow you to question, challenge and stretch as you build out a concept, ensuring every aspect of the production builds on the purpose of the story.

Before you pick up a camera, you should be able to state your purpose in one clear, succinct sentence.


Characters are what make us emotionally invested in a story. Your audience needs to relate to these characters and to empathise with their situations. You’ll want to build characters who your audience want to see succeed, or fail, depending on their role in your story.

If you’re using live characters (as opposed to actors) look for people who can both ‘present with passion and conviction’ and ‘can effectively communicate on camera’. The most passionate people may not be able to communicate well on camera, and vice versa, so ensure you test for both and push to find the best people for your story.


Locations can add depth and intrigue to your characters and story, and can visually communicate a great amount of information in a short period of time – the notion of ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’. Think creatively about how you use locations to draw people into your story in a very short timeframe, however keep in mind:

  • Relevance: Does it relate to your character or overall story?
  • Comfort: Will the characters feel at ease and act naturally (less applicable for professional actors)?
  • Production friendly: Is the space, lighting, and noise level conducive to a good shoot?

As with characters, think creatively with location and go beyond the first or most obvious location presented to you.


What is the conflict and the journey?

Even a commercial needs a conflict to drive the narrative. Conflict and tension can come in many varieties. Push your creative boundaries to develop a concept that will be simple, entertaining and memorable. The plot is your concept that will make or break your storytelling, regardless of how highly produced it is.

Bringing your vision to life.


Storyboarding is an organised way of sharing the main shots to capture.

The process of storyboarding provides opportunity to think through your compositions and journey, allowing you to improve and tweak your shots before you point your camera. It will often stimulate new ideas enabling you to make thoughtful decisions about composition, gear choices and transitions.

Storyboards aid greatly in communicating your vision with the production team and client.



While ‘scripts’ are more applicable to screenplays, even if you are shooting live content I’d encourage you to think through the narrative journey and shape prompts or questions you may present to your subjects.

If you’d like to dive in to some specifics on screenplay formatting, head over to Vimeo Video School.



A shot list breaks down your production by ‘scene’ and ‘shot’, providing a detailed instruction for the sequence of events along with resources required at each. This is key to a smooth shoot for your production crew.


Call sheet.

Typically a one page document that has everyones contact information, details about the shoot including locations, weather and sunrise/sunset (natures lighting) along with a time breakdown of what you’ll be covering.

A good schedule will take a load off on a big shoot and it will ensure you don’t move to post-production with a list of missing shots.


And finally (well almost – there is still post)

Shoot day.

Things will go wrong.

Small or significant, how you respond to these can make or break your production. Sometimes behind these obstacles will be even greater opportunities – roll with them.

Be present at all times.

Film production requires intent focus. Keep in the moment. Put yourself in your subjects shoes. Do your best to make it a great experience for everyone involved.

Keep it simple.

Make a conscious effort to select the simplest methods to capture your story. There’s enough going on at the shoot. Keep it simple.

Get in there!

Where you put your camera is where you put your viewer, so if you want your viewer right in the action, get in there and experience it.


Bringing this all together with Stillmotion.

No go forth and create your art – I look forward to seeing it. If you have online links to your projects please share in the comments below.

View, discuss, share or present this on Google Slides.


Note: This article draws on the findings of Neilson's data mining of more than 250,000 TV ads and Vimeo Video School, including the series 'Storytelling the Stillmotion Way'. Head over to their sites if you'd like to dive in deeper.