How to tell a story in six seconds

How to tell a story in six seconds

By Kat Harrison-Dibbits


In the second of  a series of practical guides, Kat Harrison-Dibbits, Head of Communications at Manchester's multi-arts venue HOME, shows us how to make the the first six seconds of our content count. Part of a series on effective communications.

Anyone who works with content, be that in PR, marketing or any of the hundreds of other job titles we all seem to have nowadays, knows that while it might be luxurious to be able to create long-form storytelling through video, audio or text, in reality our audiences’ attention spans are very short. On social media in particular if you haven’t created that all-important stickability within three seconds then the people you want to reach will just scroll on by. There are a lot of cute cat videos out there, and only a limited amount of time.

Some brands deal with this by making their social content like a short, sharp blast of noise, fitting as much information as possible into a tiny amount of time. This might serve to broadcast their message, but what’s the likelihood that it’s going to make you hit the ‘share’ button?

What we do share, though, are stories. And so the question is, as it usually is for me, how can you turn your content into a story?

A story sets up a problem and then resolves it. In Christopher Booker’s often-referred to book, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories, this is referred to as the meta-plot, which in his theory includes not just an anticipation stage and a resolution, but also a dream stage – where the hero enjoys some measure of success – followed by frustration and even a nightmare stage before the eventual ‘happy ending’.

Sounds like a lot to fit into six seconds, right? Isn’t it just easier to shout some facts about your business at people and hope for the best? It’s an option. But if you’re going to invest the time, effort and money into creating content, isn’t it worth also making it be, y’know, good?

Of course it is. And here are some ideas, examples and thoughts that might help you.

Make it a joke

A joke is actually a tiny story with set-up and resolution – the reason they work is that the resolution also usually provides the conflict, making the listener think about the set-up in a different way than anticipated.

This one’s longer – a whole 30 seconds – but a perfect example of a video that catches the viewer’s attention in under 10 seconds, and tells a whole story in half a minute.

It’s not a coincidence that it’s by Honda, whose car adverts are famous for their creativity, but whereas those were made to take up a full ad break (and do you remember when the launch of a new Honda ad was a ‘thing’?), this is perfect for the short attention span social media audience.

Make sure you have a hero

People like to hear stories about people. So if your content doesn’t have a hero in the first couple of seconds, chances are, it won’t stop people in their tracks. It’s OK if the hero’s a dog, by the way.

Use the seven plots

Booker’s premise that all stories fall into seven basic plot types is actually a really good place to start thinking about how you structure your content. In case you’re not familiar with them, the seven plots are: Overcoming the monster, rags to riches, The Quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy and rebirth, and asking “how can I apply one of these to what I’m trying to say” is an effective way of getting your brain into storytelling mode.

Do something unexpected in the first 2 seconds

It’s tempting to stick your branding right at the start of a video to “make sure” the audience see it, but are they really going to stop scrolling for your logo? No. It’s here that one of the key principles of PR – newsworthiness – comes into play. Dog bites man isn’t news, and neither will it make someone stop and watch your video. If your headline – or opening shot – is man bites dog, however… well that might just catch the audience’s attention.

You don’t have to start at the beginning

Telling a story chronologically might seem like the obvious thing to do, but if you’re going to grab your audience’s attention, drop them straight in to the moment of tension, conflict or delight. In the video above, we didn’t see all the boring parts of the day leading up to the water cooler visit, just the moment when a mystery knight turned up out of nowhere with a big sword.

Hit them in the feels

We’re more likely to share something if it creates an emotional response – that’s why those videos for animal charities go straight for the heart. If you can create joy, nostalgia or even some well-directed anger you’re more likely to get a share and a response.

Ask, ‘do I really need this shot?’

And if you don’t, cut it. Trim, trim and trim again until every single moment of your content is doing something – getting the audience’s attention, moving the plot along or providing resolution. The ask yourself if there’s anything else you can trim.

Keep it simple

Don’t try to make your content do everything. Make it do one thing, and do it well. Have one message. One call to action. Just one.

I’m writing this after a day thinking about ultra shortform video content, and so that’s what I’m focusing on, but the same principles that I discuss here apply equally well to text or image content.

After all, if it can be done in six words, it can be done in six seconds.

Also in this series: How to measure your PR campaign

Kat Harrison-Dibbits, Head of Communications, HOME

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Resource type: Guide/tools | Published: 2021