Surprise is a critical element of emotional storytelling as it infuses a sense of artistry and alchemy. Whether it’s a plot twist or Spiderman (the protagonist) appears out of nowhere to save the day, good stories take advantage of classic cues to let the audience know something is about to happen, they just won’t say precisely when. When it comes to incorporating the element of surprise in business storytelling, there is only one name that comes to our mind, John Lewis.

John Lewis: Art of Business Storytelling

John Lewis has redefined thoughtful gifting with its Christmas adverts. Consider Christmas adverts as Britan’s version of Superbowl when it comes to advertising. So it comes as no surprise that, there is enormous pressure both on marketers and agencies to deliver incredible Christmas adverts every year. John Lewis has set a benchmark over the years when it comes to holiday storytelling.

John Lewis 90-second spot ‘Monty the Penguin‘ released in 2014 tells the story of friendship between a little boy, Sam, and his penguin friend, Monty. It narrates the story of friendship between a little boy, Sam, and his penguin friend, Monty. Monty starts to get sad—and only Sam realizes what the problem is.

“At the end of the day people won’t remember what you said or did, they will remember how you made them feel”.  – Maya Angelou

What makes the story, so moving is that it tells us something profound about love. Love is empathy – the boy’s empathy for the penguin, the penguin’s empathy for the loving couples it sees throughout the ad and the mother’s empathy for her son. Like any good story, this one too returns us to reality, or to ourselves, or to the moment we’re in now.

Business storytelling is about crafting stories that can move your audience and trigger an emotional response. A good story always inspires action. Brands can use storytelling techniques to trigger the same effect in people as stories do.

John Lewis’ 2016 Christmas spot ‘Buster the Boxer‘ features a bunch of animals – specifically a boxer dog, called Buster, two foxes, a badger, a hedgehog and a squirrel – bouncing on a trampoline. Bridget, the young girl in the advert, is seen preparing for the trampoline. But right then, at the last moment, Buster the dog races past her to have the trampoline for himself.

Business Storytelling – Learning from John Lewis

Delay Reveals

Good business storytelling requires an ‘unexpected’ twist. Too much overt foreshadowing makes the twist appears predictable. In Buster the Boxer advert, the dog racing ahead of the central character Bridget and grabbing the trampoline for himself was unexpected. By centring a significant plot twist on an improbable character, the creators keep us surprised. They avoid giving away plot twists early.

Incorporate setting

Setting in the plot can prepare the way for surprising revelations. For example, in Monty the Penguin advert, Monty appears to be sad everytime it sees a couple. From the start, the narrator makes it evident that the penguin is longing for a partner. We are only told towards the end the reason for using the setting.

Be Careful with Anticlimax

Plot twists don’t always increase tension. Some plot twists reverse anticipation and suspense.  The risk with this type of plot twist or surprise is that when an expected plot point never arrives, it usually leaves the viewer frustrated for the lack of payoff. For example, in Buster the Boxer advert the viewers anticipated Bridget to end up on the trampoline, but most were disappointed as the dog had it for himself. However, the surprise twist made the Buster the Boxer advert the most-shared Christmas ad of all time and the most-shared John Lewis ad ever.

Storytelling in content marketing is a powerful tool to engage with your audience. Good stories surprise the viewer which results in a visceral reaction from the audience. It’s difficult to execute a surprise successfully which is why the audience loves them.

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