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Storytelling Techniques: Understanding Cause and Effect


The first rule of business is to question your assumptions before believing. In a world where everything is driven by impulse the ability to comprehend data differentiates you from the rest. As Tetlock put it “Beliefs are hypotheses to be tested, not treasures to be guarded.”

Almost everything we do as marketers has a cause and effect. The universal law of cause and effect states that for every effect there is a definite cause. The desired effect for marketers is to see your work change behaviours, thoughts and instigate action.

The advent of digital has made it easier to measure results and take corrective actions. Storytelling as a discipline has also seen the emergence of new frameworks which allow you to gauge the acceptance of a story.

Storytelling Techniques: Understanding Cause and Effect

Let’s talk about two different campaigns from Cannes Lions released on International Women’s Day to elicit how cause and effect works in storytelling.

The Fearless Girl Campaign by State Street Global Advisors in 2017 was among the most talked about campaigns in Cannes last year. The campaign achieved unprecedented result with results that actually made a difference to the cause. The size of SHE fund by State Street increased by 374% as a consequence of the campaign.

McDonald’s flipped its golden arches to a ‘W” on International Women’s Day in 2018. The women’s day stunt was criticized as a hollow gesture. The move was however questioned by people who called on McDonald’s to pay its employees a living wage.

If you were to judge the campaigns based on the case studies you would see merit in both ideas but yet the cause and effect works so differently in both cases. You could say that McDonald’s couldn’t achieve the desired effect with its story. So let’s examine what a storyteller needs to keep in mind when crafting a story and few storytelling techniques that can be used.

Framing the Story within Audiences Worldview

If you want your story or narrative to be heard by the audience it should agree with their worldview. As Seth Godin puts it “Every consumer has a worldview that affects the product you want to sell. That worldview alters the way they interpret everything you say and do. Frame your story in terms of that worldview, and it will be heard.”

For example, Coca-Cola claims that it gives back as such water as it uses but time and again it has been proven that the claim is not even close. Now imagine if Coca-Cola releases a commercial about its water program would the audience accept its narrative?

Cause = Desired Effect

Without a definite cause, you can’t have the desired effect. Marketing, when driven by impulse, only results in misspends reaching an irrelevant audience. As Ralph Waldo Emerson puts it “Shallow men believe in luck or in circumstance. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” To achieve the desired effect your intent behind the narrative needs to have a stronger association with the cause.

The flow of the Story

The flow of the story should move from choice to consequences, from cause to effect. If you have to explain why something happened in a story then you are telling the story backwards.

When the story moves from effect to cause it creates a gap that makes the viewers ask, “But why are you doing this..?” and requires you to explain what just happened. Even in a disjointed narrative, every action should be justified by context, setting, pursuit and characterization.

Distinguishing between Causation & Correlation

Causation is cause and effect while correction means that relationship between two variables exists but the cause and effect is yet to be proven. For example, companies with limited spends on non-branded SEO may believe they are performing well based on their traffic volume and may withhold investment, though that traffic is actually originating from other advertising activities.

Then, when the budgets for those other activities are cut and the SEO traffic dries up, these companies realize they erred by not investing more in non-branded: They had seen causation where there was only a correlation.

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