Image for Storytelling Success Relies on Blending Familiarity and Freshness

The secret to storytelling boils down to two basic ingredients – familiarity and freshness.

Audiences can relate to a story when it follows a familiar pattern, recalls a familiar event or centers on a familiar character type. Familiarity makes audiences comfortable listening to or watching a story unfold.

Something fresh arouses audience interest in a story. Freshness can take the form of an unexpected plot twist, unique character traits or an unlikely situation turned real. It also can be refreshing to solve a vexing problem for an audience.

The combination of familiar and fresh is a lot like going to your favorite restaurant and ordering a new specialty dish. You know it will be good, even if you don’t know how it will taste. Familiar story architecture is a guide for audiences to get your fresh story from the first floor to the penthouse. 

Author Christopher Booker says storytelling architecture can be reduced to seven plots, which he lists as overcoming a monster, rags-to-riches, voyage and return, the quest, comedy, tragedy and rebirth. Russian writer Leo Tolstoy distilled it to plots: man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Don’t think of these as rigid formulas, but rather as flexible patterns that you can refer to as you build your story structure. The point is to find a familiar foundation that allows you and your audience to start and finish on common ground.

Familiar and fresh may seem like opposites, but they actually blend well to entice audiences with something new about something they already know. It also can be a combination that combusts your creativity. For example, make a familiar story fresh by offering a different viewpoint, like a Hardy Boys detective story when the boys have grown up or a classic fairy tale retold as the experience of real people.

Most stories aren’t fiction. They are accounts of actual activity. The challenge is how to mix together the details so your story sounds fresh, even if the subject matter is well known. For example, how could you spin together a story about doing chores around the house and learning valuable lessons for life? Maybe the solution could involve performing the chores with a touch of humor and sharing your light-hearted vignettes on social media sites such as TikTok for younger viewers or Pinterest for older ones.

If your subject matter is an informational presentation, the familiar-fresh axis applies. For a training session for water industry professionals, I created a presentation combining my crisis preparation recommendations with Minion images that reinforced them. The recommendations were in a familiar 10-point presentation format. The quirky cartoon characters, who also were familiar, punctuated my recommendations with a fresh, cheeky flourish.

Neither familiarity nor freshness occur by accident. They require intentional choices. They require designing your story to appeal to your audience by striking a familiar chord and satisfying with fresh content. Those are broad, but practical guidelines to focus your creativity in telling a story. How can you make your subject relatable? How can you make your story surprising, delightful, stimulating or informative? How can you combine relatability with one or more of those fresh qualities?

Visual communication is of the most functional ways to freshen a story. Whether it’s old family photos, well-packaged content or snazzy, eye-grabbing graphics, images and graphic design can add punch, dimension and empathy to words. Images can make a story more authentic, personalized and, of course, fresher. Graphic design can translate your words into word pictures, making it easier for an audience to visualize and remember.

Visual communication is of the most functional ways to freshen a story. Whether it’s old family photos, well-packaged content or snazzy, eye-grabbing graphics, images and graphic design can add punch, dimension and empathy to words.

Visual communication also can reinforce a familiar pattern, theme or character. Imagery and design can set a tone, recall a memorable event and direct the eye of the audience through your story. The best visual communication follows the patterns of how people typically see and hear a story, speech or presentation.

To make your story familiar and fresh for an audience demands thought, effort and practice. Whether you start with the familiar and turn it into something fresh or begin with fresh blast that you connect with something familiar, you need a plan, a design and a rehearsed script.

If you need inspiration for your storytelling challenge, go to YouTube and watch stand-up routines by Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Gaffigan. Both are masters of turning everyday foibles into hilarious punchlines, of making familiar things fresh and funny. You don’t have to be hilarious to be effective. You can charm or inform an audience just fine with a simple, genuine approach that kindles familiarity and showcases fresh.