We live in the “golden age of television”, we are told. First premium cable, and now streaming, unshackled us from the constraints of storytelling dominated by commercial breaks. Now we can enjoy long, satisfying story arcs. The Sopranos. Breaking Bad. Game of Thrones. Westworld. Etc.
All well and good.
But don’t throw out traditional TV just yet. Some of those shows offer a clue on how to get readers locked into stories. And they’ve been very successful at it. With multi-decade runs. Spawning several spinoffs.
I’m talking about shows like Law & Order. CSI. NCIS. Shows that are still running and have generated hundreds of millions for their producers.
Their secret sauce? They offer a reliable experience you’ve come to expect. With enough twists, hopefully, to hold your interest.
Mysteries and cop procedurals lend themselves well to this kind of repeatable experience. There’s always another murder to solve, and the detectives need to walk down the same basic bath:
Find clues, get yanked in an unexpected direction, and swing round to nab the bad guy at the end.
So when we watch, we know what we’re getting. It’s the charm of the familiar, like a bar where everyone knows your name.
Ads can use predictable formats, too.
When you open a Ben Settle email, you know you’re going to get a flow of testosterone, a rebel attitude, often a colorful personal anecdote, and a sales pitch for Email Players.
When you watch a Doritos Superbowl commercial, you can expect them to swing for a big spectacle and laughs. (Like in this year’s rap battle between Dinklage and Freeman.)
When you see a GEICO commercial, you know it’ll start with a zany situation and end with the familiar tagline: “15 minutes could save you 15% or more.”
It pays to use formats. Today, let’s take a look at a particular format that helps to launch the big idea of a product. I call it a “Booster Rocket Story.” To see it in action, let’s look at a TV show with a very transparent format, one aimed at toddlers:
It’s called Special Agent Oso. Oso is the teddy bear version of James Bond. And by “teddy bear” I don’t just mean that he’s kind and loveable: he’s literally a teddy bear.
Each episode offers a reliable format that kids can come to expect and love, with three parts.
In the first part, Oso learns a new skill as part of his training. For example, In the episode “Hopscotch Royale”, he must learn to cross a pond by jumping over one small stone at a time.
But he messes up – in this case he splashes into the water. Oops.
Second, right when he fails his training, he gets a call from “Paw Pilot”, his mission control. She sends Oso on his mission to help kids with a problem, something involving basic life skills: buying groceries, mailing a letter, or in this episode, playing hopscotch.
And Paw Pilot breaks down each of these tasks into “Three simple steps.” Oso and the kids apply the three steps and succeed in their task. Hooray.
Third and last, Oso returns to his training mission that he failed at. But this time he aces it, because the mission he just completed used the very same kind of skill used to help the kiddos. So when he learned to play Hopscotch, he learned to hop on one foot. Now he can successful hop all the way across the rocks and not get wet.
Three simple steps indeed: once a kid sees this show once or twice, she knows exactly what to expect. This helps to create desire for the experience and also engages her more deeply, because she can become a participant.
(And notice how the story creators deploy the “Rule of 3” twice: 3 parts to each episode, and 3 steps to each skill.)
Now, aside from giving us a refresher in reliable formats, OSO makes use of a “Booster Rocket” story:
Remember that Oso starts off each episode learning an isolated skill: Like jumping over rocks. This is the little “booster rocket” story.
And then that skill gets called back in the “main” story, OSO’s mission. Like playing hopscotch. This is the main story.
The booster rocket story is a quick introduction of the big idea. It helps to plant the idea in our brains, so we’ll be more receptive to it when the bigger story (or product reveal) comes.
So the same tactic can be used with selling a product. First, use a very brief story to showcase the big idea in a simple situation.
Next, tell the larger story about the product, that features the same basic idea: once that idea is proven to be interesting, you get into the “main story” and show how it works.
I remember one vivid example of this in this in Eliyahu Goldratt’s bestselling “business novel”, The Goal, which functions as a very long advertisement for Goldratt’s services as a business consultant.
In the story, the hero Alex Rogo manages a factory and needs to increase production, fast. In order to do this, he must learn the Big Idea of the novel, the so-called “Theory of Constraints.”
(Basically, spot and fix the weakest link in the chain.)
The main story will show Alex discovering this Idea and applying it to the factory for spectacular results.
But first the Idea is made tangible to him in a brief “booster rocket” story.
Alex is a scout leader, leading some boys on a camping trip, and the troop is making slow time.
Recalling his new insight, Alex looks for the “weak link”, which turns out to be an out-of-shape boy. So the whole troop refocuses to help that boy succeed – taking some of the weight out of his backpack, putting him upfront so the line doesn’t straggle, shouting encouragement – and the result is a much better hike time.
Weak link spotted and fixed. The idea comes across clear and memorable.
In fact, that little anecdote remains vivid to me, even after the details of the larger story have faded from my memory.
THE MORAL: Use the reliable format of a “Booster Rocket” story to help launch the big idea of your product.