The Elements Of Great Storytelling (And A 9-Year-Old Boy)

Written by Brad Phillips on April 15, 2012 – 7:00 am

What makes a video go viral?

A video featuring Caine, an imaginative 9-year-old boy living in East Los Angeles, spread like wildfire over the past week. It’s easy to see why.

This video features all six of the critical elements of great storytelling (more on those, below).

I’ve never posted an 11-minute video before, but this one is that good. I recommend you watch it before reading on.

In their terrific book, Made to Stick, authors Dan and Chip Heath identified six critical traits that make stories memorable. They used the acronym SUCCESs to summarize those elements (the final “s” doesn’t stand for anything.)

It’s no surprise that the video above went viral so quickly, as it had all six of the Heath Brothers’ “SUCCESs” sticky traits:

1. Simple: A boy. An idea. Some boxes. Doesn’t get much simpler than that.

2. Unexpected: This video had at least four unexpected things: An unusually creative boy. A video maker who accidentally stumbled upon the boy’s arcade. A flash mob. Caine’s surprise at the flash mob. Even though the video’s title (“9-year-old’s DIY cardboard arcade gets flashmobbed”) gave away a lot of the premise, it didn’t matter. We wanted to see how the unexpected played out.

3. Concrete: There’s one moment that stuck with me more than any other: Caine manually feeding prize tickets through a hole in the box. If there’s a second moment I remember, it’s the claw machine. If there’s a third, it’s the calculator he used to track legitimate “Fun Pass” users. All three of those details are concrete, and the story was more effective for its total absence of abstractions.

4. Credible: Totally. Not a single false note.

5. Emotional: Before my wife first showed me the video, she sheepishly admitted that it had made her cry. I mildly teased her. Then I watched it and teared up, as well. It felt deeply satisfying to see the boy’s industriousness rewarded. And the father’s pride in his son’s achievement? How wonderful to see a struggling businessman in East L.A. enjoy such rich satisfaction.

6. Stories: Back to the first “S:” a boy, an idea, some boxes. Stories can’t get stripped down much further, proving that good stories don’t require complexities to work.

Made to Stick stands at the top of my recommended reading list. You can order the hard cover here, soft cover here, Kindle edition here, or audio DVD here.

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  • About Mr. Media Training

    The Mr. Media Training Blog offers daily tips to help readers become better media spokespersons and public speakers. It also examines how well (or poorly) public figures are communicating through the media.

    Brad Phillips is the Founder and Managing Editor of the Mr. Media Training Blog. He is the president of Phillips Media Relations, a media and presentation training firm with offices in NYC and DC.

    Brad Phillips

    Before founding Phillips Media Relations in 2004, Brad worked as a journalist with ABC's Nightline with Ted Koppel and CNN's Reliable Sources and The Capital Gang.

    Brad tweets at @MrMediaTraining.

    Christina Mozaffari is the Senior Writer for the Mr. Media Training Blog. She is the Washington, D.C. vice president for Phillips Media Relations.

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    Before joining Phillips Media Relations in 2011, Christina worked as a journalist with NBC News, where she produced stories for MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, NBC Nightly News, and The Today Show.

    Christina tweets at @PMRChristina.

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