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

Written by Brad Phillips @MrMediaTraining 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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Comments (8)

  1. By The Spin Within» Blog Archive » 5 PR Links You Need to Read:

    […] 4. The Elements of Great Storytelling (and a 9-Year-Old Boy) – Mr. Media Training […]

  2. By Kelly Huston:

    Thank you for this post! Your post itself is a great example of success. Taking this virual sensation (this video) and explaining what makes it so powerful is an excellent example of leveraging something trending and making it applicable to those of us that are in the craft of communication. I know what some communicators are thinking, “Wow, I could do that and get our agency/department/company all kinds of great exposure!”

    The problem is that if you force this kind of thing (violating rule #2: Unexpected) and apply artificial elements to it (violating rule #4: Credible), then you probably won’t have much success because people will see through it. However, if you find someone within your agency/company/department that did something like this for their kid, you could ask permission to share it with your wider audience and likely engender good will on both sides – thus receiving unexpected exposure with a very genuine subject.

    Often we forget to keep our eyes and minds open to unexpected things – and often that’s the most powerful opportunity we can take. Keep your mind open!

  3. By Emily Guadagnoli:

    Once again, another great post with valuable reminders for building “sticky” stories.
    And I’m glad I’m not the only one teared up ;o)

  4. By Brad Phillips:

    Kelly – Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I agree with you completely that communication has to be authentic to work, at least in the long-term. Companies trying to create a viral video would be wise to remember authenticity as the core ingredient.

    Emily – There may be no crying in baseball, but it’s allowed when watching a moving video! Thanks for commenting and reading.


  5. By Donna Francavilla:

    Brought tears to my eyes! Well-done!

  6. By Rachel O'Sullivan:

    Thank you for posting this! I know it will stay with me a long time – and yes, I teared up too.
    Rachel O (OSullyEvents)

  7. By JC Kreidel:

    One minute in and I was totally owned – the claw, the calculator and the manually fed tickets! How neat is that kid? I didn’t watch the video when it first came out — who has that kind of time — but I’m sure glad your post made me watch it. I started thinking, “Now, why aren’t my kids that creative,” instead of being XBox junkies, but by the time it was over, I was wondering why I wasn’t the one that was more creative.

    Good for Caine! Thanks for sharing, Brad!

  8. By Bill Rogers:

    This kid is really into technology. Cardboard, scissors and tape: CST is better than STEM!

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