February 2020

Every two months, early in my career in New York City, I was invited to participate in learning sessions with a community of other young advertising innovators. We’d meet somewhere in the city, usually a boardroom at one of the participants advertising agency’s overlooking a park or cityscape. But this particular month we all found our way into an acting studio to learn about storytelling – and you thought this was a new concept. I’m talking mid-1980’s.

Truth be told, the members of this group (I knew these guys and gals well) certainly already knew something about the topic. They were the young movers and shakers at some of the largest advertising agencies in the world – many are presidents and CEO’s of corporations today. But what I came to realize was the more you know, the more you realize there is to learn, and our group wanted to learn more about how to use effective storytelling to drive change in their agency's.

The experience took me by surprise, to be honest. I considered myself pretty knowledgeable about a lot of things and snobbishly thought there was little more to learn at the ripe age of 30. How wrong I was. From this amazing session that I remember like it was yesterday, there were two key takeaways; insights that I use religiously to this day. Apply them at your next meeting, phone call or presentation and I am willing to bet you will have a better result.


Our facilitator told us a story and had us dissect what we remembered. Do this, and you will realize your audience is often checked out, comatose, or unable to hear or remember what you are saying. The key to engage them is to use lots of “language of the senses,” or LOTS. When telling a story, share what you see, smell, feel, taste, and hear. When you trigger a sense in someone, you bring them into the story with you. Below is an example of copy 78Madison recently wrote using lots of LOTS.

You’re standing in the shadow of a hundred-year-old lighthouse…Sounds seem to travel on the easterly wind. You hear the shouts of fishermen returning from a good catch…the echoes of gulls in the marina…the music of a calm bay. Take a deep breath of fresh air, and you’ll catch a whiff of fresh paint, carpentry and even clam chowder. And if you squint your eyes, you can almost picture the clapboard cottages and boats tugging at their moorings…You might guess Nantucket. Or Cape Cod. You could name any one of a hundred New England fishing villages, and you’d be close. But this is much closer. This is East Bay, located in the panhandle of Florida.


At Compton Advertising I was taught to open presentations with a standard structure: situation, complication, question, answer. Our coach suggested we use a five-step structure and do so not just to open your presentation, but throughout our talk. He called it the "story spine": reality is introduced, conflict arrives, there is a struggle, the conflict is resolved, a new reality exists. These tools caused a profound shift in my ability to tell effective stories. Not convinced? Let me try the story spine with lots of LOTS then:

Reality introduced: A dark room is filled with 20 young executives resting on chairs in rows facing two director chairs. The door closes, snuffing out the faint sound of New York traffic.

Conflict introduced: Our facilitator, John, begins scratching markers on flip charts. He is there to teach us about storytelling. But all I can think about is, "This is a highly accomplished group; they know all of this already. Will we learn anything new?"

Struggle: John tells us to use “language of the senses,” but someone complains, "You can't talk like that at a board meeting," to which John points out that if you talk differently than people expect you to, they are more likely to listen and remember.

Conflict resolved: John gently bats back every concern this Type A group lobs at him, patiently walking us through the journey. By the end he has us on the edge of our seats.

New reality: We close with a “before and after” exercise. One of our members gets up to practice a pitch; he is raising money for an energy tech venture. He starts speaking, but I just can't follow. When he finishes, I realize I have not heard a word. John tells us to take a break and he coaches the presenter -- lots of LOTS, story spine, look us in the eye, take us in -- and the speaker tries again. Now it is all waterfalls of electricity pouring down the mountain, the opportunity to create something and break through with passion. I heard every word, and so much more.

That is the impact that simple tools can have in your ability to tell stories -- about the company you are building, the project you are leading, the life you live. You can enroll people more completely and emotionally in your mission. If you put three simple techniques into action, I think you will see a difference in how your audiences respond:

ONE: Think of the next presentation or pitch you will be giving.

TWO: Write out your presentation as a story using the story spine.

THREE: Brainstorm a list of LOTS (language of the senses) you want to embed into your story.

Let me know what you think.

Joe Bouch

CEO, 78Madison

For 37 years, 78Madison has been evolving, adjusting and keeping up with an ever-changing marketplace to give its clients what they need to move their businesses forward. Sometimes it’s an ad. Sometimes it’s a website, direct mail piece, radio spot, Internet banner, social media program or one of the million other things we create. The point is we develop strategies and solutions as diverse as our client base, all specifically tailored to their DNA. Let’s start a conversation.