Everyone wants to know what makes a good story. But a novelist is in a very different business than an ad copywriter. Stories in the context of marketing and branding are too brief to use techniques of classic storytelling like narrative arcs and character development. Effective branding stories are told obliquely; they still involve characters with problems to solve, but the narratives that exist are fragmentary and depend on the viewer to complete or even originate them. To coin a term, we could call them “microstories.”

The single panel cartoon, like the ones in The New Yorker, is a classic microstory. When we read a gag panel about a guy stranded on a desert island, we take into account not just the picture and the caption but also the events it suggests; the backstory of how the person got there. We automatically build that backstory not from what the cartoonist actually shows us but from what he implies without showing it. The lack of an explicit narrative isn’t a weakness—it’s a crucial part of the experience.

Ads work the same way. Cisco’s Circle Story ad shows a day in the life of a family and weaves in interesting Internet of Things bits throughout that day. Chrysler’s Super Bowl ad, narrated by Bob Dylan, sells viewers on buying American cars. It tells the story of American pride.

Geico stories to an extreme–their ads rarely have much to do with their product, car insurance, instead rely on Monty Pythonesque skits that work precisely because they’re so unexpected. Branding characters (as Geico has also done) goes even further. Who exactly is that cute Android robot? Android doesn’t say, but he works because we as viewers take what we know about cute robots and fill in the blanks.

What makes a good microstory? Here are a few principles:

  1. Characters need to be sympathetic and easy to understand.
    Microstory characters need to be likable and instantly recognizable as types. Attractiveness is essential—homely in this sort of story usually equals bad.
  2. What’s not said is more important than what is.
    The more the storyteller leaves to the imagination the better. We don’t know where that party full of beautiful people is or what it’s for, but we can’t help imagining the sort of fun we’d have if we were there, sharing their advertised beer.
  3. The audience will do the work, if you let them.
    The power of a microstory comes from an innate human desire to make connections. People engage with a microstory first and foremost to find out why it’s there. By the time they understand why the scruffy young men are singing a jugband-style song about credit scores, the message has been delivered.