HOW A CENTURIES-OLD WRITING TRICK MAKES YOUR WRITING, DESIGN — AND EVEN EVENTS — BETTER
IN A CLASSIC PRESENTATION, THE LATE AMERICAN AUTHOR KURT VONNEGUT DESCRIBES THE SHAPE OF A STORY.
(Best line: “E stands for electricity.” You’ll see.)
By illustrating three common story shapes, all supported by dozens of examples in books and films, he’s teaching us that stories succeed when they have structure.
It doesn’t have to be an original structure, either. It’s probably best if it’s one of the old standbys.
Marketing content often fails because it lacks this kind of structure. It lacks, as Vonnegut might have said, a decent reason for existing and a sense of direction. In practical terms, you can’t just shovel bullet points and product features onto the internet and assume people will find them as important as you do. They don’t.
You need to give people a journey to care about.
A journey to care about
The traditional three-act structure is one of the most useful marketing hacks if you’re a content producer. Building a three-act structure into marketing content is easy, too. Even a two-paragraph email can be built like this:
|Act||Traditional meaning||Marketing meaning|
|1||Setup||Establish the problem|
|2||Confrontation||Solve the problem|
|3||Resolution||Glimpse the new normal|
Truth is, you probably already do this intuitively. That’s because a three-act structure tends to come naturally to people across industries, eras, cultures, and interests.
Here’s the best part, though: This doesn’t just count for written content. You can adopt a three-act structure for an entire campaign, providing a rich journey for participants. You can even apply it to in-person interactions, like the in-booth experience at a tradeshow. Our staff members have used it in speechwriting, event-driven campaigns, and social media.
Graphic designers are likely to see the value in this, too, since they already use their narrative brains when they’re crafting infographics, logos, or anything else.
(Super test: Infuse a three-act experience into one logo. Or one subject line.)
The three-act hack is low-tech and simple to use.
- Use the three acts as your outline before you begin a piece of content or start to plan a campaign. You can literally use “Act 1: Establish the problem” as a provisional subhead in a document.
- Use it as a self-test after you’ve drafted something. If you can identify these phases, you’re probably saying something useful.
If you build this approach into your routine, you might just find that your ideation, planning, and creative output comes more naturally and resonates more with people. Because you’re never really starting from scratch—you’re starting with a framework that has worked for people for millennia.
If you look back at this blog post, you’ll be able to discern the three-act structure. Maybe you even felt it already.
- A problem is established (“Marketing content often fails because…”)
- A problem is solved (“The traditional three-act structure is…”)
- The new normal is glimpsed (“You might just find that…”)
Try it. You might have as much fun with it as we did when we wrote this.