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Storytelling Secret Sauce - Part 3: The Promise & Set-up

Updated: Jun 15, 2023

In a land far one ever started a story with "in a land far away" ever again.

In our last post, we discussed the importance of getting to the point right away when you are telling your story. After all, the point of the tale is to make a connection with your audience, which is a vital tool in your communications toolbox.

Your ability to tell a compelling story can be fantastic but in order for it to be authentic, you have to make a promise that your audience will believe, as well, and that happens only when the promise is clear and the set-up is done in a way to support it.

You (and your story) have a ton of promise.

That's right, but only if it is strong. So, let's start with the promise of your story. Simply put, the promise of your story is the reason why you are asking your audience to pay attention in the first place. It sets the stage for what you want to communicate and where it might head.

You can literally start by announcing, "I promise, if I can get your attention for the next few minutes, I will (fill in the blank: get you to think about this challenge in a different way, spark some inspiration, never promise you anything ever again). Remember, as we mentioned during our first post on this series, the whole point. of telling a good story is to get attention.

If you're getting set-up, take control.

If you've ever been set up on a blind date by a friend, (is this even a thing anymore?), you may have asked yourself "does this friend even know who I am?". Just because your friend has two people in her orbit that she "loves" doesn't mean they will love each other!

The same is true for setting up your story to support your promise and make it (and you) credible. This means your set-up matches the promise you have made (and if not, then change your promise).

Design your escape room

Escape rooms are fun not only because you and your friends are trying to unlock clues to "escape", but because you get to be part of a story based on a specific theme. The same applies to your set-up and this first important step.

As an example, if you promise your audience that they will see a new opportunity to revisit a product or marketing concept that didn't seem to work in the past, you don't want your theme to be the Titanic. But a "Where would we be without" theme is perfect. Bubble wrap, WD-40, Apple - big time failures the first go around (and many more after that) turned into huge successes. Where would packaging be without those irresistible bubbles just waiting to be popped after released from their package (just me)? That was initially meant to be wallpaper - look it up!

Put the PROfessional in your protagonist

Now that you have set-up a theme that will support your promise, who are the characters that are going to be key to your story? Let's start with the protagonist and why she needs to get from point A to point B. Be a professional protagonist builder, giving her a real challenge that resonates with your audience. Using the example above, a scientist can grapple with making use out of something that seems to have such potential but remains elusive. One day, after failing to be accepted as a "art-deco" wall covering, he uses the bubbly plastic material left-over to house his scientific instruments in after being laid off and left without any budget to package properly. Voila! Remember - it's called "The Little Engine that Could" and not "The Little Engine that Inherited a Trust Fund" for a reason.

Once you have your protagonist described clearly and succinctly - a young, nerdy scientist transplanted from her small town in Ohio, a gangly alien hiding in human form, a stand-up comedian masking as a corporate executive (hypothetically speaking, of course), then you can start to identify the challenges they face and how they will overcome it.

But wait! There's more!

Like any good pitch, your set-up is not only supporting your promise but is going to motivate your audience to stay engaged because your characters are engaged, too. Find the motivation, inspiration and incentives for your protagonist and all the main characters of your story. This is critical because the more your characters motivations resonate with those of your audience, the better chance you have of getting your story to stick.

Be warned, however -brevity is your friend (see "Get to the Point"). So jot it all down at first but keep pruning and refining until you are only keeping those elements that most support the promise you initially made.

The VITAL5 ROUNDUPStorytelling Secret Sauce: The Promise & Set-up

1. You're full of promise – all you need is one that grabs attention.

2. Control your set-up – make the only "blind date" part of your story a character if it fits, but make sure everything else matches your promise.

3. Design your escape room pick a theme that fits your promise and can be supported with all set-up elements and characters.

4. Put the PRO in protagonist– describe your main character clearly, quickly and the obstacles ahead and then go!

5. Connect your protagonist to her motivation –what are the reasons she needs to overcome a specific challenge and what's in it for her?

In our next post on Storytelling Secret Sauce, we talk about mind maps (not mind control) and how they help connect important elements of your story.

VitalConex is a connect-and-create company. To learn more about the "peanut butter cup" of successful teams, check us out at

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