Why the strongest B2B stories have three acts
Copywriter David McGuire says your content needs a beginning, a middle, and an end… but not in the way you might think.
The tiny silver spacecraft flees across the screen, surrounded by laser fire. Behind it, a vast, angular star destroyer sweeps ominously forward to seal the rebels’ fate. There will be no escape for the Princess this time.
Star Wars doesn’t start the way you remember. Think back and – after the famous crawling text – you’d probably think the story opens on the desert planet Tatooine. Then, we quickly meet Luke Skywalker, bickering with his uncle on the moisture farm. And since the beginning of a story needs to introduce the main characters and set up the world, that seems the obvious place to start.
Instead, the film throws you headlong into the action. Space fights, explosions, droids, rebels, stormtroopers, a princess – and, within the opening minutes, Darth Vader.
But what does any of this have to do with writing B2B content?
Kubo and the Two Strings,
“If you must blink, do it now. Pay careful attention to everything you see and hear, no matter how unusual it may seem. And please be warned, if you fidget, if you look away, if you forget any part of what I tell you, even for an instant, then our hero will surely perish.”
In this fast-paced, digital world…
The first words of your content are the most important. There’s no telling how long a busy B2B decision-maker (and they are all busy) will spend deciding whether your work is worth their time – but one thing’s for sure: it’s not long.
Let’s be generous, and say you have 10 seconds while your reader is paying attention. That’s less than 20 words to make your point and say one thing that will make them read on, or – if they don’t read on – will at least stick with them.
If you start with some generic B2B codswallop like “In this fast-paced, digital world”, you’ve spent the first 30% of that attention budget, and told them nothing – except that this is going to be exactly like all the other unimaginative B2B content they’ve read.
Instead, you can do one of two things. You can get straight to the point, or you can do something really unexpected. Or maybe, if you’re very clever like George Lucas in Star Wars, you can do both.
Act one: present the challenge
Most satisfying stories follow a basic three-act structure. And whether you’re creating an explainer video or a case study, your content will innately feel more logical and structured if you follow suit. You’re tapping into all kinds of lessons we’ve learned without even realising it – from our earliest childhood memories onwards – about the way stories work.
The “beginning” part of your story is about the first 25%. And here, you usually need to do three things:
- Introduce the world and the hero
- Present the hero with a challenge to respond to
- Take the hero out of their comfort zone
(Important note: in good B2B content, the hero is never, ever your product or brand.)
Take any DVD and skip to around 25% of the run time. Usually, you’ll find a plot point where the character leaves their comfortable world behind and takes up a challenge. Either literally or metaphorically, they’re entering a new world.
You see it a lot in B2B, too. Watch this video change gear at the 25 second mark, with the words “So yeah, we tried Slack…"
But – and here’s the point...
You don’t have to make the world-building boring. You can, as the script-writers say, “arrive late”.
Your first words can show an exciting moment that puts everything else in context. Like Ryan saying how the wheels fell off his business. Or this adorable Zendesk video, which leaps into the story – an spells out a pretty complex metaphor – really clearly, in nine seconds flat.
Act two: build tension… with a twist
The very middle words of Star Wars are important, because they transform the story. Likewise, the middle of the best B2B stories reframe the issue.
Skip to the halfway mark of your Star Wars DVD. Assuming you have the original 1977 version, and not the one that was “remastered” later, you’ll see our heroes dropping out of hyperspace, ready to deliver their message… and landing in the ruins of a shattered planet.
Moments later, the change in Sir Alec Guinness’s face tells you everything you need to know about the technology needed to inflict such destruction.
Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope,
“That’s no moon; it’s a space station.”
The “middle” part of a story generally runs from around 25% to 75% of the way through. It usually builds excitement and tension by having the heroes face a series of obstacles where the difficulty – and the stakes – keep rising… up to a crisis point, where it seems that all is lost.
But within that process, the halfway mark is key. Because it’s here that we discover the problem isn’t what we thought it was. There’s a twist. And that’s important because it shakes the audience awake, refocusing their attention, and increasing the sense of jeopardy.
If your pitch to your audience often involves a Challenger Sale-type approach, this is the moment to reframe. Watch the police show up halfway through the famous Adobe “Mean Streets” ad – showing that fraud is not just a problem for your marketing, but your reputation and your career. Or the way the halfway mark of HP’s “The Wolf” shifts the cyber security issue from theoretical to company-threatening.
Act three: the world has changed
The climax of your story starts with the hero fighting back – probably with a bold new approach, or making use of something they learned earlier on. There’s a climactic “do or die” moment and, more often than not, they win.
But the story doesn’t end there. There’s one more important thing to do.
We need to come full circle, and see how the world has changed. What difference has the adventure made? If it’s a case study, how does life now compare with life before?
Often, we’ll talk about the way a company has changed – processes, efficiency, results. But don’t forget that your buyer is a human being, so their perspective will have changed too. And when we show that, the next buyer can put themselves in those shoes.
Look at the way Hubspot contrasts the past and present in this ShoreTel case study – and highlights the change in the customer’s mood. It’s a technique that always reminds me of the “Scouring of the Shire” at the end of The Lord of the Rings. The hobbits can turf the bullies out of their home, not because the world has changed, but because they have.
The Return of the King,
Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. "You have grown, Halfling," he said. "Yes, you have grown very much.”
Always leave them wanting more
The scriptwriters don’t just say “arrive late”; they also say “leave early”. And for your B2B content, that means don’t overstay your welcome.
Instead of tired B2B chestnuts like “To find out more, please feel free to contact our sales team…” try to think about what would be reasonable for the reader to do next (if we’re honest, it’s usually not talking to sales).
If you’re reading a blog about B2B content, you might be interested in B2B Marketing’s copywriting course. Booking a year-long programme of ebooks and blogs? Maybe not yet.
Once you’ve done that, finish with a strong statement, prompt a question, or refer back to the start (like the way this Sprint Business video comes back to Milwaukee) to give a sense of completeness. Maybe, do more than one of those things. And end.
With a three-act structure, you can make your content feel compelling, logical, and satisfying. But that doesn’t mean you need to do things the same way everyone else does. You can still surprise.
Good luck, and may the Force be with you.
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