And the Winner of American Idol Is…

by Steven Washer on May 24, 2011

Okey-doke. A bit of whimsy today (with a serious intent).

Cue bombastic intro music…

Voice-over of Ryan Seacrest:

“Stay tuned because…

I know. I know. But stay with me for a few minutes. You see, I’m going to tell you who will win on American Idol tomorrow night because it puts a huge spotlight on what is maybe the single most powerful theme in storytelling. It is also why you should strongly consider how to use this in your video marketing.

This kind of storytelling is called the storyform.

What the heck is a storyform?
A storyform is a way of telling a story based on the character of the protagonist, the lead character. Storyforms have defined outcomes. That’s why even if you’ve never watched American Idol you can predict the outcome if you know the storyforms being used, and you can use this in your business to create equally predictable outcomes.

I think that’s kind of cool. So let’s look at the storyforms the producers have given us on American Idol, then I’ll give you my prediction based on those storyforms.

A little backstory, as they say in Hollywood
American Idol is a TV show where young singers compete for a huge recording contract and the fame and fortune that goes along with it. Tens of thousands of young hopefuls turn out each year to audition in cities across the U.S.

In fact, more people vote for their favorites on this TV show than vote for President of the United States. Far more. So yes, it’s kind of a big deal over here.

So I’d like to ask you to suspend your judgment for just a moment, because there might be a really cool perspective here you can apply to your videos.

However, the sheer power of the storyform that will win tomorrow is so compelling that it must be used sparingly and with a high degree of compassionate consciousness. You’ll soon understand why.

My prediction model
I’ve been calling the losers for the past few weeks based strictly on their storyforms. As the finalists are whittled down to the last few, it’s been amazing to watch my predictions unfold, almost as if the producers were following a script based on those same storyforms. Almost as if they had told the story themselves. Oh, wait…

Let’s look at these forms and rank them according to the results so far. The exercise could prove helpful to you as you decide how to tell your stories.

To make things easier, I’ll only cover the last 3 storyforms that were attached to each contestant in order of their downfall.

Just in case you’re a die hard American Idoler, please understand I’m not ascribing any particular character traits to any of these kids. So if this sounds harsh, it’s only because I’m describing the storyforms as presented to us by the producers, not any actual personality faults of the singers themselves.

Ok, let’s get going.

James Durbin: The Artist Who Loves His Family More Than His Art
This one doomed James from the start. His storyform was the essence of confusion. It didn’t matter how good he was. We couldn’t hold his theme in our hearts because we didn’t know what he REALLY wanted. Did he want to be a family man or a rock star? He seemed to want both with equal passion. America said “enough” and James had to go home.

In the movies, this character finds that his family is a bigger “win” than the one he thought he was going for.

Haley Reinhart – The Perpetually Confused Iconoclast
Haley presented as a feisty, combative contestant who disliked criticism. Her changing singing style, which she described as experimentation, was seen as artistic confusion. This was simply a variation on Durbin’s Hamlet-like indecision. As America doesn’t like confusion in a single-combat hero, we sent her home as well.

In the movies, this character always loses, because the indecisive character cannot, by definition, win anything. His or her job is simply to show how right the leading man was all along through his consistent application of what he knows to be right and true.

Lauren Alaina – The Insecure All-American Girl
This is a complex one. The producers tried like heck to layer a predictable “American as apple pie” storyform on top of Lauren’s more complex personality. But when her insecurities began to multiply, the storyform began to unravel. Every comment from the judges began to include the encouragement to be more confident. I believe her essential insecurities have sealed her fate. People will simply never choose a contestant who can’t live up to her storyform.

In the movies, this person is often the protagonist and wins the day. The fact that Lauren has not been able to help the producers make this a competition between two powerful storyforms means that she cannot win. Especially in light of the powerful train a-comin’ down the track next.

Scotty McCreery – The Redeemed Man
The Redemption storyform is the basis of all the world’s religions. It is the story of bad turned good, of seeing the light, of righting wrongs, of setting the world in balance again. It is the sweetest storyform we prize as a species. It’s the one that turns ordinary men into saints, the one preached each week from every altar in every corner of the planet. But it isn’t just about old time religion. It’s a universal yearning in every human being to make things better than we found them, including ourselves.

Redemption, huh? What in the world are you talking about, Steve? Scotty is just a child country singer. Oh, but he is much more than that. In the video below you will see a hint of the story that pushed him from week to week to his eventual victory on American Idol. Before you watch this video, here is the backstory that pierced America’s heart and stayed there even when America thought she wasn’t thinking about it anymore.

The Betrayal
Very early in the competition during something called “Hollywood Week”, all 75 or so of the singers must form themselves into groups of 3 or 4 over the course of a single night. And for the next day’s competition they must forge those groups into singing sensations. It’s an activity that nearly kills all these solo performers with worry, doubt and confusion.

On that night, the group that Scotty was in kicked out one of their singers after several hours of rehearsal. That cast-out youngster subsequently wandered helplessly in a desert of rejection for most of the night trying to find another group who would take him in. Much was made of this betrayal at the time, with a story about hypocrisy that focused mostly on Scotty, even though he was not the instigator.

The Redemption
Scotty, unlike the other members of his group, became intensely aware of the pain they’d caused the younger boy. And as the results of his betrayal began to sink in, Scotty seemed devastated. He fell apart at his next audition. And America took note of it. So did the producers. They let us watch Scotty try to redeem himself with the younger competitor.

And this encounter with the judges was the cherry on top:

The Power of Forgiveness
Forgiven, Scotty found his stride again and never looked back. Scotty will win tomorrow barring a very unusual pattern of voting.

Notice also that Scotty’s is the only simple and consistent storyform that carried through the entire season. Everyone else was fundamentally conflicted, pulled in different directions internally.

It’s easier for us to understand and bond with a simple character, whose story is clearly told; a character who acts with consistency.

What’s the Lesson?
Reality is much different than the impression of reality. When you do video marketing, you’re showing a tiny slice of yourself to your audience. That’s what we’re seeing with these talented kids. So I don’t meant to say that Lauren is a lunk or that Scotty is a saint. Only that their stories are being presented to us that way.

How Deep Should You Go?
Yes, I guess it is silly to make predictions like this, but I just wanted you to see that storyforms really do matter in your video marketing. How deep you feel prepared to take your audience is the real question. That storyforms are so predictable is something you need to consider, because ethical considerations arise when you start playing with these ideas in any serious way.

Assuming you’re going to be ethical with this, where you take your audience with any storyform will be measured by your courage, your conviction about what you offer and your knowledge of what your audience needs. Not every audience is right for this tool just because you know how to use it.

Still, the whole point of using video marketing is to reach a deeper level of bonding and understanding with your tribe. And who among us could not use a little redemption from time to time?

Congratulations Scotty.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Jurgen Wolff May 24, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Very interesting analysis! I also think in times of economic stress people prefer the safe, down-home story to the edgier one–hence Scotty over James. The bland alternative has a history of winning this competition–and then disappearing while more distinctive runners-up go on to have more of a career.


Steve May 24, 2011 at 1:56 pm

Excellent point, Jurgen. Of course the economic analysis doesn’t explain 10 years of similar results. So there is definitely something of the homogenizing effect going on.


Warren Hayford May 24, 2011 at 2:23 pm

Great analysis Steve. I always avoided watching Idol. I felt it was rigged like “Professional Wrestling.” I just didn’t know how. Thanks for the education.

I see how a carefully crafted storyform can be used to make a small company appear as safe a choice to a customer as a large one.

I am reading “The Presentation Skills of Steve Jobs” by Carmine Gallo. One of Jobs’ techniques is to set up the Antagonist (the villain) and then set Apple as the counter. The most familiar example was the 1984 Superbowl commercial. With the Orwellian setting and the young woman runner who throws the hammer that smashes the giant screen big brother (aka IBM, also Big Blue.) This 30 second commercial only ran once, but it is the one of the most remembered commercials of the last century. What makes it extremely rare, is that people remember what the commercial was for. Even though it didn’t show a single Apple computer.

It looks similar to what Idol is doing with the protagonist storyform. Setting a single protagonist, not against a villain, but against less “perfect” or flawed protagonists. If I am seeing this correctly, both strike at the emotions of the audience to reach their goal. Idol gets it’s audience to commit to the responsibility of choosing the best performer in the group. Implying that if they don’t participate, a poor choice will be made.

Once the commitment is made, the producers use the storyforms to guide the audience selection. So much for “unscripted” television.

Thanks again Steve.



Barbara May 24, 2011 at 2:25 pm

Well that is fascinating.

I was just at a live coaching event and the question was asked “what would you do if you only had six months to live?” I realized it would probably not be the business that I’ve been pursuing so avidly. There’s something amiss with the story form I’ve created for myself. Your article has helped to clarify that for me.

I was looking forward to meeting you at a Big Shift event, but I think I need to rethink my business before getting involved in further coaching.

Good luck with your business and “stay in touch”.


Steve May 24, 2011 at 2:46 pm


Wow. That’s a really powerful statement. I don’t want to be responsible for derailing your plans, but it seems the universe may have other ideas for you.

I hope that if you don’t like the story you’ve been telling yourself, you’ll talk it over with someone with a safe and friendly ear. This kind of life change you wouldn’t want to go through alone.

And, hey, you know where to find me!


Steve May 24, 2011 at 2:55 pm


Brilliant progression! I love the way you made the connection to small biz vs. large. Actually, I almost used an example of the us vs. them storyform, but it didn’t make it off the cutting room floor.

I don’t know how rigged the system is; only that we are quite susceptible to persuasion, even though we may consider ourselves beyond it.


Pamela Hale May 24, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Very interesting analysis! Sometimes I’m embarrassed to be an idol fan, but after reading this I think that in addition to loving singing, I like watching the story form for each character unfold. (and I agree that the voters usually choose safe, bland and consistent over complex and truly artistic. But Scotty is also a classically fine singer.)
Since I’m now working on a video, I will think about my own “story form!” Thank you.


Neil Smith May 24, 2011 at 9:26 pm

Warren, I love your comment! “I see how a carefully crafted storyform can be used to make a small company appear as safe a choice to a customer as a large one.”

I could certainly do with some help there! My profession is being taken over by regulators, which is not bad, but with regulation comes the need for backup, and with that, mergers, acquisitions, and much bigger competitors, even Australian ones!

Thanks Steven for the hint about storyform. Be consistent, and understandable…



Neal | Sax Station May 24, 2011 at 11:17 pm

Hey Steve,
Thanks for writing. You drew me in with the title, haha. Was wondering where you were going with it. What you’re saying makes sense.


Kari May 25, 2011 at 9:12 am

Great article, Steve! I’d love to hear what you see as our current story forms as students.


Karen May 25, 2011 at 9:47 am

Thank you for a wonderful article with great depth and humor. Very inspiring!


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