Storytelling is very much the buzzword in contemporary content marketing and strategy. And we can see why. Stories work because we’re hard-wired to remember them. They’re an integral part of our entire society; used throughout human history to pass on information and guidance, and to build community. For content marketers storytelling is also a highly effective tool for attracting and keeping the interest of readers – and potential customers – by increasing the relevance and value of their messages.
Recognising the importance of storytelling is easy. Actually fitting storytelling into our content is a much more challenging feat. So how can we do it?
One thing all good stories have in common is that they don’t come together by chance. There’s a lot of strategy behind crafting a powerful and effective story. But faced with a barrage of competing theories and techniques – each claiming superiority over the other – the act of transforming our message into a coherent story might feel a little like wading through treacle.
Instead we can see storytelling as a collection of tactics that we can dip into and make use of as suits each of us best. So we’ve come up with 6 tips to help you fit storytelling into your content…
Create a protagonist people can care about
Every story needs a hero. Think Superman, Indiana Jones, James Bond… The protagonist is the person our story revolves around and, if we’re doing it right, it will be the person your audience cares most about, the person they are rooting for.
In content marketing this protagonist probably isn’t going to be a crime-fighting superhero – it’s more likely to be someone our audience can relate more directly to.
Our hero could be a customer – whether it’s an actual customer or a potential fictionalised version. It could be the brand itself embodied by its inspirational leader or a talented member of the team. Or it could be a case study of someone that the organisation has supported or encouraged. It doesn’t matter so much who the protagonist is as long as we care about what happens to them.
Add a touch of suspenseThe most engaging stories are those that create suspense. Think about that page-turner of a book that you just couldn’t put down, or that TV series that you watched obsessively, bemoaning the whole week you had to wait for the next episode. What did they have in common? They piqued your interest. They kept you wanting more. You just had to know ‘What happens next?’
Suspense is already used very effectively in many areas of marketing, to build up to the launch of a new product or movie through a carefully paced campaign of orchestrated teases and promises. And the same idea should apply to content – it should make you want to keep reading.
Chances are if the reader has come to your page they are interested in the topic so the first battle is won. Now you have to keep them there and keep them reading.
To add some suspense to your story you can follow a simple 1-2 narrative structure: problem-solution, challenge-outcome, desire-satisfaction…
First set the scene: propose a situation that the audience can relate to and empathise with – pique their interest. And then, when you've built up a little bit of suspense, present the solution to the problem or challenge you've proposed.
Remember that your story is only going to work if the reader believes it is credible: if the set-up feels contrived the audience won’t recognise the pain point or care about the outcome.
Appeal to the emotionsAs the oft-quoted Maya Angelou once said ‘I've learned that people will forget what you said. People will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’
Sure we’d like to think that the audience remembers a little bit of the substance of our message along with the sentiment, but appealing to our audience’s emotions is vital in creating a relevant message that resonates long after they have clicked on to the next topic. After all, whatever our role or motives, when it boils down to it we’re all just people, with complex lives, complex feelings and complex psychological drivers.
Whatever content you’re creating think about your audience and consider the emotions that are driving them. Are they ambitious? Confused? Worried? Excited? Think about how you can spin your content to play on your reader’s emotions and drive them exactly where you want them to be. Can you help your reader achieve their goal? Can you clarify something for them? Can you reassure them?
When we’ve identified what is driving our audience, there’s lots of ways we can structure our content to appeal to their emotions, whether it’s dramatizing an all-too-familiar pain point, inspiring admiration by doing something difficult, playing on a well-founded fear or just making them laugh.
Personify an abstract ideaAbstract ideas are difficult to grasp. They’re intangible and confusing and, in short, too much like hard work. Trying to express abstract concepts in our content through real terms is inevitably going to lead to one place – boredom. Plus they don’t lend well to storytelling.
But there is another way. You can personify an abstract or complex scenario by turning the key concepts into characters and turn an abstract idea into a storyline that the audience can easily relate to.
Not sure what we mean? Here’s a video example from Google that uses a break-up, in which a woman finally dismisses a self-absorbed man who’s been taking her for granted, to personify the relationship between consumers and direct marketing.
Show don’t tellThe idea of showing not telling is related to the Kuleshov Effect, which is a fancy way of saying that when you juxtapose two or more elements without spelling out the connection, your audience are hard-wired to look for their own connection and tell their own story. And when a story feels more personal, it has greater resonance.
Content marketing, with its emphasis on user involvement rather than top-down promotion, is all about showing rather than telling. Successful content marketing lets you join the dots. Take Red Bull for example, who tell lots of stories of adrenaline-fuelled adventure and let you draw the connection between the energy drink and that exciting lifestyle.
Build a story engineFor scriptwriters, having a good story engine is the foundation for long-term success. But what is it? Consider long-running TV series like ER or Casualty where every injury or accident or patient provides a story to propel a new episode, alongside all the office politics of a busy workplace and the complex relationships and back-stories of a well-drawn cast of key characters to explore.
In content marketing terms, a strong story engine means coming up with a well-defined subject niche you can credibly own, which appeals to your potential audience and also fulfils your business goals.
This niche should of course be aligned with what you do – and informed by the knowledge and expertise of your team – but it needs to look beyond products and services. It needs to be something you can return to again and again for new ideas, angles and stories.
For a good example look to ASICS. Their story engine is based around the idea of optimising performance for people who are pretty serious about their sport or exercise. The site’s running performance advice area, for instance, shows just how much material can be gleaned from a well-planned editorial calendar featuring granular, expert advice focused around a well-chosen theme.