By Dr Thomas Brown | July 18 2018
Master storytelling for more authentic content, stronger business relationships, and a bigger return on your budget. The 14 expert tips contained in this article will help.
A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a marketing manager who wanted to increase the performance and ROI of her team’s content marketing activities.
She knew that storytelling could drive up engagement and conversions, and it made total sense to her — people love stories! — but that’s as far as she'd got.
Her situation reminded me that while for many marketers and content specialists storytelling comes naturally, for others it’s unexplored territory.
The problem? Telling a good story is hard, and most of us are out of practice.
To help, I’ve reached out to 14 people spanning content marketers, storytellers, creative writers, journalists, and even some published novelists for their practical storytelling tips, tricks, and insights into what makes a good tale. These people earn a living telling stories that change lives, move minds, and grow businesses every day.
I’ve learned from them just by putting this post together — I hope you can, too.
When most people hear 'storytelling', their minds don't automatically go to business. Yet business leaders and runaway brands have been inspiring customers for decades with all kinds of narratives, from their success stories (and how they got there) to customer stories that speak to the core of their brand and what they stand for.
Your business can inspire your your prospects and customers in much the same way. Check out this great quote from author, speaker, and organisational consultant Simon Sinek:
"People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it."
Now more so than ever, your customers are looking to your values to see what you stand for. They want to buy from brands they can relate to. Telling them that sustainability is important to you won't cut it anymore — today's digital consumers are innate sceptics.
Show them how your brand is living and breathing its sustainable values and they'll not only believe you, they'll buy into you and your offerings.
Early into my time at BabelQuest, I was tasked with creating a content plan for the logistics division of a multinational supply chain company. As my brief went, the company had £900 million turnover but no digital strategy, no predefined value proposition, no brand voice, and no clear idea of its target customer.
The parameters of the brief were restrictive to say the least, but they did highlight one approach that I knew I could work with. A company of that size and turnover had a story. What could this look like when told using the HubSpot Growth Platform?
Nobody cares about companies, but many people care deeply about doing their job well. In the logistics space, this means working with supply chain partners with forward-thinking values capable of future-proofing an industry currently being reshaped by emerging technology and rising customer expectations. This was the client's heritage; this was the overarching narrative we needed to communicate.
"Working closely with the Director of Corporate Affairs, I was able to access the stories that reflected these values, from nostalgic tales highlighting the risks associated with not modernising to real-life examples of how the client was helping its customers to improve the safety and productivity of their teams through new technology."
Over the next year, we built up a blog, an engaged readership, and a pipeline of leads through the consistent publication and promotion of stories just like these.
Your brand stories — and the places where those intersect with your customers' stories — are a great opportunity for you to elevate your communications and the results you're seeing from your marketing. So why aren't more of us telling stories?
Read on to discover the full line-up of tips and tricks for better business storytelling — and feel free to share them with anyone you think they might help.
"Nobody cares about your corporate message. Find a way to connect with your audience and cut through. For me, it's about putting customers at the centre of the story, using customer insights to make them the hero. The product is simply the magical gift that empowers them to do amazing things."
Victoria Oakes is the storytelling and digital destinations lead at Microsoft UK. She has recently co-created The Little Book of Storytelling, an easy-to-digest book on how to use storytelling in your role, with inspiration and tips on honing the craft.
"One of the most important parts of brand storytelling is determining what your prospects actually want and need content about. So many brands feel the need to make content for content's sake, and wind up creating content that their prospects and customers don't find helpful. If you start with your audience — understanding what their challenges are, what they want, what they need — you can create content that actually resonates with them and ultimately better serves your business goals."
Melanie Deziel is the founder of StoryFuel and a lifelong storyteller. She was the first editor of branded content at The New York Times, where she wrote the native ads that won the Best Native Advertising Execution OMMA Award in both 2014 and 2015.
"You could write the best story ever committed to paper (or computer), but without an audience, no one will know about it. So, before you set a single foot out on your hero's journey, you need to know who's watching and listening. Do your research, ask them questions, create customer personas. Only then will you be able to embark on a relevant and timely story because you'll know what your audience needs, what engages them, what frightens them, what turns them on."
Lauren McMenemy is a storyteller and content strategist with more than 20 years of experience in various fields. Over the course of her career, she has worked in agencies, in-house and in the media. In 2016, she founded The Content Type.
"I think the best writing advice I ever got was to ‘trust my readers’. Don’t force-feed them information. Hold back, let the characters and the story come to life, and if you tell the story well, the rest will ensue. This has become my first rule, page one of the writer’s manual I keep inside my head. I never think, ‘what's the message of my story, and how do I demonstrate it?' This aspect needs to come from within the characters, from the narrative journey itself. It needs to emerge naturally, and in the same breath, it needs to pass through to the reader naturally."
Maté Jarai is the author of the Panther’s Wake series and two poetry collections. Originally from Budapest, Hungary, he recently completed his PhD in Creative Writing. He’s currently living in Pavia, Italy, where he’s working on his next novel. @matejarai
"A good business narrative always focuses on customers’ needs and interests. Don’t think of this as advertising; instead, provide your audience with information or services they can actually use. When you cater to people’s needs, your stories will be much more personal and appear less like a sales pitch. Only once you establish credibility with your customers should you start sharing your corporate message."
Andriana is proud to call herself SmallBizGenius’s community manager. Her mission is simple: to connect small business owners with the best tools and resources to help them thrive.
"The audience is vital, but knowing them isn't the same as bringing them with you on a storytelling journey. When creating content think constantly about the beginning, middle and end of what you're telling people. What's the context? What's changing? How are you involved — and how do these things interrelate?
"It's your job to stitch everything together into a flowing narrative that appeals to people and brings them along to your final point or CTA. Test late-stage drafts on someone new: you never know when they'll spot something that's out of context or sequence."
Simon Handby is a freelance journalist and writer, specialising in technology, transport and the environment. He's written for publications including Computer Shopper magazine and The Telegraph, and for businesses including Porsche, Toyota, and Barclays.
"You’ll notice that in the first few pages of a novel we often learn what a character has lost and what it is they long for. Writers need to spend a lot of time thinking about their characters, each character’s history, and very importantly, the things that each character longs for. Kurt Vonnegut said that every character should want something, even if it's just a glass of water. When I’m writing a story I usually start with a character and the story grows from that person."
Rebecca Smith is a principal teaching fellow in English and Creative Writing at the University of Southampton. She is the author of The Jane Austen Writers’ Club, three novels also published by Bloomsbury, and most recently, a picture book, Where’s Jane?
"How do you treat friends? With respect, consideration and kindness, if you ask me. So, treat your protagonists the same way. Their actions should show the audience or reader they have strongly relatable and likeable personalities.
"This is not to say you’re not allowed to mention any of your protagonists’ quirks — quite to the contrary. Little quirks like an unusual smile or frequent gesture can go a long way towards convincing your audience or reader that your protagonists are just ordinary human beings and thus more relatable. Just make sure the protagonists still come across as sympathetic rather than ridiculous. I promise you: Your audience or reader will be way more likely to believe and remember your stories if you succeed in portraying your protagonists this way."
Matthias Weyrauther is a digital marketing specialist. His focus is social media strategy, content marketing, storytelling, and personal branding. While he values technological advances, his motto is 'Strategy first, technology second'.
"The art of storytelling in business comes down to the timing of when the story is told. Use analytics to track when particular topics are popular (have high organic search volume) and make sure your story is optimised and ready to be told in its best form at that time. E.g. if Iceland bookings become popular in September, make sure your articles are optimised in July, giving them time to rank. When that story comes to being told in September and people are searching for it, it's all prepared and ready to go."
"Storytelling is more than merely fixing a narrative to your content. For complex industries in particular, it’s essential to give the audience tangible reference points and real-world examples throughout your content. An abstract concept without real-life application is hard to visualise, and your readers will switch off and go elsewhere.
"To find these stories, get out there and source them. Speak to experts in a better position than yourself, find fascinating contradictions and deep insights, and give space to those who disagree with your argument. This journalistic approach is hard work, but ultimately your content will have a greater impact."
Matt Goolding is the founder and content strategist at KYO, a content marketing collective based in the Netherlands.
"If you want to give your reader a compelling reason to buy, first you have to give them a reason to trust what you’re saying. That means being able to tell a story that shows you ‘get’ who they are and what they think they need.
"When you’re tackling a wide range of subject matter as I do, working for different clients, you need to quickly get beyond the surface level of a subject to uncover an essential part of the story that will trigger your reader into action.
"A first draft of top-level issues should be followed with a second ‘so what?’ draft that draws out the critical sub-layer of content that is authentic, fresh and involving to your target audience.
"Going beneath the superficial gives you the chance to connect more deeply with your audience, to stand out from other content on the same subject, and to prompt action based on earned trust."
Sarah Wood is a content strategist and copywriter working mostly in the B2B technology space, with over 20 years’ experience in delivering complex e-commerce and content-led projects for brands including Dell, T-Mobile, and Vodafone.
"Storytelling is hot. It makes sense because nothing is quite as authentic (or as convincing) as your customers waxing lyrical about your brand. After all, why would they do it if they didn’t really believe in your product/service?
"But then the challenge is: how do you convince their brand to let you use their logo! The fact is, often, you can’t. The best way to get brands to give you the okay is to build the requirement for a case study right into their initial contract — usually sales do this in exchange for agreeing to lower the price. (If they don’t do this at your company, get them to add this in ASAP!)
"Even if your brand won’t agree to let you use their name or logo, there is still hope! The power lies in the customer's own words.
Tip #1: keep their words, language, tone and style in your testimonials, case studies and quotes.
Tip #2: use their job title (or an approximation) even if you can’t use their brand.
Tip #3: use their first name, even if you can’t use their whole name.
Tip #4: use a photo of them, wherever possible — with or without their name. If it can be a photo within their brand’s context, even better. So if they work for BMW but you can’t use the logo, have them be photographed in front of a Beemer, or just put a photo of a Beemer (without the logo) next to their testimonial and say ‘world-renowned automobile brand’. Okay, maybe not for BMW, but you get the idea…
"At the end of the day, the power lies in a combination of the logo, name, industry and story. Use as much info you can — and keep their true words — and you’ll already be away ahead. In short: don’t let a brand’s marketing team’s ‘no’ put you off using those beautiful words, even if you have to use them anonymously!"
Gina Balarin is a storyteller, content marketer, TEDx speaker, Founder of Verballistics, and author of The Secret Army: Leadership, Marketing and the Power of People. She has an MEd, is an MCIM Chartered Marketer, and has lived on three continents.
"You need tension. As Aristotle once said, the key to great storytelling is establishing the gap between what is and what could be, and then closing that gap and opening it up again. That's what lights up our brains; that's what keeps us at the edge of our seat.
"So many brands are afraid of tension. I once did work for a brand that sold outdoor gear and wanted to tell outdoor adventure stories, except no one in the stories could ever get wet. That's nuts. If you're in B2B, tell stories about the challenges in your industry and how people overcame them. If you're in B2C, tell stories about intriguing protagonists who faced something hard and succeeded.
"And with every story you tell, ask: How am I making my readers live better? How am I teaching or making them feel something new?"
Joe Lazauskas is the head of marketing at Contently. He's written for Forbes, Fast Company, Mashable, and more. In 2018 he co-authored The Storytelling Edge, an engaging and inspiring read on the art and science of telling great business stories.
"Successful storytelling relies on emotional connection and simplicity. Your story should tap into the feeling your product or service offers, whether that’s confidence, happiness, financial security, or a sense of accomplishment. Focus on the reader’s favourite subject — themselves. People like to imagine themselves inside the story, so appeal to their self-interest. Draw parallels with their own lives to create desire and a need to take action. It’s great to be imaginative, but keep it simple and don’t let unnecessary details detract from your key message. A good story is a powerful call to action in itself."
Zahra Pettican is a content marketing writer for B2B and B2C brands. She also writes articles for several lifestyle and travel websites.
Storytelling is a muscle, and like a muscle it needs to be worked regularly to grow bigger and stronger.
For most of us, sitting at our desks every day, this muscle withers. It shrinks. A tiny little mouse muscle. But with practice, you can quickly and easily get it up to size again.
Digital marketing today — particularly inbound marketing — hinges on your ability to engage with the reader. I hope the advice given above helps you to achieve this and provides you with inspiration and guidance when you next come to writing (or reviewing your team's) storytelling efforts.
The power of storytelling is real, but it doesn't come overnight. Keep at it, and track how your content's engagement metrics shift over time. You might just find yourself in the middle of a success story.
Do you have a business storytelling story to tell? Try saying that ten times in a row, then share your story in a comment below.
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Head of Content at BabelQuest responsible for steering and implementing the content roadmap. PhD Creative Writing at the University of Southampton and novelist with Sparkling Books.
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