By Tom Brown | July 18 2018
A few weeks ago, I was speaking with a prospect who wanted to improve the performance of her team’s content and its wider impact on the business.
She’d heard how storytelling could be the key to her content marketing strategy, and she totally got it — people love stories! — but that’s where she was stumped. Her situation reminded me that while for many salespeople and marketers 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.
We invest years getting our heads down for MBAs. We spend twice that ‘in the field’, obsessing over KPIs and metrics and planning and meetings and who is delivering this report and why did no one reply to that email and where are the coffee pods?
We sit in siloed departments and break down businesses into revenue streams and forecast figures used to populate vast spreadsheets, all because we need to tick off a task before we dash off at five to catch the bus/beat the traffic/hit the pub —
— and we lose sight of the bigger picture. What does the customer want? How can your business help them get there? And what are the stories that bring this relationship to life?
To help, I’ve reached out to nine people spanning content marketers, storytellers and good ol’ fashioned novelists with a penchant for telling a good tale.These people make a living telling stories that change lives, move minds, and grow businesses every day. I’ve learned from them just putting this post together. You can learn from them too.
Read the tips below and share them with anyone you think they might help.
Rebecca Smith, Novelist and Creative Writing Teaching Fellow
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?
Victoria Oakes, Storytelling and Digital Destinations Lead, Microsoft UK
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.
Melanie Deziel, brand storytelling keynote speaker, Founder of StoryFuel
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.
Lauren McMenemy, Corporate Storyteller and Brand Journalist
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.
Lucy Perrin, Lifestyle Editor at TUI
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.
Matthias Weyrauther, PR and Digital Marketing Specialist
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'.
Matt Goolding, Founder and Content Strategist at KYO
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.
Maté Jarai, Novelist and Poet
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
Joe Lazauskas, Best-Selling Author of The Storytelling Edge and Contently’s Head of Content Strategy
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 content strategy 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.
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 strategies — hinge 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.
Thomas spearheads the content activities at BabelQuest, an agency and consultancy for sales, marketing, and services. Ranked in the top 15 HubSpot Diamond partners globally, we help organisations to drive scalable, predictable growth, supporting their people and processes with strategy, activity and technology.
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