The art of storytelling: Insights from top marketers, journalists, and authors
When some of the best storytellers in business, media, and literature take the stage, you listen to what they have to say.
At Content Marketing World 2017, many of those storytellers delivered advice and insights that are still echoing in my head a couple months later. Here’s some of what stuck with me.
“You are never not persuading”
That’s what Scott Berinato, Senior Editor at Harvard Business Review, said as he walked through his formula for good charts (“Clear, persuasive stories presented well”).
Like any good storyteller, Berinato begins every chart with the audience and purpose in mind – think “I need to convince [audience] that [goal].” That determines what’s emphasized and isolated in any data set. A chart that’s great for Ph.D.s might be incomprehensible to the average consumer.
Scott used the example of beer prices at baseball stadiums, showing how he made the decision to look at beer prices by the case, a unit that would make the price seem especially outrageous compared to what you might pay at a beer shop. That the chart ends long before the Boston Red Sox appear was another choice, Berinato explained, suggesting a limit to what is reasonable and placing the Red Sox literally off the chart.
— Scott Berinato (@scottberinato) April 7, 2016
Every choice to emphasize or isolate, the two persuasive techniques Berinato talked about, changes the story you’re telling.
What choices are the right ones for your audience and purpose?
“Tell timeless stories but with timely chapters”
That’s Coca-Cola’s goal with every story it tells, Kate Santore said in her keynote. Coke hits on universal themes, aiming to capture big-picture ideas about what connects us as humans, but continually retells those stories for the current moment.
These two ads are one example. Both tell the same universal story that we have more in common than what divides us, and while the ad from the 1970s still works, the one from the 2010s is clearly a timely update.
What universal, big-picture themes run through your work, and how can you keep updating those for the present moment?
Set yourself apart by digging for the interesting bits that others overlook
Quartz writers start with their headlines, crafting them like tweets, according to Jay Lauf, Quartz’s President and Publisher. If it’d be a boring tweet, the theory goes, it’ll be a boring headline. To create something counterintuitive or surprising, they have to dig a little to find something that others don’t.
When Gap reported earnings in February 2016, the headlines covering the news were all pretty similar, Lauf showed.
- The AP: “Gap shares dip following disappointing earnings”
- CNBC: “Gap reports fourth quarter earnings”
- Bloomsberg: “Gap gives tepid forecast as it works on comeback”
Quartz’s headline, however, took a different tack:
- “Banana Republic made a blazer with armholes too small for an ‘average’ woman to get into”
The reporter read through the earnings call transcript and found a comment from the CEO about problems with quality, the armholes being one example. The reporter saw an opportunity to show the universal in the specific, illustrating the kind of troubles that caused the earnings miss.
What details could make your story stand out?
Use strategic story frameworks to reach different audiences
Jonathan Stanley talked through Lowe’s Home Improvement’s YouTube strategy, which follows the content framework of help, hub, hero, herd.
Help is how-to videos, teaching DIYers how to use a tape measure, for example. They’re designed to attract an audience through search, giving viewers information and instruction within Lowe’s expertise.
Hub is episodic videos, a series that Lowe’s began creating once it got up to speed with its Help videos. It attracts subscribers, who see new episodes on YouTube’s home page. As Jonathan put it, a subscriber means free promotion of new content forever.
Hero videos are the big productions, the Super Bowl commercials, the stories that arrive with a big launch and are expected to rack up thousands or millions of views quickly. While few and far between, they target a broader audience than may be interested in either Help or Hero videos.
Herd is Jonathan’s unofficial fourth framework, which involves asking the audience what they want to see. Honest Trailers does this well, and if you’ve ever watched those videos, you know each one starts with all the requests to do a particular movie. Asking what viewers want to see not only engages Lowe’s audience, but encourages comments as well.
How could your content fit into these four buckets?
Tell stories in a way that’s unique to every platform they appear on
Quartz started with a website and a newsletter. It has since expanded to multiple properties, including an app. One of the reasons it’s been able to grow so well is that it stops to think about and understand the platform it’s expanding to.
The Quartz Daily Brief, delivered by email, shouldn’t be the website reprinted. It’s organized as a friendly update for people just waking up, with sections like “What to watch for,” “While you were sleeping,” and “Surprising discoveries.” The newsletter is also agnostic about source, pulling in interesting articles from other sites to create a daily catch-up on what’s happening in the world.
So when Quartz created an app, it knew that recreating the site would be redundant. By creating an app with a chat interface, Quartz tapped into the trend that users were spending more time in messaging apps than social media apps. The conversational tone was a hit with users and reviewers alike.
Are you simply copying and pasting content to different platforms, or are you customizing it to take advantage of the strengths of each medium?
Collaborate for results you couldn’t achieve alone
Joseph Gordon-Levitt gave the final keynote of the conference about his production company, hitRECord. It’s aiming to transform the internet into a better place for creativity by focusing on community, fair compensation, and collaboration.
By responding to calls for stories, actors, music, animation, and so on, and remixing the material created, members of the hitRECord community contributed more than a thousand elements that added up to this short movie, “First stars I see tonight.”
How could collaboration, whether internal or external, enhance the stories your company is trying to tell?
Become a better storyteller with every project
Colson Whitehead’s book “The Underground Railroad” is a bestseller, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, not to mention an Oprah’s Book Club pick. The idea for the book occurred to him 17 years before he started writing it, but he didn’t pursue it at the time because he didn’t think he was a good enough writer yet.
But with everything he wrote, he honed his skills, each time producing the best book he was able to at that moment. That constant pursuit of his best work eventually left him ready to pursue the idea that had been stewing for nearly two decades.
Here’s hoping that this advice helps push you toward your own best work.
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