August 19, 2019
You may have heard that storytelling is an art, and not a science. I don’t disagree. That’s mainly because I enjoy introducing myself as a creative but also because there’s no right or wrong way to tell a story—a good story depends on who’s listening.
That’s not to say, however, that there aren’t commonalities across the best stories that are both repeatable and measurable. Taking into account just a few foundational storytelling concepts can help an organization wondering why they aren’t receiving a greater share of voice, whether that means a lack of press coverage, byline opportunities or views of the company blog.
Sometimes, there really is no good answer to these questions; in a world where Old Town Road is the longest-reigning number one song ever, who can legitimately claim to have a perfect grasp of the human attention span?
But quite often, the answer comes down to storytelling, or more accurately, a lack thereof. I’ve noticed this most acutely around product releases or updates in which communications are either self-aggrandizing or extraordinarily narrow. While you may think Product X is the perfect solution for Problem Y, your competitors think their Product Z is even better, and the public has no reason to pay attention either way. That’s where good storytelling comes in, and it’s my goal here to give you a few things to think about when crafting your next great story. Without further ado, let’s talk storytelling.
Okay, I guess this is a bit of a false start but since audience informs storytelling, it’s as important as anything when building a successful narrative. As the storytellers of old say, win the crowd and you will win your SOV. By defining your audience, you define the environment in which your story will exist and thus the angles that will best stand out.
And though this seems fairly intuitive, you’d be surprised how many organizations claim their audience is everyone and therefore reach no one. Let’s say, for example, you’re a new smartphone company that has built a high-performing device that is simultaneously highly-secure. Given the importance of smartphones in daily life, your audience is in fact everyone, but different groups care about different features. That means the story that will resonate with each audience is different as well.
When targeting the general public, for example, you may highlight product performance—perhaps through a partnership with a well-known video gamer. But appealing to a privacy-focused subset of the public requires a distinct approach. Maybe the story you craft for this audience is about a critical national security problem, and as an aside, part of the solution involves your new phone.
Whatever the case may be, it’s important to know your audience, and luckily, Lewis can help. My colleague wrote a fascinating blog detailing the use of data to build audience personas. It’s a great place to start.
No, this isn’t a bait and switch; like the audience, your goals play an important part in crafting a successful narrative. The goal may be measurable: sell a product. Or abstract: demonstrate leadership in your field. Regardless, your goals directly inform the type of content you create and the narrative you push. The latter, for example, may require opining on the industry’s hottest topics without naming your product or service at all. This less concrete goal nevertheless plays an important role in establishing your legitimacy and trustworthiness within a specific industry.
Okay, the preliminaries are over (though again they’re as important as anything), and now we can get to the main event. Any good story starts with a strong protagonist or group of protagonists. People are emotional animals, and we respond strongly to human focal points as opposed to a conceptual description of a problem and its associated solution. (And please don’t call me out for doing the latter right now; this is different!)
Let me give you an example from a place I look myself for inspiration. Recently, the New York Times ran an article about Ferguson, MO five years after the upheaval that followed Michael Brown’s death. The article is many things—an exploration of race, an examination of childhood trauma, an investigation into the relationship between the police and public—but mainly it is the story of seven-year-old David Morrison, who was two when the city exploded in anger. And it’s that story that keeps the reader hooked; in the process, we happen to learn about a whole lot more too.
Like a lot of what I’m saying, that’s not exactly a groundbreaking revelation. But too often companies forget that their products also have human faces and human issues that they address. A good narrative uses this humanity and weaves a given product/service/solution into it—and not the other way around.
By definition, a narrative is a spoken or written account of connected events, so I suppose nothing of consequence could happen as part of those connected events. But that’d be boring, and no one likes boring. A strong narrative presents an inherent tension between the desired result and the way things are. It then introduces another element—Product Miraculous—to solve what once seemed unsolvable.
Again, of course! But again, not of course! Too often, a rundown of features suffices as the story, with no mention of why they matter. Imagine if I just launched into this list, for example, rather than explaining why I wrote it in the first place. You wouldn’t care, and rightfully so. To show you an answer, I first must convince you there’s a problem, and that’s where the tension comes in. Tension craves resolution and creates action.
It may have been a mistake to close using my own imperfect column as an example, especially because it lacks the human-centric approach I so recently championed. But though it’s important to keep these story components in mind, it’s also important to understand they are hardly absolutes. Use them as guidelines, use them to laugh at a young, naive professional, or use them not at all. What matters is you’ve made it this far—thanks for reading.
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