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3 Strategies for Using Content to Tell Stories

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Many of us grew up wanting to write novels or make movies. Our meetings with friends and family usually involve reliving memories and telling stories. We love telling stories. Through them, we make order out of the general nonsense that we call life. Not only that — stories have power. Stories have built religions and sparked revolutions. They have brought out the best and worst in us.

What if you could channel that kind of power into your content? Now, we’re not encouraging you to go inciting any revolutions, except maybe a (nonviolent) revolution in your industry, but by integrating storytelling strategies into your content development, you can create experiences for your audience that will benefit both them and your brand.

Why Tell Stories?

Image via Flickr by ZapTheDingbat

Why should you worry so much about telling a story? Wouldn’t it be easier to just post a bullet-point list of the benefits of your products and services on your website? The effectiveness of telling stories ultimately goes back to the age-old adage: show, don’t tell. Telling what your product does and how it can benefit your customers can work at times, but showing them is always more convincing.

Think about it. We don’t go to the movies to be told something. We go to watch a story unfold. We read a book to be swept away in the experience of the characters. Much like your marketing strategy, these forms of entertainment almost always have a core message that they’re trying to communicate, but instead of just telling you the message, they show you the message and how it influences the characters in their story.

You’re not shooting films or writing novels, though, so what would a story look like in your content? You can use virtually any medium as a place to tell stories. Maybe you shoot short videos that illustrate someone who could represent your consumer going throughout their day, and your brand is present throughout the experience. Maybe your blog and article posts include short hypothetical situations that the reader can relate to and that draws them into an experience.

Let’s consider one of my favorite examples of using content to tell a story. A couple of years ago, Extra gum released an advertisement that displayed two lovers from their first meeting, through good times and bad, and ended with the man proposing to his girlfriend. The story is sweet and reminds the audience of the beauty and struggle of love — and guess who’s there throughout the entire experience? Extra gum. It all starts with a piece of gum, and throughout the ad, the young man draws out their experiences on gum wrappers.

The ad isn’t telling you to buy Extra; it’s providing an experience where you feel something, and that experience sticks with you. It makes you want the gum because you begin to, even subconsciously, associate positive feelings with that product.

Executing all of that is easier said than done, though. How can you produce content that both tells a story and fulfills the needs of your strategy? Here are a few ways.

Identify With Your Audience

Absolutely crucial to any storytelling is understanding one’s audience. Imagine if the next Iron Man movie opened with a graphic sex scene followed by Robert Downey Jr. blasting Captain America’s head off, gore included. Little Sam in the front row, wearing the Iron Man costume he got for Christmas, would drop his popcorn at the same moment his mom would drop her soda as she moved to cover his innocent eyes.

No, Marvel movies aren’t intended only for kids, but they are careful not to alienate such a significant part of their market. Their storytelling includes themes and jokes that will reach anyone from ages five to 50. If an audience can’t connect with a story, either because something (such as content inappropriate for their age or comfort level) shocks them out of the experience or because the story doesn’t meet their expectations, the message of the story will likely never reach them.

You probably already have a pretty good feel for your audience. You likely know their age, interests, and other demographic points, and maybe you can even tailor short advertisements and campaigns toward them, but stories go far deeper than a webpage ad. They must draw the consumer in by giving them the opportunity to experience the story as if they were the characters. Storytellers do this through what the great rhetorician Kenneth Burke termed “identification.”

For example, that commercial for Extra gum played on pretty universal experiences that the majority of their target audience (likely those in their late teens and older) could relate to. It identified with something that most of us could imagine ourselves experiencing. Kids likely weren’t as able to identify with those experiences, but they weren’t the target.

In seeking to identify with an audience, it’s also crucial to recognize who you could be potentially alienating. You have to narrow your target somehow, and doing so could cause others to feel like they’re not part of the story you’re telling. For example, if a twenty-five year old sees an advertisement with only people in their seventies, he or she will quickly lose interest because the story fails to identify with them. This is a natural consequence of telling any story — just make sure that identification and the lack thereof is intentional. Don’t accidentally alienate part of your audience.

Communicate Feeling

Let’s go back to the gum ad. Yes, I love it that much. For me, the core of its efficiency lies in its ability to communicate feeling. When we see the two of them sharing a piece of gum for the first time, we remember the feeling of meeting someone we love for the first time. When they go through their struggles, we remember the frustration of such challenges and the peace that comes after reconciliation. When he proposes at the end, we think of how much we love our special someone, and maybe we remember how we felt when we were in a similar situation.

The best stories cause us to experience emotion. They cause us to feel something that simply explaining in concrete language could never do. If you can cause your audience to experience emotion, they will likely associate those emotions, or at least an influential experience, with your brand.

Don’t feel limited to only communicating happy, fluffy emotions. Negative emotions can often leave a more powerful impression. Have you ever lay awake at night wondering if you locked your front door? The fear, which someone at some point put in your head (probably your parents), that someone could enter your home causes you to leave the comfort of your bed and check the locks.

If you run a business that provides home security, maybe your content tells a story of something that happened to a mother who dismissed the thought to check her locks. That story communicates emotions that your audience doesn’t want to experience, so they take action to prevent it. We like to say we’re all rational creatures, but let’s be honest: We use rationality to explain and justify our emotions. Connect with your audience at that deeper level, not only with statistics (though there’s always a place for those).

Influence Into Action

Stories, for the most part, don’t make a concrete argument. They don’t come out with a thesis and supporting evidence; they create an experience that causes emotional reactions that then influence action. Stories cause their recipients to evaluate their attitudes and decide if they will take action on the messages they received and the emotions they felt. When crafting content into a story, you should always have the endgame in mind: ROI. You need this story to pay off. Extra released that commercial to sell gum, not only to tell a cute story.

Calls to action can come in handy here. While most books and films won’t give you something to do with the feelings you experienced, content is a different game. Let’s go back to the home security example. Your audience watches a woman neglect to lock her door. Someone sneaks in. He creeps through the home, pockets a smartphone someone left on a table, then starts poking into other rooms. He goes into the child’s room, reaches toward the little girl, and grabs the music player by her head. Then he leaves just as the mother thinks she heard something.

The audience is left with discomfort and fear. They wonder what to do next. How can they prevent this? Then your logo comes onto the screen and you invite them to call you for a quote so they can protect the one place where they should feel safe. Your influence moves them to action.

Storytelling isn’t easy. The ones who make millions doing it are a rare breed. However, you don’t need to make a billion-dollar blockbuster — you simply need to make a return on investment. Employ these storytelling strategies into your content, and you’ll transform your brand from a name into an experience.

About the author

Michael Walton