How to tell better stories in your content marketing
Story is one of the most important tools in the marketer’s toolbox, but it’s important to understand how and why to use it in your content marketing.
Story is about connection. From sitting in our caves, huddled around a fire and painting on the walls, to watching movies on a big screen. A good story brings people together, and unifies them in a common experience.
As marketers, we can use this in our content marketing to connect with prospective customers, but we need to understand the mechanics of it.
I’ve worked in improvised comedy and theatre for almost 14 years, improvising on stage and teaching workshops to train others to do the same. Story is a fundamental element. Now, as a feature writer for Cross Productions, I carry those skills with me for each article I write.
The four Ws
I’ve always taught my students that they need to establish three things to start any story.
Who their characters are, where they are, and what they’re doing.
These three details provide the foundations of a premise. It’s not the whole story, but enough to hook the audience and give them an “in” to the broader concept.
The beginning of a story is the most important part. It must capture your audience’s attention. If it doesn’t do that, nothing that follows will matter because people won’t pay attention.
With a clear who/what/where established, the next question is why. Specifically, why should I care? What’s this story really about at an emotional level? And why is it relevant to me? This usually requires a storyteller to scratch beneath the surface and explore the motivations of their characters.
One of my catchphrases when I’m teaching is “talk about the relationship, not the thing”. That is to say, if you’re performing a scene about a pineapple, don’t talk about the pineapple. Talk instead about what the pineapple means to the characters, and how it affects their dynamic.
Maybe it reminds them of drinking cocktails on their honeymoon as they try to recapture the magic. Maybe one of them has put pineapple on a pizza, forgetting the other hates that. Maybe the pineapple is a silly gift one character is giving the other to apologise for something bigger.
Whatever you choose, that human moment is far more interesting and engaging than two people discussing the pineapple and what to do with it.
The marketing lesson here is to make your sales pitch about the person, not the product. Why is it relevant to them?
A hero, a villain, and a guide
In Donald Miller’s book, Building A Story Brand, he talks about the need to establish a hero, a villain, and a guide. The common sales/marketing error is to assume that we need to be the hero, swooping in on a white horse to save the client’s day. But that’s the wrong mindset.
Are you likely to buy something from someone who’s banging on and on about how wonderful they are? No.
The client is the hero. The villain is the problem they’re experiencing that our product would solve. And we’re the guide that leads them to that solution.
Merlin, Gandalf and Dumbledore would be great marketers, but Arthur, Bilbo, and Harry have to go on the journey.
Shaping a story
So how do we shape that journey? Improvisers have a common framework we use called “Story Spine”. The backbone of your narrative structure. It’s broken down into eight prompts:
- Once upon a time…
The classic opening – introduce your characters; who are they, where are they, when are they
- And every day…
Establish their everyday routine – an activity they do every day that’s vital to their status quo continuing
- Until one day…
Something happens that interrupts their routine, breaking the status quo.
- And because of that…
Because of the interruption, we start a chain of cause-and-effect that’s been triggered by the change. If step 3 had happened, then step 4 would also happen
- And because of that…
If step 4 had happened, then step 5 would happen
- And because of that…
If step 5 had happened, then step 6 would happen
- Until eventually…
The chain of cause-and-effect crescendos here, ending the run of changes and establishing a new status quo to carry forward.
- And ever since then…
Our version of “they all lived happily ever after”. Summarise how this experience has changed our character(s), and how it’ll affect them going forward.
Steps 1-3 are your beginning, 4-6 are the middle, and 7-8 are the end. In an even more simplified form, this could be summarised as:
- Establish your characters
- They encounter a problem
- They find a solution
Let’s give it a try.
Once upon a time, there was a baker called Bill. And every day, Bill would make fresh bread to sell to his customers. Until one day, a rival baker bought up all the available flour. And because of that, Bill couldn’t make any bread for his customers. And because of that, he lost his income, and the business started to struggle. And because of that, he had to start letting his staff go. Until eventually, his coeliac friend gave him a bag of rice flour. And ever since then, he’s had the best gluten-free bakery in the region, and business is thriving.
As marketers, it’s our job to tell Bill (our hero/client) his story and guide him to the rice flour (our product), in order to defeat (or, at least co-exist with) the rival baker (the villain/competition).
This may not happen overnight, or even through direct contact.
Bill might read a blog on our website about alternative flours and how easy they are to bake with. We might’ve sent bill a free sample of rice flour. We might be the coeliac friend, know him personally and have discussed the rising demand for gluten-free products. It’s all about establishing the right opening.
This is why understanding story is so important.
If you can identify a need or potential issue of the client, and guide them towards the solution over time, this will always be more effective than a quick advert saying, “Buy this! It’s great!”.
It’s a long-term investment of your time that builds trust for the client, and makes you seem credible.
If you want to connect, tell the best story.
Written by Tom Young