Opposable thumbs and upright walking patterns aren’t the only things that make humans, well, human. In fact, they may not even be the most important.
Here’s what is: storytelling. Simply put, humans are hardwired to tell, share, and enjoy stories—our very survival depends on it.
Our ancient ancestors distilled complex ideas into parables, myths, and folktales to make them more accessible and memorable. Anthropologists believe that our ability to tell stories is what enabled our species to build civilizations and coexist in large groups.
Historical relevance aside, it’s undeniable that a propensity for storytelling is hardwired into our DNA. And savvy businesses have begun to grasp the full potential of the dramatic arc as a marketing tool.
If you want to effectively educate customers about your business, convey the message in the form of a compelling narrative.
A Narrative Approach to Marketing
Seth Godin – one of the foremost thought leaders in content marketing – declared over a decade ago that, “Marketing is no longer about the stuff you make, but the stories you tell.”
At the time, this revelation was spurred on by the rising prevalence of social media and the precipitant need for businesses to generate buzz online. And, as Godin so keenly inferred, nothing generates buzz among social groups like a good story.
This is hardly a novel concept. At best, it’s a fresh take on the timeless reality that humans are deeply receptive to stories. Facts and figures alone are fleeting in the mind of the average person.
A good story, on the other hand, creates more persistent (sticky) memories by attaching information to characters and experiences. It appeals to an audience’s emotions and stimulates their imaginations while plotless rhetoric tends to go in one ear and out the other.
Start with your message
It’s fitting that the word “narrative” comes from the Latin gnarus meaning “knowledgeable” because a story is fundamentally a vehicle for sharing information. It’s a way to implant ideas into someone’s mind in a way that really sticks.
So, before you begin a narrative, you should always ask yourself what do I want my audience to know?
As a marketer, it’s likely that you’re trying to do more than simply entertain your readers, listeners, or viewers. There is probably a specific idea or message that you’re hoping to get across. Before you start writing, you should nail down what that message is.
How will your message be delivered?
It’s commonly believed that stories serve one (or a combination) of four potential purposes:
To persuade, explain, entertain, or inspire.
Once you’ve determined what your message is, you must then decide which of these four methods will be most effective at delivering it.
- Do you want your story to be intellectually stimulating?
- Are you trying to light a fire under your readers?
- Or, are you attempting to endear yourself to the audience by tugging at their heartstrings or making them laugh?
Maybe you’re trying to do all of the above! It’s certainly been done before. The point of this step in the process is to take a moment and think about what kind of story you’re going to tell.
Drop your audience immediately into the action
Don’t waste time over-setting the stage. Excessive exposition and background information will just put your audience to sleep. Try opening with dialogue or some exciting incident that grabs the reader’s attention.
If you’re writing about a project that your organization is currently working on, for example, try beginning with a scene in which your team is working on that project. You can sprinkle in bits of background information as the narrative progresses.
A good example of this technique can be found in the opening sentence of the novel A Dangerous Fortune by Ken Follett. He writes, “On the day of the tragedy, the boys of Windfeld School had been confined to their rooms.”
Right away, the reader is brought into the world of the story and introduced to one of its main conflicts. No backstory. No whiteboard explanations. It just begins.
Don’t get bogged down in details
People have a tendency to confuse good writing with complicated writing. The truth is, big words are much more fun to write than they are to read. If your story is interesting enough, the audience won’t judge your word choice too harshly.
Nobody is going to hold your lack of literary flourishes against you. In fact, they’ll probably appreciate your straightforward approach.
Unnecessary tangents and lengthy descriptions only distract the reader from your core message. To quote Seth Godin again, “Why waste a sentence saying nothing?”
Some of the greatest writers of all time have written in short, simple sentences. Hemingway is an obvious example. But other famous authors like Toni Morrison and Jack Kerouac are similarly known for their efficient, stream-of-consciousness style of writing.
A tight economy of words makes a story more readable and therefore more memorable. In marketing, the ability to stick in the mind of your customers is the name of the game.
Make your buyer persona the protagonist
You’re not just writing this story for a specific purpose, you’re also writing it for a specific person. Sure, it might be a fictional person. But it’s still meant to represent real people. Your buyer persona is an avatar for your target audience and should therefore be relatable to the reader.
Think about who this person is, what their wants and needs are, what they struggle with in life, and what motivates them. Then, make this person the hero of your story.
If you’re writing about the origin of your business, for instance, then write about how the needs of this person (and people like them) inspired the creation of your product or service.
If possible, try to highlight a struggle. A story without conflict isn’t very compelling.
Use visual diagrams as guides
Mapping out a story from scratch, even one based on real events is a daunting undertaking. Some authors prefer to “live in the copy” and abstain from using outlines and notes. However, those writers (Stephen King, Drew Magary, etc.) don’t work in marketing. You do.
You’re telling stories about an organization, so it’s probably best to be organized. And a great way to stay organized is to use visual aids like the Freytag Pyramid, the Hero’s Journey, or Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle.
You may not think of yourself as a writer. But, keep in mind that a writer is someone who at one point decided to start writing. The act begets the title.
Just like a runner is a person who runs or a gardener is a person who gardens. A writer is anyone who writes stuff. Period. There is no committee that votes on what you get to call yourself. And the more you practice writing and storytelling, the better you’ll get at it.