THE KEY POINTS
- Audio version available at the bottom of the page.
- Captivating or entertaining a group of humans is a developed talent, a true gift.
- We are physically wired to organize information into narratives, and good ones release brain chemicals that make us receptive.
- The vast majority of truly great stories adhere to an industry accepted five element story arc.
- If your content is dry, safe, logical and emotionless, it will get the reception it deserves.
If the content does what you wanted it to do, it’s good. If it didn’t, it’s bad.
That’s an oversimplification. Truly great content can still fail to meet the stated goal if something broke down on the distribution and promotion side. But overall, content should achieve the goals set out for it, provided those goals are realistic and achievable.
But what do you do if you’ve been made the content lead at your company and you have no background in entertainment or journalism? How do you tell if the concepts being discussed or the script you’re reading or the ideas you’re hearing are good? How do you know if they’ll work?
Even the very best writers, directors and producers rarely get a smash hit. Creating things people love is hard.
Good content will always exhibit these traits:
- It will reflect a deep awareness of the intended audience for it. It will align with who they are, how they think, how they talk, and the typical problems they face in their world.
- It will clearly convey the key message and desired action you want the audience to take after they consume it.
- It will achieve how you wanted to make the audience feel. If they don’t feel anything, they won’t be motivated to take your desired action.
- It will cut through and capture engagement through a combination of relevancy and entertainment/information value.
Let’s dwell on trait four, because that’s where the art of content marketing comes in; the part many corporate executives understand least and feel the most unease with. That’s not a critique of corporate marketers. Captivating and entertaining large groups of other human beings is truly the combination of natural gifts, incredible empathy, and training through trial and error experience. Even the very best writers, directors and producers rarely get a smash hit. Creating things people love is hard. Don’t let anyone tell you any different.
That said, you can understand why stories work and what constitutes a complete and effective story, because that part is science and mechanics. Sadly, storytelling has already become an often-misused industry buzzword. But it’s just the truth that our evolution wired us to respond better to stories than any other form of communication or persuasion.
Stories do everything you should want them to as a brand marketer. They build trust, compassion, empathy, and generosity.
Think about all the data and info that comes at us every day. The first thing our brains try to do with all that information is organize it, fit it into a narrative. A computer wouldn’t do it that way. But we’re humans, and to fully comprehend the information and give us a shot at remembering it so we can apply it later, we need narrative as a framework.
Joe Lazauskas, head of content at Contently, reminds us of the four elements of storytelling:
Relatability – does your audience see themselves in the story?
Novelty – is there anything new or refreshing or surprising here?
Fluency – is the story easy to “get into”? Or is it a hard read or complex narrative?
Tension – more on that in a bit as it’s one of the 5 elements of a true story arc.
Stories do everything you should want them to as a brand marketer. They build trust, compassion, empathy, and generosity. No really. They physically build these things, because stories cause neurons in the brain to form new connections, and cause the release of oxytocin, responsible for empathy and narrative transportation (that’s how we get “lost in the story.”) Oxytocin makes people more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate. Stories become shared experiences, which are essential to human bonding.
Each of us sees up to 5000 ads per day. We spend an average 37 seconds on an article. 1440 WordPress posts are published per minute.
But why would our audience choose to engage with our story in the first place? It’s harder than ever to get attention, and it’s only going to get worse as laid out in the “What ‘Content Strategy Really Is” post of the Content Marketing for the Very Busy series. But each of us sees up to 5,000 ads/day. We spend an avg 37 seconds on each article. 1,440 WordPress posts are published/minute. People recognize attempts to manipulate them. We have to deserve their attention.
It helps to know how we all naturally react when confronted with something new. Proud as you might be of being a multi-tasker, the brain can actually only focus on one narrow area at a time. If that area seems less interesting than another, we quickly shift the spotlight to another area. You aren’t really multitasking…you’re just rapidly shifting.
Any time the brain encounters something new, it rapidly, runs through a cycle of instinctual synaptic events. It first goes into “fight or flight” mode. You may have heard of this before, but it applies to much more than suddenly coming across a cheetah. The brain will ask itself, “Does this thing demand my immediate attention? Is it important to my survival right now? Or does it threaten to waste my time?” If something’s relevant and intriguing, our neocortex, the reasoning part of our brain, kicks in. Otherwise we’re literally programmed to ignore it. Once we do engage, our brains work to remember. Cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner suggests 22x greater recall of information if it’s contained in a well-done story as opposed presented as a list of facts. Remember that when you get overly eager to list your product features.
Look at any good movie or TV episode and you’ll see this five element story arc play out every time.
So if storytelling is so natural to us as humans, why is it so hard for marketers to do? They’re humans, aren’t they? Maybe. Okay yes, they are. But they’re compromised humans because they’re on a seemingly desperate mission to sell something and sell it immediately. It takes time to craft impactful stories, which tend to follow a long-accepted five element story arc. Look at almost any good movie or TV episode and you’ll see this arc play out every time.
Element One: Context
The story arc starts by establishing the context. This is where the setting and characters are introduced, and you convey the current state of affairs. Give us a reason to care about the characters. Help your audience see themselves in the situation.
Element Two: Something Changes
Now a challenge, a change, invades the context. What problem must be tackled? What’s working against them? Good communication and discovery sessions will let you know what change, disruption or issue has “invaded” your prospect’s world.
The prospect or customer is the hero of the story, you’re just the tool they use to win. You aren’t Indiana Jones, you’re his whip.
Element Three: Rising Stakes
You have to increase tension and build unresolved conflict. This makes the audience lean in instead of fade out. What happens if the challenge my prospect is facing isn’t resolved? What will it cost in revenue, reputation, and opportunity? How much pain are we looking at? Low stakes = low value. Without much on the line, your prospect will feel no urgency, and will likely disengage, resist price, or stall.
Element Four: Enter the Hero
When all seems lost, enter the solution. The audience’s main problem must be attacked directly. Choose your hero wisely, because it most often won’t be you or your product. The prospect or customer is the hero, you’re just the tool they use to win. You aren’t Indiana Jones, you’re his whip.
Element Five: A Better World
The battle fought and won…a better world awaits. It was worth the journey. Vividly paint a picture of the improved state of the prospect’s world thanks to your help and remind them of how things were before you conquered this threat together.
“If I didn’t work here, would I read or watch this?”
A lot of corporate content is dry, safe and emotionless, and it gets the reaction from human audiences it deserves. We impress only ourselves when all we do is sell ourselves, make what we do sound overly complex, try to out-jargon the competition. That’s bad content. Good content is relevant storytelling made just for your audience that emotionally inspires them to take an action.
Or, if all else fails, as Lazauskas points out, you can always ask yourself that scary, soul- searching question, “If I didn’t work here, would I read or watch this?”
Once you’ve gone through the series and feel like you’re ready to talk about what sensible next steps can be taken, we’d love to talk shop with you, no commitment. Just fill out the easy form, or email Stiles, or we hear sometimes people still actually use the phone! Feel free to do that to.