content marketing writer working on laptop and notebook


  • If you treat storytelling as just another content marketing buzzword, you’re going to miss out.
  • Do you know in your heart your content is adding to the noise? That it needs…something?
  • There are huge differences between storytelling writers from the entertainment and journalism worlds, and the marketing writers we keep to entry-level because gee, anybody can write, right?


Why You Should Care: Because writing is more than making some words happen. It’s how you communicate and thus, how you’ll be perceived and whether you’ll be understood. To get writers that will really matter, you’ll need to know what makes a great one.


“Storytelling.” Blah blah blah. Sadly, it’s become the latest in a long line of content marketing buzzwords that seemingly gets loaded into every blog post and convention speech. As happens with most buzzword flavors of the month, it’s inserted casually, a fully expected and accepted cliché, with little hint as to the real power behind it.


Why did we start saying that term so much? What is it that we’re trying to convey when we whip it out of our verbal holster? It arose from the notion that using content marketing to aggressively sell wasn’t as smart as building trust using content that deepens the understanding of and connection to the brand. “Storytelling” became shorthand for “something other than salesy copy.”


Fair enough. But there’s a whole lot more to it than that. There’s evolutionary science that shows why humans organize and process information in narrative form. There’s brain chemistry science that shows the impact of emotional triggers…IF you can trigger them through story.


What are your thoughts as a communications leader about such things as story, narrative, message, emotion, entertainment and journalism? For many, that’s all just fluff that doesn’t warrant serious consideration because there’s no appreciation for the difference it can make. You’re writing the same stuff the same way, you’ve just started calling it storytelling because well…that’s what you say now. For others, you look at the copy your organization keeps cranking out across your many channels, and you know in your heart it’s mostly just pablum that adds to the noise and will goose egg with the desired audience. You know something’s missing.


Where exactly is effective communication NOT necessary? How many times do we have to watch non-existent or poor communication drive teams and projects off the rails?

What’s missing is real, experienced, professional writing talent. The ones who know there are essential elements of story that must be present for content to matter. The ones who know there are goals for storytelling and expected outcomes for the successful kind. The ones who have studied the tactics developed through eons of writing for the page and screen. Such writers are needed not just in marketing, but across every aspect of the org. Because where exactly is effective communication NOT necessary? How many times do we have to watch non-existent or poor communication drive teams and projects off the rails?


But for now, let’s focus on marketing, specifically content marketing. What is the difference between the kind of marketing writers we tend to hire now and the storytellers that give you a decent shot at attention in our uber-crowded content world?


  1. Pull vs. Push

Marketing writers primarily concern themselves with such things as selling and branding. After all, they answer to a marketing director that is probably increasingly tasked with driving revenue. Their job is to talk about the brand and convince.

Storytelling writers understand that if they do their job right, branding will be stronger than ever. The prospects will have a firmer grasp on who the brand really is, as if it were a human character. It will be clear to the prospect how having a relationship with that character can make their life richer. It’s pull vs. push. They will have been moved to act on the CTA driven by their own motivations, not the brand’s needs.


  1. The Things That Can’t Be Taught

Marketing writers are often commoditized as low paid, entry level role-fillers. That is a mighty peculiar way for a company to view the role of writing considering the entirety of what prospects learn about you, see in you, and hear from you is in their hands. Go ahead. Have the greatest product, value proposition, staff and technology you want. Nothing can tank it all faster than your public gateway being someone who’s just cutting their teeth. That’s crazy.  

Storytelling writers are professionals whose intrinsic value is in the experiences of past work and experimentation, plus the soft skills of audience empathy and maintaining the audience POV. It’s almost hard to even put a price on that, as empathy is a natural trait that’s quite hard to teach.


Storytelling writers are obsessed with the audience. All of the reward is in being able to attract them, move them and matter to them.

  1. Let’s Be Clear Who We Work For

Marketing writers go through their average day mostly trying to please bosses and internal stakeholders. That works if all you care about as the boss is loving your own content regardless of what the audience thinks.

Storytelling writers are obsessed with the audience. That’s who they’re looking out for. That’s who they’re working to please. They are the stakeholders. All of the reward is in being able to attract them, move them and matter to them. Beyond that, they also care about earning and building audience trust as a content publisher.


  1. Seeing You Through the Audience’s Eyes

Marketing writers are highly susceptible to echo chambers, internal verbiage, and high-minded industry jargon that tries to win with complexity and logic. They’re insiders…which isn’t a good thing.

Storytelling writers maintain an outsider’s perspective. They see the brand and the message through the audience’s eyes. They win with clarity, brevity and emotion – which is after all what motivates human beings to take an action. 


  1. There are No Captive Creatives

Despite technology and modern ways of working, marketing writers are largely still expected and willing to suffer spirit-consuming commutes, sit in their assigned area for designated creative hours, serve as warm bodies in unproductive meetings, and generally participate in corporate culture theater. The signal is quite clear they are not trusted, nor is what they do understood.

Storytelling writers are pragmatic free spirits. Their professionalism and need for full understanding will have them gladly attend any meeting or collaboration session. But they also need to live real lives and be wherever inspiration might strike. They know that to deliver their very best work and be of maximum value, they need to work where/when they’re most productive.


  1. Writing is Not a Nice-to-Have Bonus Skill

Marketing writers typically have to also be something else. Writing is PART of their job. You’ll often even see UX designers who are expected to provide all their own copy to populate the boxes and pages they’ve designed. It’s another symptom of the dismissive disrespect the craft of writing and communication often encounters in our organizations. Writing is easy, anybody can do it and it just kinda happens by magic, right?

Storytelling writers see nothing else as being more important than the message, the narrative, the characters and the words. Yes, they work very well with other practitioners with an eye toward final product. And yes, many storytelling writers will have additional skills to offer. But they’ll always see the ideas and the writing as the foundation of the house.


Storytelling writers know some ideas are worth fighting for and that encouraging creative chances is how you bring real value as opposed to taking orders that pursue “fine” over “fantastic.”

  1. Tom Petty Was Wrong: I WILL Back Down

Marketing writers will normally acquiesce when challenged. They pretty much have to. They serve at the pleasure (mercy) of stakeholders even if those stakeholders do not have the entertainment and journalism experience to render qualified judgment on what will and won’t please audiences. Internal stakeholders know what they want, make the assumptive leap that external audiences will feel the same way…and authority over the creative is thus asserted.

Storytelling writers will always fight for the impactful, the different, the creative, the interesting and the compelling. They know what their content will be out there competing against for time and attention (Netflix, Disney+, Amazon Prime, etc.) They know some ideas are worth fighting for and that encouraging creative chances is how you bring real value as opposed to taking orders that pursue “fine” over “fantastic.”


The Challenge: You’re counting on telepathy and it’s not working. The value of your company and product is in your head, but it has to be communicated to others. You have to get them as aware and impressed as you are. Of course you love your own company. Maybe you’re proud of any content your company makes, like a parent putting a child’s artwork on the fridge because hey, their kid made it. But just making something isn’t the job is it? You want to make something that matters. Which is why who you get to craft the narrative MATTERS. Is it possible your audience has been shrugging its shoulders because you’ve been settling for marketing copy? Do you know what it means to make “storytelling” something more than a buzzword?


And oh yeah, when was the last time you read something about your brand that gave you an emotional rush?


Computer graphic representation of the brain


  • Changing minds. That’s what we do and it’s a lot to ask.
  • When you show up, you’re triggering the “fight or flight” response.
  • The public, and their brains, have mastered filtering out what you’re trying to force on them.


You know that in content marketing, you’re in the business of changing minds, right? Or at least steering minds in a direction they weren’t necessarily going until you came along.


Take a minute to appreciate how difficult it is to achieve such a thing. Now, more than ever, we as human beings seem to be gorilla glued to our existing beliefs tighter than ever. To such an extent that we flare up, go on the defensive, and adopt a fully antagonistic posture toward anyone who dares try to make us contemplate an alternative point of view.


That’s you. You’re the threat to existing beliefs, practices and habits. When you show up with your content marketing, you trigger the fight or flight instinct that causes prospects to run away/hide from you/avoid you at all costs, or to aggressively resist everything you’re trying to tell them.


The verdict of content in 2019 was the creation of a firestorm of noise and clutter. Just to say we did.

To make matters worse, into this environment come the many marketers who have crafted their content without appreciating the real task at hand. It is largely self-serving, pleasing mostly to internal stakeholders, packed with marketing-speak and jargon, unnecessarily complex in its messaging, non-captivating, unhelpful, and selling hard via feature details.


This has sadly become the norm, not the exception. The verdict of content in 2019 has been the creation of a firestorm of noise and clutter. Just to say we did. 2020 will not support that. Just as the public artfully developed the coping skill of ad blindness, they are now well down the road in developing instinctive content filtering. Human brains are making lightning fast assessments. Will reading or watching or listening to this add value to my life, or is it a threat to my time and status quo?


Statue "The Thinker"


We are marketing to human brains. We are communicating with human beings. So if the task of content marketing is to change or steer the thinking of prospects, maybe we should get serious about learning how “thinking” works.


Why limit ourselves to being left brain analytical or right brain creative?

For instance, do you consider yourself left brained or right brained? If so, you’re selling yourself short, because we’re all whole-brained beings. Our brain hemispheres are connected by a corpus collosum and info flies back and forth and gets processed on both sides. Yes, there are differences in how we prefer to think, but both hemispheres are at work. Why limit ourselves to being left brain analytical or right brain creative? The most effective users of the brain are open to tapping into both.


Lesson: In our content marketing, there is no valid excuse for leaving out the creative in deference to the logical argument you’re trying to make. Likewise, there is no valid excuse for leaving out clear and convincing messaging in deference to overly vague and esoteric design. Generate sound arguments delivered in compelling and entertaining ways. You are capable of both.


Next, there’s the belief that emotional people tend to not be as rational as cool or unemotional people. As any Spock fan knows, emotions are seen as a primitive trait in need of overcoming in pursuit of pure logic. As with our brain hemispheres, it’s a mistake to approach this as an either/or proposition. Emotion and reason actually team up frequently and effectively. Think about the last big, important decision you had to make. You had facts, but they weren’t enough to give you total peace, were they? Why not? Because your gut was giving you anxiety about the choice ahead. We have instinct for a reason.


Lesson: It’s a frequent, colossal mistake to think content marketing doesn’t need to move people emotionally. Everything we’ve ever done in our lives was influenced to some degree by emotion. That’s why storytelling was such a buzzword in 2019. Often misunderstood, storytelling isn’t about writing the About tab on your website. It’s about putting people in an emotional state of mind. You can give prospects the facts, but that’s less than half the game. The ability to trigger emotion is what lights the fire.


Children working together on a project.


Lastly, we’ve heard many times that we all have a method of learning that suits us best. Maybe you regard yourself as a “visual learner,” or an “auditory learner,” or a “tactile and kinetic learner.” Do boys learn differently from girls? Do girls learn better when separated from boys? Is a male or female teacher best? Structured vs. unstructured learning? What time should school be? Should there be more than one recess? We’ve been having these debates for decades, mostly in pursuit of the best “one size fits all” approach possible, knowing that “one size fits all” is absurd.


Your job is not to just make “something,” check the box and move on. It’s much more difficult than that.

Along comes Dan Willingham and people like him whose research consistently showed that while we all have preferences for how we like to get info, that doesn’t mean we learn less if info is presented in ways we don’t prefer. In fact, we learn different things from the many ways that info can be presented. Maybe I picked up something in the audio version of a book I didn’t catch when I read it. Maybe I highlighted something in the book that escaped me while listening to it.


Lesson: One content marketing format does not fit all. Scale your material and present it across formats and channels so your audience can choose their preference. Or better yet, they will experience the information several ways for deeper understanding and retention. Help them maximize what they can learn from you. And – as mentioned before – different formats can be used to drive emotions in different ways.


Your job is not to just make “something,” check the box, please the boss and move on. It’s much more difficult than that. Your job is to court human beings, make them feel something, don’t be a threat, make your value to their lives obvious, give them a great show in many different ways, and allow them to willingly want you vs. being talked into you. This is what content marketers who take time to understand how our brains work and how humans really behave pursue.