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Real Storytelling Techniques That Content Marketers Can Use Too

storytelling techniques

“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet. Alas, Nike by another name would be seen on fewer feet.” 

—William Shakespeare


Alright, maybe Shakespeare didn’t write that last part. But as one of the best-known storytellers to have ever lived, I think he should have! 

Nike is a prime example of a company that has managed to transform its brand name into a recognizable symbol by becoming an effective storyteller.

Say what you want about the products or the company, but the mere mention of Nike stirs the same thoughts and feelings in most of us: perseverance, achievement, victory. 

Science has even proven that good storytelling can transcend empathy and actually stimulate the regions of  the brain associated with an emotion or action as if we were actually experiencing it. 

So, we know that story is a powerful tool for branding companies. But is there something in the craft of storytelling that can enhance our own brand as authors of content, something that can help us stand out from the dreaded content shock that's only going to get worse from here on out?

Of course.

In the same way that the art of storytelling can differentiate companies, we can make our content stand out by learning a thing or two from how storytellers approach their audiences.

1. Use an Ideal Reader

Stephen King wrote that “all novels are letters aimed at one person.” In a story, it’s important to unite your messages around a major theme and write with your readers in mind.

I think it helps to look at your content this way too. What are you trying to say about your topic or industry? Does it ring true throughout the content you’re creating? But most important, are you talking to your audience or indulging your own interests?

It's easy to become self-indulgent when we write (after all, we are putting our thoughts on paper and we have our own goals in mind), but that's where we can learn to use a tool that storytellers often use: The Ideal Reader.

When you write content, who exactly are you speaking to? You might answer by describing one of your buyer personas. Buyer personas often describe your ideal customer: demographic information, pain points, career goals, salary and other information that is relevant to the transaction between company and customer.    

While the concept of the Ideal Reader isn’t entirely different from a buyer persona, this version of your imagined individual emphasizes their likes, dislikes, and habits as a member of your audience. Authors adopt this mindset as they write, and especially when they edit. Kind of like how kids have imaginary friends, the Ideal Reader is the author's imaginary critic.

Some authors base it on a real person whose opinion they respect. Others have to create an Ideal Reader for each piece they write.

My Ideal Reader for this blog post:

  • Understands the frustration of trying to consistently create compelling content
  • Is part of a dying breed that still enjoys long-form content
  • Likes to see fun and variety in the content they consume
  • Drinks a lot of coffee and watches a lot of movies
  • Demands actionable knowledge about using storytelling persuasively

I know this might not sound like you, but this picture of my Ideal Reader focused the voice I'm using to write and was invaluable when it came time to edit this blog post.

Everyone's a critic, but, when you're writing, the Ideal Reader is the only one that should matter.

2. Chekhov's Gun

Chekhov’s Gun, a storytelling trope named after Russian author Anton Chekhov’s famous rule, dictates, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it's not going to be fired, it shouldn't be hanging there." 

Details are deliberate in storytelling. After all, the cardinal rule is "show instead of tell,"  and you can leverage that same principle in your content too.

Sometimes we feel inclined to throw everything into a piece of content, and other times we only include the bare essentials. 

But it’s often important to say what your audience needs to hear at that moment in their experience of the content. It's like saying something that hooks them at the beginning or leaves a lasting impression at the end. It can also be how you foreshadow what's to come throughout the middle and build suspense. 

Your choices and timing are part of creating that engaging experience. Remember that your goal when writing isn't only to teach but also to keep your audience engaged until the end.  When do you expand on a topic, and when do you hold your tongue?

By being mindful of the usefulness and impact of what you include and when, you can create an experience that casts a spell on your audience by simultaneously eliminating distractions and calling attention to more important information.

However, this spell isn't so much magic as it is an illusion. And just as a trained magician manages it, the illusion is created based on what we choose to show and what we choose to hide — in other words, we create this illusion for readers through inclusion and exclusion.

3. Break the 4th Wall

Ah, the 4th Wall: the unspoken distance that separates you and me.

You can also look at it as the medium that divides author and audience. Bringing attention to this barrier can be useful in content marketing since we expose our audiences to different types of media. This blog post you're reading in the Uberflip Content Hub is a great example!

Knocking on the 4th Wall is rare in storytelling in order to maintain the "suspension of disbelief" that lets an audience remain in the illusion of fiction.

However, content marketing is different from fiction in that it's not uncommon to address our audience directly or to make self-referential remarks.  By doing so, we can create a more intimate relationship with our audiences (or at least get readers to step back and exclaim, "that's so meta, dude!"). 

The 4th Wall is often broken to produce a comedic effect, speak directly to the audience, or call attention to the medium if it's relevant to the point that's being made.

Regardless of the intention, it closes the gap between you and your audience. But don’t take my word for it. As a person on the other side of this screen, what do you think?

4. Cast the right antagonist to create conflict

Conflict is a powerful and essential element of story and lends itself naturally to our goals in content marketing.

There are different ways to represent conflict in story:

  • person vs.  person
  • person vs. nature
  • person vs. self
  • person vs. *insert anything*

Conflict creates intrigue, and struggling against conflict transforms the protagonist into a relatable hero. The friction created through conflict is not only engaging but offers companies and content marketers a special opportunity to play the hero.

Villains help bring out the hero's virtues. Leverage them. Chances are there's a natural force of antagonism that you can help your audience fight either through the product or knowledge you offer. In this blog post, for example, I let content shock don the black cape and fangs, because storytelling is the hero that helps us differentiate our content. 

5. Put your audience on an emotional roller coaster

“I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

— Maya Angelou (real quote this time)

I could go on naming literary tropes, techniques and devices from pathetic fallacy, dramatic irony, red herrings, imagery, different points of view, and more, drawing from what I learned throughout some creative writing courses (and also as someone whose hobby is writing short stories).

What all these features of fiction seem to have in common is that they help you engage audiences at an emotional level. 

Stories are made to move audiences. As an author of content, when you have a chance to do it, take your audience on a roller coaster ride. Make them chuckle, say interesting things, tell a sob story.

Because, as Maya Angelou said, if you want to be remembered, you have to give them something to feel.

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