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Humans are natural storytellers. We’ve probably been regaling our associates with entertaining narratives from the moment we first started to talk to one another. Now you might be inclined to think that storytelling is something that’s only relevant to folks like Stephen King or James Cameron, but that’s not the case. On the contrary, storytelling makes for effective communication in any discipline. In the business arena, it can help you craft a memorable brand image, which in turn bolsters your authenticity.
What is storytelling in content creation?
Coming up with a pithy definition of storytelling is easier said than done. In the words of Allie Decker of Hubspot, it’s the use of “words to create new worlds and experiences in a reader or listener's imagination.” It also tends to provoke an emotional response in the reader. Anthropologists also believe that storytelling is central to the human experience. So central, in fact, that we have a tendency to see stories even when they aren’t there. In a 1944 study, college students were shown a film where two triangles and a circle moved across a 2-D surface alongside a stationary rectangle with one side open. Most of the viewers anthropomorphized the shapes, with some claiming that the circle was “worried” or the big triangle was filled with “rage.”
Storytelling is a useful tool for marketers because research shows that emotions play a huge role in influencing our behavior as consumers. Stories can also make facts stick in a reader’s mind. It’s a great way to help humanize your brand. And storytelling isn’t just about prose, either. You can tell stories in almost any medium, including photos, audio, or video (or even a combination of different media). It also gives you an advantage over AI-generated content since AI can’t yet craft the kind of compelling narratives that human writers can. For more advice on how storytelling be used in research, check out this post by What Works.
Let’s look at some examples of storytelling from Newstex’s publishers. In “China’s crackdown on Uyghurs reaches the Arctic,” Isobel Cockerell of .coda uses the stories of Uyghurs who have fled to Norway and still face harassment and intimidation from agents of the Chinese state. By focusing the narrative on the experiences of Memettursun Omer, Cockerell fosters an emotional connection with the reader.
In “Why I sold my house to buy a bitcoin dip,” Mickey Koss uses a narrative from his own life to highlight what he sees as the advantages of cryptocurrency. This could have been a very dry, wonky article, but anchoring it in his own personal experiences makes it much more relatable.
What makes a good story?
Of course, not all storytelling is good storytelling. And to be fair, it’s an inherently subjective question. Like Potter Stewart and obscenity, many of us simply recognize good storytelling when we see it. However, Writers.com has seven elements that can help you craft the strongest possible stories. While they’re aimed at creative writers, the basic ideas will be applicable to all types of storytelling.
It can be helpful to think of this like a roadmap for your story. Your characters need to follow a logical series of events. You can have the most beautiful prose in the world but it’s not going to matter much if your readers can’t understand what’s happening.
Characters really make a story come alive. Without them, it’s probably going to feel rather flat and boring. Ideally, characters should have depth, and your readers should care about them.
Point of view
This is basically the lens through which your story unfolds. Traditionally, a lot of fiction was written from the point of view of a third-person omniscient narrator. In other words, the narrator knows everything. In more recent times, limited third-person narrators have become more popular. Here, the narrator only knows what the protagonist knows. Some writers have even taken this a step further and gone with first person narrators who tell the story in their own voices.
This is where your story takes place. We’re all prisoners of our time and place, and your characters’ thoughts and actions should also be influenced by the setting. It can affect everything from the words they use to the food they eat.
Style and word choice
Writers can often be very dogmatic about questions of style. For example, some of them are happy to use synonyms for ‘said,’ while others view that as a travesty. But the truth of the matter is that there is no single ‘correct’ style. Do what feels best, but be consistent.
No, this doesn’t mean your story has to feature a gigantic battle with a Dark Lord. It just means that there needs to be some obstacles preventing your protagonist from achieving their goals.
At the most basic level, this boils down to “what is your story about?” This is often in the eye of the reader. As a writer, it’s probably best to avoid dropping heavy-handed hints about the theme of your work. Less truly is more here.
Which are the main storytelling techniques?
Looking at the bigger picture, Norsensus offers eight storytelling techniques that can help you craft your stories.
If you’ve ever read Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, you’re already familiar with the monomyth. The hero receives a call to adventure that takes him someplace unknown. They face harrowing trials but ultimately return victorious with a special boon that can help their community. Luke Skywalker’s arc in Star Wars is a classic modern example of the monomyth.
In a nutshell, this means that your protagonist should face a series of challenges ahead of a final, climatic conclusion. Think of how Buffy the Vampire Slayer had both monsters of the week as well as an overarching ‘Big Bad’ each season.
Have you ever seen matryoshka dolls? They’re a series of wooden figures of decreasing size that are placed one inside the other. Similarly, you can have multiple narratives nested inside one another. You might, for example, put the most important story at the core and use the others to explore different facets of it.
Nancy Duarte uses Sparklines to analyze famous speeches, noting how they contrast the real world with an idealized, imaginary world. In Martin Luther King, Jr’s famous “I have a dream” speech he contrasts the unequal treatment of African Americans with his yearnings for a better future. It’s a very impactful message, which is why that speech has been studied so much over the years.
In media res
This Latin phrase literally means ‘in the middle of things.’ In a story, this often means starting at the height of the action and then going back to show the reader how your protagonist got there.
This is a bit like the old Connections television show hosted by James Burke. The idea is to show the audience how different people or ideas came together to create something new.
Here, you’re starting with a story that seems predictable only to drop it in favor of a different story. Its success comes from the fact that you’re catching your audience off guard and surprising them.
This can be used to tell several different stories that all share a central theme. Each one effectively reinforces the main idea.
Knowing your medium is also a vital part of the storytelling process. As mentioned above, storytelling isn’t just something you do with prose. Bear in mind that one size does not fit all. For example, TikTok requires a succinct, punchy style; it’s essential that you get to the point as quickly as possible. But if you try that approach on a blog, you run the risk of appearing superficial. The trick is using the right technique for the right medium.
What’s the storytelling process?
Storytelling helps make the abstract concrete and reduces complexity. It can also turbocharge audience engagement by appealing to your readers’ emotions. This post by Hubspot has some great tips on the storytelling process and why it’s important to master. Be sure to:
- Know your audience. You want to produce content that delivers value to your readers, but you can only do that if you understand their needs. If you’re writing a blog about Tudor England, you probably shouldn’t be discussing the latest Italian sports cars.
- Define your core message. This may seem painfully obvious, but to give your readers what they want/need, you need to maintain a sense of focus. Coming up with an ‘elevator pitch’ for your content can come in handy. Distilling your content down to the fundamentals can help you avoid digressions.
- Decide on the sort of story you want to tell. You might want to convey a set of values, foster a sense of community, or inform your audience about a given topic. To use our hypothetical blog about Tudor England as an example, you might decide to educate your readers about the lives of some of the lesser-known personalities of the court.
- Choose your medium. There’s no right answer here. It’s all about delivering your content in the most effective way possible. So if the creator of our hypothetical Tudor blog wanted to write about Sir Christopher Hatton, they might include a biographical sketch in a long-form piece while tweeting about how his skill as a dancer allegedly persuaded Elizabeth I to make him Lord Chancellor.