I’ve known I wanted to be a writer since I was in second grade. I even remember the exact day.
We had been given an assignment to write a story using all of the words on our spelling list. I don’t remember the details, but I do remember that the protagonist was a dinosaur with lemon drops for scales.
At the time, I was so caught up in the joy and excitement of writing the story that I forgot all about using my spelling words (although I’m guessing one of them was “dinosaur”). The story must have been OK, though, because I still got an A.
I also found my calling.
That’s a pretty good story — in my opinion.
But did you care? Did it move you?
Probably not, unless you have a thing for dinosaurs. You were probably wondering when I was going to get to the point about storytelling in content marketing.
And that’s the thing about stories. Storytelling in content marketing is trending right now (I just Googled the phrase and got 1.75 million results).
The truth about storytelling in content marketing
But great stories alone aren’t enough, especially for SMBs and solopreneurs. The greatest story ever won’t help your brand if nobody has ever heard of you. Or if they just don’t care.
And that’s the problem with the “best practices” being constructed around how to use storytelling in content marketing.
They’ve got it right when it comes to the power of storytelling. There’s a reason we all sit up and take notice when we hear the words, “Once upon a time”….or other phrases that let us know we’re about to hear a great story. Storytelling has enabled human connections from time immemorial. Storytelling gives us a way to relate to each other, no matter how different our personal backgrounds and experiences may be. Storytelling is a thread that winds throughout cultures, eras, and centuries, connecting us in a way that exchanging emails and resumes just can’t do.
What the best practices don’t talk about is that people have to be interested in you first.
Ever been stuck on a plane next to an annoying seat mate who droned on and on about his adventures traveling the world and meeting people the rest of us only know about through headlines? Said a prayer of thanks when the flight finally ended, only to realize later that your seatmate actually had some pretty good stories…that the reason you weren’t interested in them was that you didn’t know enough about the guy to care?
That’s where storytelling best practices fall apart. They’re intended for people and brands who are already winners…who have already completed their heroes’ journeys. Think for a minute about how the brand stories we’re all so familiar with could have turned out differently:
- If Apple had been a flop, people would be cracking jokes about how Steve Jobs may have succeeded if he could have figured out how to keep the rats in his father’s garage (or his bedroom, or kitchen, depending on who’s telling the story) from chewing through his cables.
- If FedEx had flopped, Fred Smith’s professor may still be talking about that idiot student who thought an airline could make money delivering overnight packages: “I should have given the idiot an F instead of a C on that paper.”
- If Danny Thomas, founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, TN, had never made it as an entertainer, the story would be that he was so bad even the patron saint of hopeless cases couldn’t help him. (As an aside: I never miss a chance to plug St. Jude. They’re the best in the world at what they do, never stop researching new ways to beat childhood cancer, and don’t charge families a cent — even covering travel expenses for the families who flock here from all over the world.)
Obviously, there’s a good bit of snark in those could-have-been stories. The point is that if you’re not already a success, you have to approach storytelling in content marketing differently than brands and people who are already household names.
Best types of storytelling for SMBs
Origin stories and hero journeys
Origin stories and hero journeys are so powerful because they’re archetypes. The resonate with that universal longing inside each of us to strive to become more than what we are today.
Content Marketing Institute has a guide on writing origin stories and hero journeys that’s so spectacular I wouldn’t even attempt to top it.
But what if you’re still working your way through your hero’s journey, or if no one would care about your origin story because they’ve never heard of you?
Then you’re in luck, because you have the opportunity to create your stories as you go.
No, I’m not telling you to make things up. I’m suggesting that you study the models that have proven to work so well for these stories, and make sure you note those elements — and write them down — as they happen.
- Why did you start on this journey? if the real answer is, “to make money” — fine.That’s true for a lot of people. Pure altruists are hard to find in the business world. But why this idea? Because it seemed likely to be profitable? OK — but why? Somewhere in there is a problem that needs a solution. Regardless of your original motivation, you’re working to solve a pain point. What is it, and how will people’s lives be different when you succeed?
- Every hero has to experience times of struggle and failures. A success story that’s too easy isn’t inspiring. So write down those failures and struggles — call it a journal, if that helps. What happened, and why? How did you feel? Did you think about giving up? Why didn’t you? If you kept going and overcame the obstacle, how did you do it? And what lesson did you take away from that experience?
What makes origin and hero’s journey stories so compelling is that they’re universal: Everyone can relate at some level. Incidents that seem trivial or even embarrassing when they happen can become legendary down the road.
And they’ll be much more powerful if you can look back to your real-time notes instead of trying to remember exactly what happened and how you felt.
Don’t publish these — not yet. Not without a good reason, anyway. Hang on to them, though, because they’ll be a goldmine once you have an audience.
Stories about searching for answers and discovering solutions
Your first customers (with their permission, of course) give you the opportunity to talk about strife and struggle — from their perspectives — and about how your brand provided the solution that solved their pain points and made their lives easier.
Stories about people missing their children’s soccer games or dance recitals because inefficient processes kept them at work late every night, until your product or service saved the day. And how they felt when they saw the smiles on their kids’ faces when they looked up and saw them in the stands.
Or a story about a customer who was forced to consider shutting the doors because the costs of doing business were too high, and how your product or service showed her how to do more with less. And, instead of shutting down, she’s now hiring extra help, making much-needed jobs available to people in the community.
These aren’t the stories that become legendary because they’re so inspirational. These are the stories that people see as a lifeline — that lets them know that, just maybe, there’s a solution to a challenge that seemed insurmountable just a few minutes ago.
“What if it were true?” stories
True confession time: That line is from Ancient Aliens, a show that dives into ancient history, looks at things like the Egyptian pyramids, and ends with something like, “Ancient astronaut theorists suggest .” And then the hook: “What if it were true?”
That’s a great construct for brands that haven’t yet achieved their goals. In addition to telling stories about your struggles, tell stories about what the world could look like if you achieved your goals:
- What if we could have phones without cords? if we could carry little computers around in our pockets (and what if you could use them to make phone calls)?
- What if we could communicate with people on the other side of the world in seconds?
- What if we could tell you which colors are going to be in style next year?
- What if we could tell you which of your customers are most likely to defect to the competition?
- What if you could figure out how weather impacts your business and send out automated emails or text messages based on local weather forecasts?
Common sense suggests that, behind every great success story, there’s a great “What if…” story.
And the “What if…?” stories have an extra pull, because they draw your audience in and invite them to be part of the story.
What are your “What if it were true?” stories, and what do the people who would love them have in common? Answering those questions will tell you when, where, and how to tell your stories.
Just remember that “What if…” stories aren’t promotional. They’re about uniting people around a common vision of the future. (Think about Kennedy’s speech about putting men on the moon.)
We all have them: the stories from our past that we pull out to get a laugh at cocktail parties, to make someone else feel better by poking fun at ourselves, or to try to keep our kids from repeating our own stupid mistakes.
These are the stories that forge connections, that smooth over differences, that allow us to teach lessons that don’t sound like lessons.
And the beauty of it is that once you start digging into your favorite stories, you’ll likely discover that you can use them in more ways than you realized. I’ll share a few of mine as examples:
The curious case of the buried costume
I didn’t work at McDonalds or a movie theater when I was in high school and college. I worked as a tour guide at Graceland, Elvis Presley’s home in Memphis.
It was the best first job ever. The days were long and tiring, but we met people from all over the world (plus more than a few celebrities), shared lots of laughs, and made friendships that have lasted for nearly 30 years.
And those laughs I mentioned? A lot of them were a the expense of tourists who asked stupid questions:
- One of the most common questions (scarily common, to be honest) involved the display of the costume Elvis wore in his last concert. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people asked if that was the costume Elvis was buried in.
- There was a small indentation on the ceiling of Elvis’s airplane. Way too many people wanted to know if it was a sunroof.
- And my personal favorite involves poop. (Yes, I said poop.) Elvis’s aunt still lived there, and while she skirted the crowds (“Look! There’s the aunt!”) several times a day to take her dog out, he was getting kind of old and couldn’t always hold it. So every now and then he pooped in the Jungle Room, right there on the green shag carpet. It was always fun watching people try not to stare at it. But one day somebody asked me if the poop was original — as in, had it been there since Elvis died. I kid you not.
For years, I thought that the only moral to these stories was that a frightening portion of the population is incredibly stupid.
Today, I see it differently. I think that most of these people probably inwardly groaned as soon as the words left their mouths. But they were distracted.
Maybe they had been on a plane for hours and came to Graceland straight from the airport.
Maybe they were distracted by the person in front of them who had clearly never heard of deodorant. Or soap.
Maybe they were distracted by the tour guide who, every time she was supposed to say “Elvis,” absent-mindedly substituted the name of the guy she had a huge crush on. (Yep, that was me!)
Today I might use these stories to illustrate that, with so many demands on our time and attention, we’re often distracted. And when we’re distracted, we make mistakes. And I could use that to kick off an article on how hiring me to write your content takes a big chore off of your to-do list, thereby making it less likely that you’ll make embarrassing mistakes.
West Memphis, Tennessee?
Another Graceland story I tell for laughs is the one about the lady who argued with me over the location of West Memphis.
She acted like I was an idiot for thinking West Memphis was in Arkansas.
At the time, she seemed like the idiot. How could she possibly think that West Memphis was in Tennessee?
Thirty years later, I have to remind myself that Kansas City is in Missouri, and I realize that the reason the location of West Memphis seemed so obvious to me was because I had lived here all my life, crossing over the Mighty Mississippi (plus a few miles of farmland) if I needed to go to West Memphis. She hadn’t.
This story falls in the category of the “curse of knowledge.” Curse of knowledge stories are great for reminding us — as well as our teams and our clients — that we can’t assume customers know everything we know. They remind us that we weren’t always experts.
And that realization can make all the difference in the world in how you talk to your customers — as well as in how you guide your clients in talking to theirs. They can help sales team and help desk workers understand why they hear the same objections and questions over and over and show them how to provide content that answers the real questions rather than giving superficial answers based on what they think the obviously stupid person asking the question is capable of understanding.
The coffee lady story
Way back when I was a baby writer in my first corporate job, working for an automotive retailer, I was part of a team traveling around to different stores to gain insights from the people working there.
On this particular trip, I was the only female. When we walked in, there were the usual handshakes and introductions — until one of the managers turned to me and said, “So who are you…the coffee lady?”
(An important aside here — I’m not easily offended. And I certainly wasn’t offended then. I was fresh out of college, it was the early 1990s, and I was working for an automotive company — so it wasn’t exactly a surprise.)
I thought it was hilarious, and I later regaled the my fellow travelers with the story.
But not everybody thought it was as funny as I did.
This was back when sexual harassment was just starting to be a thing, so upper management took this incident and ran with it. Once I was back in the office, they made the guy call me and apologize. Which was probably as uncomfortable for me as it was for him — I had three VPs standing in front of me to watch me take the call.
So they got to see my face when the guy said,
“Ma’am, I’m really sorry. I never should have said that. You could have been somebody’s wife or something.”
This is one of my favorite stories to tell when conversations turn to tales from the workplace. But it’s good for more than laughs. It’s a great example of what can happen when we assume people “get it” — whether that means assuming that employees understand policies and other directions, assuming that customers understand our product and how to use it, or assuming that readers take the same message away from our content that we intended.
The poor guy in my story understood that he shouldn’t have referred to me as “the coffee lady,” but he had no idea why. Contrary to what the corporate hierarchy assumed, he completely missed the part about gender equality and why he should show respect to his female colleagues.
That’s an extremely important lesson for those of us whose business success depends on clearly communicating our messages.
There’s a reason some of the biggest companies in the world are hiring Chief Storytellers. There’s no better way to connect with people on a level that goes beyond language, culture, or even words.
But then there’s the point I keep coming back to again and again: Best practices aren’t best practices for everybody.
You can make storytelling in content marketing work for you, but not if you approach it the same way enterprise-level organizations do. It’s a compelling enough tool to deserve putting in the time and energy it takes to tell your stories in the way that only you can.