Storytelling is quickly becoming a favorite buzzword among entrepreneurs and content marketers, but why? Gone are the days when a half-baked article with a few SEO keywords was enough to make it rain traffic on a site. There’s so much noise and competition for attention that content needs something special to stand out. This increased noise and competition has left your audience frustrated and craving something authentic – a human connection. That’s where storytelling comes in. With story you can share what’s brilliant and unique about yourself and build that connection with the content you create. In this article I’ll share 26 storytelling tips to help you create better content.
[bctt tweet=”26 Storytelling Tips for Content Marketers” username=”kylethegray”]
1. Get A Draft On Paper
Get your ideas out of your head and onto paper. If they stay in your head they’ll remain “good ideas,” but they’ll never be anything more than ideas. Though a first draft is usually the most difficult part of creating a story, it allows you to examine it, move parts around, get feedback and refine your ideas.
2. Know “WHY” You’re Telling THIS Story
You’ve got hundreds of stories to choose from, so why have you chosen this particular one? It needs to connect with a burning belief you have or statement you must make. If you don’t bring that kind of energy and passion to your story, your audience won’t feel it either.
[bctt tweet=”If you don’t bring energy and passion to your story, your audience won’t feel it either.” username=”kylethegray”]
It can’t just be a story you’re excited about – it needs to connect with what your audience is looking for. You need to have a good reason why they need to hear this story as well.
3. Use Frameworks To Guide Your Story
There are many “tried and true” frameworks that help you organize your story in a way that connects with your audience. You don’t need to spend time reinventing the wheel on how to put together a great story – with a framework, you can spend more time on making your character relatable.
Here’s are some good frameworks to get you started:
The Story Braid – This framework was developed by Pete Vargas of Advance Your Reach. It breaks a story down into 4 simple parts.
- Heart – Open strong with a heartfelt story that creates a human connection.
- Head – Give great content that your audience can use right away.
- Hands – A powerful call to action (CTA) that invites your audience to do something with the ideas your sharing.
- Inspiring CTA – This call could encourage them to do something in their own lives.
- Marketing CTA – Give your audience a next step to take with you by downloading something, scheduling a call or making a purchase.
- Heart – Close with another heartfelt story that leaves your audience feeling inspired.
The Hero’s Journey – The model for the popular stories throughout history. You can see the Hero’s Journey play out in your favorite movies, plays and TV shows, as well as talks, webinars and sales letters. The Hero’s Journey has all the elements of a story that we as humans can’t help but become immersed in.
- Conflict and uncertainty – Conflict and the tension it brings is one of the key elements that keeps us hooked.
- Risk and reward – What good is an adventure without some treasure to find?
- Transformation – The adventure is a process of transformation — a process we all undergo regularly in our own lives
The Hero’s Journey is usually divided up into 12 stages and is represented as a cycle on a clock face. We’ll describe the stages in more detail later in the post, but for now, here’s a video that does a great job at illustrating the process.
The Crossroads Formula – The Crossroads Formula is a framework that combines the classic storytelling elements of the Hero’s Journey with the essentials of the Buyer’s Journey to create a story that both engages your audience and answers their key questions about becoming a customer. This powerful framework makes it easier to organize your stories in a way that gets results.
To read more about the Crossroads Formula and download an infographic check out: The crossroads of the hero’s journey and the buyer’s journey.
The Story Grid Framework — Created by Shawn Coyne, The Story Grid framework provides a systematic method to figure out if you are telling a story that works. Shawn’s quantitative approach focuses on the 6 core questions all good editors ask, which are:
- What’s the genre?
- What are the conventions and obligatory scenes for that genre?
- What’s the point of view?
- What are the objects of desire?
- What’s the controlling idea/theme?
- What is the Beginning Hook, the Middle Build and Ending Payoff?
What’s nice about The Story Grid is that it’s genre driven, which means that once you nail the genre, the rest falls into place. This is particularly important when writing fiction and narrative nonfiction works that need to develop characters, ideas and abstract concepts, which can frustrate writers if they don’t have a solid framework in which to operate.
4. Trying Is More Important Than The Result
Your audience will admire and love your character not for the success they achieve, but for trying. They’ll identify with taking the risk and going for the opportunity. The end result is just icing on the cake. Even a story about failure can be endearing and powerful for your audience.
Don’t believe me? Read this little story about Ellie in the image below and tell me you don’t love that dog.
5. Start Your Story In The Middle Of A Conflict
A powerful way to open a story is to start in the middle of a conflict. The tension immediately grabs the attention and curiosity of your audience. They become invested in your story right away because of all the questions that pop up – how did they get into this situation? What happens next. It’s tempting to try and lead into a story so you can explain the series of events that led to the conflict you’re in, but you’ll often lose them before you can really hook them.
[bctt tweet=”Start stories in the middle of a conflict. The tension immediately grabs the curiosity of your audience” username=”kylethegray”]
See how you can open your stories on a cliffhanger, at the peak of an argument, at a “rock bottom”point or putting out a fire (literally or figuratively). Give them just enough detail to know the stakes, and fill them in on the backstory as you go.
I learned this tip by reading Lisa Cron’s Wired For Story. Though the book is meant for fiction writers, there are a lot of valuable takeaways for entrepreneurs looking to tell a better story.
6. Take Them Into The Room With You
When telling a story about yourself or one of your experiences, instead of describing it as something in the past, tell it in the present tense. Describe the sensations, thoughts and ideas as if you were experiencing them for the first time in that moment. Instead of directly talking about how you felt or what happened, give little details that help us experience the story with you.
“The beeping of the machine in the hospital room”
“A trace of lilac perfume as she sat down”
“Broken glass on the floor”
This transforms your story from a listing of facts to an immersive experience that your audience shares with you as you tell it.
I learned this tip from Pat Quinn, head coach at Advance Your Reach. For more awesome tips on storytelling, especially for talks, check out: How The Best Speakers Use Storytelling As A Business Growth Tool.
7. Focus On What’s Interesting To The Audience
A common trap for stand-up comedians who hang out with a lot of other comedians is that they often start to pander to the other comedians in the back of the venue instead of focusing on the audience. They get laughs from the back, but the joke doesn’t land with the majority of the room. You must avoid this trap as a storyteller too.
In stories, it’s easy to get hung up on what’s interesting to you or your peers, but it’s essential to have the pulse of the people you truly want to reach and what they find interesting and engaging. So, make sure you get feedback from the right people and create for the right audience.
8. Create Characters Your Audience Wants To Root For
The main character in your story must keep your audience’s attention. They want someone they can cheer for, hope for, share the pains of defeat and the thrills of victory.
You don’t need to make up fictional characters to do this. A character can be you, an employee or a customer. But you must use the lens of your audience’s perspective to lead your character through the story.
What do they want? What are they afraid of? What are their goals? How have they failed? Discover this and use your characters to travel through these emotions and ideas. This makes it easy for your audience to relate to the character, the story and ultimately your brand.
9. Leave Your Audience Wanting More
Though resolution is something we ultimately seek in our stories, giving away too much in your story means you lose the audience’s attention and imagination.
Give them a new step – Have you ever heard of a “happily ever after in real life?” They don’t happen. Every time a problem is solved in life, it makes room for at least one new problem to replace it. So instead of completely resolving your stories, give your audience an opportunity to take another step by hinting at what problems may come next.
Leave them room for interpretation – One of the reasons that the Mona Lisa is such a famous painting is because her smile seems to change depending on how far away you stand. There’s endless debates on what she is thinking, and whether or not she’s actually smiling. This controversy makes the painting more memorable and remarkable.
You can create this same effect by leaving your stories open for interpretation. The world is rarely black and white or clear cut, so leave room for your audience to discuss and debate the “Mona Lisa smiles” inside your own stories.
10. You May Not Know What Your Story Is About Until You’re Finished Writing It
Stories sometimes have minds of their own. You may start creating a story that you think will go one way, but then ends up surprising even you in the end. This is another reason why that draft is so essential.
Once you get “through” your story and actually know what it’s about, you may need to rewrite it to fit the theme you discovered.
11. Keep It Minimal
Every character, detail, conversation or happening in the stories you tell should move the story forward in a consistent direction. Cut out everything that does not reinforce your main point.
That may mean cutting details, which could feel like you’re destroying your story, but it’s setting you free to focus on what’s truly valuable about the story you’re telling.
A good exercise to get down to the bare bones of your story is to try and make it as small and simple as possible. Think about what idea you want your audience to come away with, and then see how you can arrive at that idea in as few words as possible.
Then do it again and cut your word count in half.
Take a look at how master cartoonist Matthew Inman from The Oatmeal can leave you with a big question and a big idea in only a few lines of dialogue and 20 words.
12. Keep Your Characters Outside Of Their Comfort Zone
We learn the truth about people when they’re under pressure, stressed and outside of their element. This is when their truth comes out from behind the “everyday mask” that they put on.
In your stories, your characters should be out of their element. This gives you an opportunity to reveal their truth and expose their vulnerabilities. This creates opportunities for a more engaging transformation that is meaningful and relatable to your audience.
[bctt tweet=”Keep characters should be out of their element in stories. This reveals their truth and exposes their vulnerabilities.” username=”kylethegray”]
13. Be Honest And Vulnerable
If you only talk about your successes, when you were right, when you grew and all your amazing victories, you’ll come off as a “hype” marketer. This is poison for the long-term trust you want to build for your audience.
Being honest about your doubts, fears, feelings and mistakes makes you human and relatable to your audience. They want to listen to someone they can relate to.
14. What Are The Stakes?
Tell us what’s on the line in your story. We need a reason to root for the character in your story. What happens if they fail? How are the odds stacked against them?
Everyone loves an underdog. It helps us see the human aspect of the characters in our story. It helps us relate to the adversity they face. The longer the odds, the more we care.
15. Get Clear On What You Love About Your Favorite Stories
Look through your favorite stories, and investigate what it is that you like about them so much. The characters? The plot twist? The ending? The big comeback?
The elements of stories that you love point to qualities in yourself. Take these qualities and use them to tell your own story in a powerful way.
Want a strong example? Look how Samwise describes his favorite stories and how those qualities are the same ones that make him a hero in The Lord Of The Rings.
16. Validate Your Audience
The top reason people share content is because they want to communicate something about themselves to their friends. To get people sharing your content, you must tell stories that speak to the qualities that your audience wants or sees in themselves.
[bctt tweet=”You must tell stories that speak to the qualities that your audience wants or sees in themselves” username=”kylethegray”]
Your stories should help your audience make the statements they’ve always wanted to make, but have never been able to find the words. Tell stories that allow your audience to better define themselves and grow relationships with other like-minded people.
17. Make Your Character’s Opinions Clear
The characters in your stories should have well-defined opinions. The opinions may be good or bad, likable or unlikable, disputable or provable. A character without opinions or desires is uninteresting and unlikable.
Opinions are the fertile ground for the transformation that happens in a good story. Through the process of the story, they will either be proven or refuted. An unlikable opinion may lead to a powerful lesson, or a likable opinion may turn out to be flawed and misleading.
18. Be Willing To Walk Away
Sometimes we get hung up on our stories and stuck in writer’s block. We can’t figure out how to tie it all together or bring it to a close.
It can be difficult to walk away from a story you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into. Sometimes you’ve got to step away if you can’t make progress. Don’t consider it wasted time or work – it may come back around and be useful later when that missing piece makes itself clear. Sometimes it takes walking away from a story for a while to make room for the progress to happen.
19. Create Stunning Headlines
Creating a compelling headline for your content and stories is more than half the battle of getting your audience’s attention. Your headline’s job is to cut through the noise of the social media feeds and stand out against thousands of other stories. If your headline does not offer something that your audience is desperately seeking or conjure some emotions, your story won’t get the chance it deserves to be heard.
Make sure you understand your audience’s needs and desires. Take a lot of time doing research, having conversations and taking note of the problems they describe and what language they use.
20. No Cheating – Don’t Let Your Characters Off Easy
There’s a term called “deus ex machina” that roughly translates to “god in the machine.” It refers to the a point in a story where a problem seems unsolvable and then, magically, an angel comes down from heaven with the key to the problem. This is a form of laziness in storytelling Doing this in your stories takes all the satisfaction out of the resolution and kills our empathy for the character. It’s cheating. So don’t let coincidence solve your problems.
You can, however, use coincidence to take a “negative turn” in your story and get your characters into trouble. This is something we all can relate to.
21. Use Story Archetypes To Beat Writer’s Block
There are some tried and true story and character archetypes that we can use to conjure the exact emotions, ideas and associations we want in our stories.
The Periodic Table Of Storytelling is a powerful and interactive tool that allows you to string together different elements of storytelling into a strong narrative.
This is an excellent tool for outlining and storyboarding early drafts, beating writer’s block and finding new angles for telling old stories.
22. Fix Stories You Don’t Like
A powerful exercise for your storytelling muscle is to take apart stories you don’t like and try to rework them into something you do like. This forces you to break down different elements of the story and examine your own values and perspectives. What you take away from this exercise will help you better write your next one.
You can do this with movies, books and TV shows, but you can also do it with different content you find online. Can you find content you don’t like but performs well and use The Skyscraper Method to make a better one?
It seems like everyone has an opinion on the latest Star Wars movie and whether it was any good or not. It’s easy to complain or be critical, but can you offer a solution to the problem? This is an excellent first place to test your rewriting mettle.
Take a look at this thread on Quora that asks the question, “To those who disliked the portrayal of Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi, what role would you have him play in the story (assuming you could not change The Force Awakens)?”
23. Create A Secret Recipe
When you were a child did you have any favorite dishes cooked by your grandmother? (Feel free to replace “grandmother” with any other more relevant figure from your life.) Maybe it was a lasagna that in reality was more or less like anyone else’s lasagna, but since it was your grandma’s, there was something special about it that made all other lasagnas terrible by comparison.
It’s possible to create this “grandma’s lasagna” effect in your business. Instead of a secret recipe for a dish, create a secret recipe for how you get results. This is called a proprietary process.
Having a proprietary process makes it easier to talk about your business and the work you do. It helps you tell a better story and avoid “getting into the weeds” with mundane details.
A good proprietary process has the following qualities:
- Its 3-5 steps.
- It’s results-oriented.
- It connects to a story or metaphor to make it easy to visualize.
- It shows how you’re both ordinary and extraordinary.
To learn more about creating a proprietary process for your business, check out : Storytelling Secret Weapons, a proprietary process.
24. Create Big Goals For Your Business
Every business wants to grow, make more money and get more customers. Try to develop some bigger, more interesting goals if you want to create a story around your business and the work you do.
A good tool for creating big goals that drive a story for your business is called a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal). This is a big goal you have to impact the world with your business. Here’s a few ways a BHAG can impact your business:
- It makes it easier to talk about your business.
- It creates something bigger than yourself.
- It allows you to enroll your customers in a vision.
- It creates more meaning for your work and your team.
A BHAG is a goal that creates something bigger than yourself or the day-to-day business and allows you to discuss your passion, vision and the reason “why” you’re doing the work you do in the first place. Instead of just buying another tool or hiring another service, your BHAG can give your customers a sense of participating in your vision and making a positive impact on the world.
Connect your BHAG with your personal story and show why you care so dearly about this particular goal by sharing something from your past or present.
Make your goal something measurable and have a deadline, so you can track and report on your progress.
Here’s an example of a BHAG by Advance Your Reach:
“Our mission is to help create a thousand 7-figure businesses with our 3-part framework:
- Money is the greatest tool you have to take care of yourself.
- Money is the greatest tool you have to take care of others.
- Money is the greatest tool you have to create the impact that you were born to make in this world.”
To learn more about creating a BHAG for your business, check out : Storytelling Secret Weapons, how to create a BHAG.
25. Use Numbers And Graphs To Tell A Story
The simplest way to tell a story is with a line. Most stories can be distilled into a line on a graph. Take a look at how Kurt Vonnegut sums up some classic stories with a simple line in this clip:
Take a look at the numbers in your own business – your revenue, traffic, customer satisfaction… anything that you can measure. How does the rise and fall of these numbers tell a story we can relate to?
For example, Dan Norris gave a talk where he described lessons learned from his entrepreneurial journey, and continued to refer back to a graph of his salary to represent his journey. Does the big dip in 2013 cause your stomach to drop?
Now look again at the graph of the Cinderella story. Notice how the shape of Dan’s salary graph matches with the basic structure of this classic story?
Be transparent and use your numbers as a way to share how your story is unfolding.
26. Bake Social Proof Into Your Stories
If you just list off your highlight reel of clients you’ve worked with, results you’ve gotten and achievements you’ve made, then you risk coming off as self-promotional.
You can avoid this trap by baking social proof into your stories. Instead of bluntly saying, “I helped a business grow to 7 figures with content marketing,” try building a story around it. “I learned a great deal working with WP Curve. But I think the thing that really helped us get to 7 figures using just content marketing was focusing on our processes…”
Using social proof like this draws the attention of your audience and gets them interested in the result.
While many of these storytelling tips are in the context of “writing,” these strategies can be applied to almost any medium – podcasting, videos, speaking on stage or simple conversation. Though this list is extensive and packed with great tips, don’t try and apply them all at the same time. Pick a few tips that stand out to you and see how things work for you, then come back and find a few new tips to test out.
[bctt tweet=”26 Storytelling Tips for Content Marketers” username=”kylethegray”]
This list is always growing and being updated, so if you have any additional tips you want to see here, please let me know in the comments! I’ll be happy to credit and link back to you.