Once upon a time, I was hired to work as Content Director for a company whose content was absolute crap. (Other words come to mind of course, but we’ll keep this PG.)
They hired whatever new graduate “writers” they could get their hands on for a low salary, and you could tell.
And these “writers” were the ones I had to work with to get the company’s content scheduled, published, and advertised all across the internet. I wasn’t allowed to fire anyone and I wasn’t allowed to outsource to freelancers.
I am not even kidding you when I say that it was a victory to get a complete sentence written with a subject and a verb.
I am also not kidding you when I say every single blog post started exactly like this:
“Ever dreamed of sketching out an app to boost your company’s business? Well today we’re going to show you how!”
Before going into a complete snore-session of writing on how to come up with a business-related app idea.
Because beyond the bad grammar, the writing was preachy and boring.
Why Marketers Tend to Preach
As marketers, we write things that help people solve the problems they’re looking for a solution to online.
We create content that’s helpful, the readers use it, they thank us (or at least we like to imagine they do), and they go on their way.
It’s a good system, and it works well.
And was one of the major reasons we were focusing on tutorial-type content for this company.
But in the years I’ve worked in content marketing, I’ve noticed that we as marketers are missing out on one highly crucial link between what customers want in the moment and what they need in the long-term to become devoted, sold-out fans.
I’ve noticed that in our zeal to help people, we often forget that the person we’re “helping” on the other side of the screen is a fellow, emotion-driven human being and not a marketing cog that lives behind a desk.
A human being that wants to feel talked to, not talked at.Human beings want to feel talked to, not talked at.Click To Tweet
What I’ve also noticed is that when blog post and tutorial writers are willing to let their guard down a little to expose their vulnerability as a fellow human being, readers eat it up and can’t wait for that writer’s next post. They become those super fans we all want.
And as much as I hate buzzwords — yes, I am talking about storytelling.
Ignore the Buzzword Status: Storytelling is Where It’s At
Storytelling isn’t just an excuse for us to talk about ourselves. It actually changes readers’ brain chemistry in our favor.
“We have identified oxytocin as the neurochemical responsible for empathy and narrative transportation,” said Dr. Paul Zak on UC Berkeley’s website. “My lab pioneered the behavioral study of oxytocin and has proven that when the brain synthesizes oxytocin, people are more trustworthy, generous, charitable, and compassionate.”
Which means when people connect to your story rather than the how-to information you’re preaching, they trust you more. They think you’re nicer. And they’ll be more generous towards you, meaning they’ll be more likely to buy when the time comes.
But how do you tell a story in a tutorial? And how did I help my writers become interesting storytellers rather than boring content producers?
1. Forget your marketing agenda for the piece.
The good thing is, storytelling doesn’t require a degree in literary composition.
It just means that you’ve got to be a little less buttoned up when you sit down to write your introductions, transitions, and conclusions.
You had your marketing agenda for the ideation process, thinking up a conceptual headline, and outlining. And for now, that’s enough.
Stop thinking about how many people you’ll be trying to target with this particular piece, how you want it to perform on LinkedIn, or at which exact stage in the funnel it should be at. (This was the hardest part for my writers to get past.)
Take that topic, be yourself about it, and just write.
2. Brainstorm a story you can tell around the topic.
If no particular story immediately comes to mind, think about the themes that come out in the blog post.
Just because you’re writing a tutorial on how to set up retargeting within AdWords doesn’t mean you’ve somehow got to pull out a hilarious anecdote about a time when you were setting up retargeting within AdWords.
Because honestly, how many good stories could come out of that?
Instead, try to identify a theme and relate a story back to that.
Like a time when you figured out the reason your PPC landing page had such a high bounce rate was because you accidentally mis-labeled readers you’d pixeled from one part of your website and were pointing them to totally irrelevant content.
It’s not directly about the action of tutorial itself, but it relates.
(I started with a story on how I had to train horrible writers, not how I suddenly realized storytelling was the way to go. You see?)
3. Make the intro of the story the intro to your blog post.
Don’t beat around the bush and make obvious statements about how AdWords can get you a lot of traffic or how retargeting has the power to turn lost visitors into prospects.
Such statements are obvious and boring, and your reader would not be reading a tutorial on how to set it all up if she wasn’t already aware of what AdWords and its retargeting functions are capable of.
So don’t bore the reader or waste her time. Instead, entertain her. Tell her a story. Get that oxytocin going in her brain so she immediately likes your content and likes you.
4. Weave it into the tutorial steps and conclusion.
It’s a rule of good storytelling to have some rising and falling tension throughout whatever narrative you’re walking the reader through.
“From a storytelling perspective,” says Dr. Zak, “the way to keep an audience’s attention is to continually increase the tension in the story.”
“In the brain,” he goes on, “maintaining attention produces signs of arousal: the heart and breathing speed up, stress hormones are released, and our focus is high. Once a story has sustained our attention long enough, we may begin to emotionally resonate with story’s characters. Narratologists call this ‘transportation,’ and you experience this when your palms sweat as James Bond trades blows with a villain on top of a speeding train.”
In short? Engage your audience.
Don’t give it all away in the intro. Stretch the story out a bit. Lead them on.
If the story is relevant enough, reveal little pieces of rising and falling tension in some of the tutorial steps.
If not, make sure you’ve built up enough tension in the intro and don’t satisfy their curiosity for the solution until the very end or as you’re walking them through the tutorial steps.
Then, when the time comes and you’ve taught them everything they need to know from your post, let them know how you resolved your problem (or didn’t) and how things turned out.
Keep Storytelling and Keep Experimenting
Getting past steps one and two were the hardest, but once we were over step three? OH. MY. GOODNESS. What a difference. We finally started seeing the engagement and shares we needed for our efforts to be considered worthwhile.
Because while storytelling isn’t as natural for marketing types as we’d like for it to be, it is important to keep trying to do it better and better with each new post.
(And because audiences tire of preachy advice really quickly.)
“Telling stories does not mean bashing your readers over the head with your advice or conclusions,” said Jodi Ettenberg. “Instead, it involves a showcase of the details you are focusing on and leading those readers gently to the conclusion you want them to reach.”
Which is the entire point of marketing, too. To engage your audience and lead your readers down a nice, enjoyable funnel to the ultimate call to action of buying in.
I’m not saying that weaving a story into your next post is going to be easy, particularly if you’ve become used to the industry standard of preachy advice, but try it with one of your posts next week and see how it works out. Then, keep experimenting.
Chelsea Baldwin is the Founder of Copy Power, where she helps businesses produce anti-fluff copy that turns their readers into dedicated devotees. Her free ebook helps site owners and marketers identify ways to keep readers on the page, and more importantly, convert.