Why Storytelling Is More Than Plot
In the beginning, there was a business. The business made a profit, and saw that it was good. But there was a problem, and the business did not like it. And lo, our agency descended from on high to face the problem. Together with the business, we solved it. And then everything was fine and that’s why you should hire our agency too. #storytelling
I’ve read—and been forced to write—way too many case studies and content pieces like this. And while I know how shallow this content sounds, I understand why it so often gets written this way. It’s simple, easy to follow, and has a clear CTA at the end. So even if I don’t love this style, I don’t hate it either—unless someone holds this style of content up and says: “This is an example of great storytelling in content marketing.” To that I say NO NO NO, THIS SHALL NOT STAND.
Great stories are more than just plot: what happened first, what happened next, and what happened last. Most (bad) case studies are like this—simple plots where one special fix (sold by the relevant company which is publishing the case study) is introduced and everything becomes magically awesome.
That is a story, but it is not a good story. Instead, I’d like to take a closer look at three storytelling methods for good stories and how you can weave these elements into your content to create narratives that actually resonate with your audience—instead of inspiring them to close the browser and forget what they just read.
Characters: Include Actual Humans in Your Case Studies
It’s remarkable how many case studies try to adapt Joseph Conrad’s Hero’s Journey to the story of a multi-national corporation boosting its profit margins. A generous description would call this “efficient” storytelling (a business-owning reader might read the case study and possibly relate to the fact that she too owned a business). However, there’s nothing in this simplistic model that elicits actual empathy or emotion in connection with the story.
No one reads their kids a bedtime story about a company or an organization. We read stories about characters—believable people with dreams, feelings, and worries we can actually relate to. And unless you want to tell the most direct case study story possible and dodge any chance of emotional resonance, there is no excuse to not include the people behind a project or client engagement.
For example, our case studies and content always include at least one quote and picture from the team who worked on the project. These simple visual additions do a lot to remind readers of the human stakes in these stories and blogs. And don’t limit this to your internal team! While it may take more time to secure a quote and profile image from your clients, seeing the human face of collaboration makes your content much easier for readers to relate to it.
Conflict: Be Honest about the Pains of the Process
As anyone who has ever participated in a big tech project knows, transformative new technology is never simple to implement, nor does it magically fix everything. Yet you wouldn’t know that from reading the average technology-driven case study. Too often the implementation of new software or systems gets summarized as “after a quick on-boarding” or “with this solution in place.”
Leaving out conflicts like this is a surefire way to make your reader disbelieve your story and stop reading. Instead, write content stories that do justice to the real, meaningful conflicts that happen when you introduce a new digital platform in a business or organization. Is the company losing anything worthwhile in changing to the new solution? How hard was it for people at the company to learn the new system? What would they have done differently if they began the implementation from scratch?
I’m not saying readers want to read angry Slack transcripts between your IT and marketing teams. Instead, I’m saying your readers want to believe your story of a successful implementation. Nothing makes a reader roll their eyes like summing up all the work of an implementation or other conflict in less than a sentence.
Themes: Ask Better Questions, Inspire Better Choices
Too often case studies and scenario-driven content read like badly-written parables. These shallow stories end with some cliched or pithy adage like “design is more than just pictures,” “cybersecurity can save your business,” or “that’s why customers trust [insert your company name here] with [problem].”
These conclusions aren’t necessarily wrong, but they’re boring. The best case scenario of these simplistic parables is that your audience shrugs at the end; the worst case is that the audience feels insulted because you treated them like children who need an easy, clear moral at the conclusion. One sentence takeaways can make the audience feel lectured to or “taught a lesson” rather than engaged and moved. In contrast, quality storytelling asks interesting questions and inspires smarter choices in an audience.
For example, let’s say you were telling a story about a company detecting a data breach and adopting a new cybersecurity strategy. A simple version of the story would conclude with “And that’s why you need end-to-end security.” A better story would embrace the thorny theme of how security strategy is essentially a question of Control versus Freedom. You can secure your business by forcing employees to change passwords every day, never carry a personal smartphone, and authenticate every email they send; however, that strategy drastically limits how much freedom and agility your employees have to do their best work. This in mind, the best security strategy for your company is a combination of technology and processes that fits your culture of trust and empowerment while also protecting essential data from breaches.
This conclusion is more complex than “Security good, breaches bad,” but that’s the point. You want to engage your readers as thoughtful agents of their own destiny, not children who need simplistic morals to do the right thing. Offering meaningful themes shows your audience you want to partner with them rather than just sell them something and move on.
Time to Tell Stories that Matter
Content storytelling isn’t some mysterious art that can only be practiced by award-winning writers. Instead, any marketer can adopt proven storytelling methods to make their content more engaging. From memorable characters to relatable conflict to meaningful themes and questions, good storytelling shows respect for your readers and inspires them to want to connect with you.
If you’ve got questions about how to implement these ideas or want to argue with me about how I got it all wrong, feel free to comment below or reach out to my team at ABT.