The internet (and this blog) is buzzing with articles and new ideas about using the art of storytelling to sell products and services. This is for good reason, as we have highlighted over the past few weeks, because creating sticky stories helps your customers remember what you’re selling. This isn’t an opinion, it’s fact, backed by scientists who study things like brain chemistry and neural coupling, that proves how our brains stick to facts that are wrapped in stories.

“To story, or not story… that is the question”

Just because this is the “new way” to market and “everyone’s doing it” doesn’t mean that every blog post you produce should be told with Shakespearean power and prose. In fact, there are some cases when you should NOT use storytelling to convey a message (more on that in a minute).

First let’s talk about what a story is not. We have previous posts that dive deep into the elements of storytelling, discussing everything from narrative arc and the hero’s journey to plotlines and universal structure. A content marketer must have a working understanding of these elements in order to effectively leverage this writing style for business. But many marketing managers, directors and the like weren’t English majors. Your strengths may thrive in sales funnels and promotional campaigns — you’re a strong writer, but only beginning to bend back your narrative bow. You want to be sure those arrows go the right way.

Here are three tips to help you hit a moving target and know when to story and when not to story.

1. Aim your story arrows away from anecdotes.

Do you know the difference between a story and an anecdote? According to Webster, an anecdote is “a usually short narrative of an interesting, amusing, or biographical incident.” This is basically every status update, photo-caption, and 140 character comment on social media today. Stories that lack the structure and arc we’ve talked about are actually just lengthy anecdotes disguised as stories with compelling images and CTAs. There is truth to the neural coupling that occurs during the hero’s journey and when your story lacks that structure, the brains you want to attract simply won’t track.

It’s actually kind of unnerving when you think about it. Social media is robbing us of the patience to sit through a structured story and inhibiting us from developing the skills to be effective storytellers. We are settling for watered down story substitutes that really do not satisfy much more than a brief hit of ambivalent amusement to the one scrolling through an endless sea of content. To win at storytelling, we have to do better than beefy anecdotes. Take the time to craft a structured story.

2. Aim your story arrows at the right audiences.

What we are about to say may seem like a bit of a sharp left turn from the direction we’ve been heading in this series, but it is critical that you understand this important point: sometimes storytelling is the WRONG method for communicating with an audience. Invest your storytelling time and energy in communicating with your subscribers, loyal customers, and folks you know are already on your team. These people are already bought into your brand on some level, or they wouldn’t be subscribers or loyal customers. They want to hear your stories, they’ve already smelled what your cooking and they’re lining up for more.

New audiences who DON’T know you (yet!) are probably not the best recipients of your pearls of prose. Lets say your analytics indicate a high performing post based on keyword search — you run a food blog and have a helpful post on how to poach an egg that gets a ton of traffic so you decide to create a cheat sheet — “3 Easy Steps to Perfectly Poached Eggs.” You set up a drip campaign, create a lead page, run some pay per click ads and wait for the masses to opt in — but they don’t. Why? Your cheat sheet was carefully crafted with humor and a hero’s journey that changes a potential brunch disaster into the Ina Garten of Sundays. You see, the people coming to your site from a PPC don’t really care about your knee slapper describing the first 10 times you tried and failed to poach an egg. They probably already have the water boiling and just want you to tell them how to do it already. Sometimes when trying to reach new audiences you’ve just gotta give the people what they want. After you’ve been helpful, they start to trust you and THEN may want to hear your stories. Help them poach perfect eggs first, they’ll appreciate your stories after they’re bought in.

3. Be sure your story arrows don’t turn the reader’s attention the wrong way.

Have you ever been in the middle of telling your friends an epic story, but one friend gets sidetracked by some random element of your tale and comments on that, thus sending the entire group on a rabbit trail that has absolutely nothing to do with your point? Yeah, we have too. This is not good and totally depletes your energy and defeats the purpose and point you’re trying to make. This is especially uncool when the distracted party interjects right before the punchline. <insert eye-roll here>

How you avoid this in writing for brands is to be sure that you don’t get hung up on a tangent or on superfluous details that really don’t apply to your story. Sometimes when writing we come up with a great analogy or “shiny object” that we think will underscore our point, but instead, sends our audience off to google the shiny object instead of opting into your newsletter. Stick to the point and don’t veer too far off your hero’s beaten path, otherwise you may find that you have led an eager tribe to a different leader.

We hope that you have enjoyed this series on storytelling. If you begin applying some of these strategies and techniques into your content marketing strategy, you may find that your stories start sticking in new or unexpected ways. We are passionate about story and are always thinking about web design and video production (and even hard data like SEO) within the context of story. If you would like an evaluation of your storytelling prowess, let us know and we would be happy to provide an assessment and ideas to help your content stick.

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