This post was anonymously written as part of Blog Secret Santa. There’s a list of all Secret Santa posts, including one written by Lisa Maria, on Santa’s list of 2013 gift posts.
Kids love stories. Grown-ups love them even more. We go the see The Hobbit and Gravity, and read books that tell about wizards, androids, vampires, and talking animals. About us, that is.
What makes great storytelling great is identification. Great stories allow us to step in, and gradually make us feel as if we were part of the story. They leave us changed, so that when the story ends, we ARE Bilbo Baggins, Deanna Troi, or George Bailey. Or Job, or Steve Jobs – you choose.
Lately, I have been reading a vast number of texts emphasizing the importance of storytelling on the web. They tend to share a problem: they leave it there. Tell a story! Be a storyteller! And then what? We can’t all be J.R.R. Tolkiens, can we? The sheer horror reflected on the average father’s face every time his kid asks him to “tell me a story” at bedtime is multiplied around the world on the faces of small business CEOs, technical writers, marketing assistants, information officers, college teachers and help desk clerks who are thrown at the mercy of what the web is rapidly becoming: a virtual campfire, where impatient clients, customers, students and stakeholders all expect to be not only kept constantly informed, but entertained as well. Communication is no longer reserved for professionals: practically everyone in an organization has become a “content producer”.
But not everyone is a born storytelling genius, and even seasoned advertising copywriters or professional scriptwriters have to face and fight the blank screen first. So how can you expect everyone to suddenly become storytellers? And what does it even mean in the mundane context of updating a company Facebook page, replying to a blog comment, or writing the About us section of your business website?
Being an everyday storyteller does not mean that you have to incorporate a case study, personal anecdote, or carefully crafted narrative in every piece of content you create. It means two things.
- You must have a story for yourself or your organization. In biz-speak, a strategy. What do you want to say and achieve?
- You must assume a reader (viewer, listener). Who do you want to talk to and why?
Every day, every moment we all are protagonists in the middle of the story of our lives, and play a different part in a number of others: we are heroes, villains, sidekicks, and helpers. Through the content we interact with and engage in, we tell our own story to ourselves and to others. This fact should be acknowledged by everyone who participates in creating the customer experience, whether responding to complaint e-mails, creating documentation, or writing a confirmation message for the CMS.
In the days of oral storytelling, folk tales were invariably narrated in an interaction with the audience, with the listeners constantly commenting, asking questions, laughing or expressing dismay. The best storytellers knew how to adapt their story to the audience, varying the details of the story as they went on. The tale was never similar, evolving over the years, with some characters getting more space and others diminishing. The narrators were also part of the audience: they compiled their repertoire on the basis of their own interests, and emphasized in their tales what pleased them personally, telling the stories not only to others, but also to themselves.
Online, more often than not, you can’t immediately respond to your audience, and you don’t always know in advance who will be reading, viewing or listening. This is where personas come in: imaginary users. Instead of merely using personas as a tool for creating new products and services, and consequently abandoning them in the creative agency’s Dropbox folder, they should be introduced to the daily routines of anyone in a given organization whose job it is to interact with clients and stakeholders. Thanks to personas, you can assume a reader for content: the closest approximation to a real reader. Joe Doe and Jane Bloggs, or whoever your personas are, should be there to make conversation, interrupt, ask questions, and express confusion and doubt. Regardless of whether you are creating a B2B article or a piece of microcopy such as an error message, they should be there with you to do the sanity check. Does this detail matter? What tone and register are the best? How will they react when they read this? What are they likely to ask? Are we making our client feel like a hero or a villain? How do we want the story to end?
Once upon a time, there was a woman who made a living doing odd jobs. She was neither rich nor famous (except in her own community), and she did not write any books. But thanks to the collectors of oral tradition, she went down in history as a master storyteller. She really knew how to engage and entertain, and she had a fantastic way of closing a story: linking herself to both the story and her audience, uniting time and place, like this:
“The royal wedding lasted for many days, and a lot of beer was consumed by the guests. Naturally I was there, too, and became so drunk that I hid inside an empty barrel and fell asleep. The barrel started rolling and rolled a long way, and stopped right here, and so I came to tell you this story.”
No matter what you favourite drink is, get in the barrel and roll yourself to the people whom you want to talk to. The road may be bumpy and you may get a headache, but your audience is there, waiting for a story. Be prepared.