What’s In a Story

“Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.” -Dr. Howard Gardner, Professor, Harvard University, Author of Leading Minds

Human beings have been telling stories since they first developed the capacity of speech. Through ancient Greek and Roman myths, their cultures explained changing seasons and emotions to children. By telling fables, parents have taught their children lessons in morality for hundreds of years. During the 1700s and 1800s in America, black slaves were able to pass messages to one another through oral storytelling. And today teachers are rediscovering that stories engage and educate students far better than cold memorization.

What’s It Got to Do with the Web?

The goal of a content strategist is to engage an audience and serve that audience’s needs. We achieve that goal primarily by researching the audience. We learn how people think, speak and communicate. We learn what motivates them, and what vocabulary is familiar to them. In essence, we’re learning what stories they relate to.

Once we know how our audience identifies, we can better understand how to speak to them, how to engage them, and how to serve their needs. For example, if a company needs a content strategy for a very specific website; let’s say a website targeting parents who lives in small towns and want to get their children involved in community service, then the first question they should ask is: what story do these parents (and their children) relate to. Do they think of themselves as Pollyanna types, very optimistic and spreading joy through their town? Or perhaps they will connect more with the ancient Native American cultural stories, where villages were all interlaced and helped one another. If we can discover what story the target audience relates to, then we will know what language to use to grab their attention.

The Multi-Content Challenge

One major challenge a lot of companies are experiencing now is the sheer amount of content that exists on the web. That’s a problem for two reasons. First, it means that anything you create has to vie for attention against millions of other articles, videos, websites, images, etc. But secondly, and perhaps even more importantly, the amount of content out there brings out a competitive streak in many companies. People start asking “how can I make more videos, and articles?” instead of asking “how can I best respond to my audiences’ needs?”

That second problem is the bigger problem because, if companies can remember to ask “how can I best respond to my audiences’ needs” they will naturally put themselves in a better position to stand out against all of the other content on the web. Obviously, content marketing also plays a huge role – the best content on Earth may never be seen if it isn’t promoted. But equally, regardless of how much promotion it receives, content that isn’t customized for its audience will never find its audience.

Storytelling is the obvious solution here. If a company begins by finding the right story, they’ll naturally find the right mediums to tell that story. I’ve known too many companies who focus on having videos “because YouTube is so popular” and end up with videos that don’t say anything. If they had discovered what their audience needed, and then created a story to go with it, they would have made a wonderful video, because it was the best medium to share the story – or perhaps they would have avoided YouTube altogether, and created a stronger story as an article! (Or through Twitter, or as a series of images, or some other medium.) YouTube is very popular, but that doesn’t mean it’s popular with every demographic, or for every industry.

The Digital Age

We have more ways to deliver content now than we have ever had before, and that’s an amazing problem to have. There was a time when all stories were told through radio, because radio was the only way to reach people. But today we have podcasts, videos, copy, images, infographics, and all sorts of combinations thereof.

Many people get overwhelmed with all of the devices that content needs to be compatible with. To me, that’s almost beside the point. With all of these options, we have an opportunity to tell the right story for every audience, no matter what medium it requires.

Marli Mesibov

Learn more about the history of storytelling and how you can leverage it for your content strategy in Marli Mesibov’s talk, “What’s in a Story? Creating Powerful Stories.”

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