There are many ways to create content that’s compelling, but using storytelling can help you educate, inform, and entertain your audience at the same time.
My father is a professional storyteller, a fact that I’m sometimes reluctant to admit. “You mean, he likes to lie about his fishing trips,” my friends ask. No, he tells stories drawn from any number of places—mythology, real life people, events in his own life (and sometimes mine).
When he visited me this year, I saw him in action. Not performing, but creating. He spent hours working on a single story, arranging the facts into a coherent form, working through the kinks, and telling the story to the dresser over and over. By watching him work through the stories, I realized how useful storytelling techniques can be when you want to create content that’s compelling.
In the last post, I looked at how to identify a story to support your message. This is the idea or concept that you are trying to convey to your audience, whether they are website readers, people passing an advertisement on the subway, or participants at a self-help seminar. In this post, I’ll delve more deeply into the beast that is your story.
Content and Stories Are Wild Creatures
Once you have chosen your story, the next step is to assemble the story into a coherent whole. As a fiction writer, I sometimes like to think of a story as a beast, a wild creature that you might stumble across in the forest. The stories that help you create content that’s compelling share many traits with wild creatures:
- Definite head, body, and tail
- A central scaffold, or spine, that allows for coordinated movement of the individual pieces
- Jaws and claws to capture your attention
- Surface details visible to the naked eye
- Traits hidden beneath the skin, not immediately seen but still essential to the nature of the wild beast
- More authentic when it’s allowed to run freely.
In order to create content that captures your readers’ eyes and imagination, you need to animate your content with every aspect of a wild story. Without the above characteristics, your story is a lifeless lump of words.
Use Anecdotes to Support Your Content
One of the most important traits of your story is the spine. Without this central scaffold, the facts you use to create content can easily fall into a jumbled pile, with no logical order to them.
The key to creating your story’s spine is to identify anecdotes that tie together all of the supporting facts, according to Ira Glass, host of This American Life.
My father’s stories are filled with anecdotes. In fact, they make up the bulk of his stories, from the character retelling the stories of his own life, to the woman disguising herself as a man so she can become a Pony Express rider.
What are anecdotes?
- Anecdotes are more than just a sequence of actions; they are story in its purest form.
- People are at the heart of every great story, so anecdotes connect your content to the hearts and minds of real people.
- Anecdotes add suspense to your content. They give the sense that something is about to happen, like being on a train that is going somewhere.
- Anecdotes have two main functions: 1) to raise questions for the audience, and 2) to help you identify the moment of reflection.
Raise Questions With Your Content
Using anecdotes to raise questions for the audience will keep them interested. This is the “bait” or the “jaws and claws” of your story.
You want to start raising questions right at the beginning of your content—something that urges your audience to stay with you. By raising a question, you imply that you will provide your audience with the answers.
Don’t do this once. Do it continually whenever you create content. Raise questions and answer them. Raise questions and answer them. Like the ebbing and waning of the waves.
Identify the Moment of Reflection
Beneath the surface details of your content (aka the facts) lies the real substance of your story. What is the key point of your story? What does it all mean?
This is more than a summary of your idea or your product (“my iPod app can improve your health by making it easy to set goals and follow them”). Your facts already convey that information to your audience. You need something deeper. You need to expose the heart of the wild creature that is your story.
The moment of reflection, which goes hand-in-hand with anecdotes, gets at the underlying universal appeal of your content. Why should people care about what you have to offer? You are changing people’s lives by helping them see the world in a different way. Think of your content as a stone dropped into a pond, with ripples moving outward across the surface.
This is nothing that can be forced. You need to find a delicate touch in order to tug at the heartstrings of your audience. Spend some time with this, and don’t forget to let the anecdotes connect your content to real people.
Other Tips To Create Content That’s Compelling
- Keep it simple. Avoid giving too much information.
- Focus on the beginning and the end. These should be your strongest material, because they are the parts that the audience will remember most.
- Look for vestigial appendages. Every part of your story should be essential. If you stray too far, you will lose your audience.
- Find your own voice (aka talk like a human being). If you create content that doesn’t sound like you, no one will care.
- Keep your standards high, even if you are paid to make crap.
- Tell the truth. Especially for the moment of reflection. People can sense insincerity.
Most importantly, revise. You should spend most of your time reworking your content until it sings. If you need to, take a note from my father—lock yourself in someone else’s bedroom and perform for the dresser. With that audience, you’ll never go wrong.