How to Create Content That’s Compelling–Storytelling for the Web and Beyond

Posted by on Jul 20, 2012 in Business, Writing | No Comments
How to Create Content That’s Compelling–Storytelling for the Web and Beyond

There are many ways to create content that’s compelling, but storytelling can help you educate, inform, and entertain your audience at the same time.

The last time I brought a friend home to meet my father, he charged across the living room at her. Caught completely by surprise, she almost fell off the arm of the chair where she was perched alongside his somewhat erratic filing system.

We had been talking about gardening, or house renovations—something innocuous like that—when there was a lull in the conversation. My father, slumped in a musty chair tucked beneath several towering houseplants, blinked at her without speaking. His baggy clothes were still flecked with paint left over from previous summers.

In that moment, I saw a look on his face that I had become familiar with over the past fifteen years, but I had no time to warn my friend. In a cloud of dust released from the fabric of the chair, my father tottered onto his feet, leaning into an invisible wind like a unicyclist falling ahead of the wheel as he started moving. His outstretched hand gripped an unseen cane and he hobbled toward her.

As he moved forward on unsteady feet, he added years to his life, layering them across his body like plaster, and transforming himself from a smallish man in his seventies into a wizened old sage. He stopped two feet in front of my friend, rocking there as if he might fall forward. But he managed to steady himself, and squinted at her as he peered into her soul.

“When I was a boy,” he screeched, his New Hampshire accent thickening like the leftover gravy from his lunch congealing in the sink.

This was my father’s hook—a totter, a hobble, a lurch, and a screech. By the time he had reached my friend, she was transfixed by his contorted, but lively, image. She doesn’t own a television, so for her, my father was a burst of creative energy exploding like fireworks in his living room.

He went on from there, laying out the details of his story, stringing them together like vertebrae in the spine of a wild beast. This is what my father does to create content–use words and actions to build a story out of thin (or dusty) air.

In many ways, though, his story began well before he jumped out of his dusty seat, and left behind a trail of particles floating mid-air in the sunlight.

Stories, Stories, Everywhere–Use Them To Create Content That’s Compelling

Like many conversations with my father, stories are everywhere, or potentially everywhere. Movies and books are not the only media that can lay claim to the deeper narrative truths of society. If you want to create content–like websites, blogs, marketing, and dating profiles–that is more effective, try using the enticing pull of great stories.

Which would be more likely to sell an automobile to the masses? A fact sheet listing all of the car’s features? Or a commercial that depicts a person (not unlike yourself) escaping the stress of everyday life, and traveling along winding roads to a chalet in the mountains … in none other than the new “X” automobile?

Stories sell—whether you are trying to unload a lot filled with new cars, or open up people’s eyes to a deeper truth about society (and ultimately about yourself). Stories sell for a reason. John Reith, the British Broadcasting Corporation’s founding father summarized the news agency’s purpose in three words—educate, inform, entertain. It’s the same way with stories (aka dating profiles, billboards, Huff Post articles).

Storytelling—Like Creating Content—Starts with Elimination

book sculpture | 'Pathways of Knowledge' by Colin Wilbourn, University of Sunderland

If you want to create content that’s compelling, you need to move beyond your list of facts and create a narrative that educates, informs, and entertains. To begin, you need to find the best story for your content.

My father, a professional storyteller, does this constantly. Whenever he visits, he spends time at the library, poring over dusty books about local history, and searching for real-life stories that he can transform with his body and voice—this is storytelling at its finest (or oddest, depending upon where you are sitting).

Before you choose a story to help you create content, though, it’s important to keep in mind what Ira Glass, host of This American Life, said about the search for a story.

“Not enough gets said about the importance of abandoning crap.” –Ira Glass

Everyone bemoans the lack of ideas available in the world. “It’s all been done before,” or “I can’t think of anything to write about.” There are, in fact, an infinite variety of stories to be told.

But, as Glass puts it, many of them shouldn’t be told. So, before you delve deeply into a story—whether it’s for a fiction piece, a poem, a video, or a blog post—decide whether it’s worthwhile.

Choosing a Story That Helps You Create Content

Use this checklist to eliminate stories unworthy of your project, and to find ones that will help you create content that’s compelling. Remember, some stories are better off left rotting on the dung heap of our collective psyches.

  • Choose a story that you love. If you can’t get excited about your story, there is no way that your audience will find it the least bit interesting. Not every topic will be glitz and glitter, but if you find a story that fascinates you—and an appropriate audience—you will create content that soars.
  • Choose a story that you understand. Try explaining neurosurgery to a room filled with elementary school students when you aren’t even sure where your brain is located. Understanding must happen before presentation. You may find, however, that while you are preparing your story, you quickly learn what you do—and do not—know about your content. Discovery is at the heart of storytelling, not just for the audience, but also for the storyteller.
  • Choose a story that suits your audience (or an audience that suits your story). Storytelling is like matchmaking. You’re looking for a long-term relationship, not a one-night stand. The same story can be told in many ways, depending upon the audience. But not every story can be told to every audience. You also want to avoid turning off your audience when you open your mouth—this is part delivery, and part matchmaking.
  • Look for stories that are bigger than you. If a story only matters to your own life, in the here and now, then why tell it? A story should have some sense of universal appeal. Think of your story as a temporary tattoo that can be applied to many different types of people, and still have some attraction. You can’t force this part, though. Don’t try to sound pretentious. Otherwise, your story—and your content—will fall flat.

Once you have chosen a story to help you create content that’s compelling, you need to prepare your story. Storytelling methods vary with different types of media and audiences—a video is different from a movie, and even more dissimilar from an advertisement in a magazine—but the underlying concepts are the same.


Photo: ‘Pathways of Knowledge’ by Colin Wilbourn, University of Sunderland. © Copyright Andrew Curtis and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons License.

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