Stories make things memorable. Combined with an image, they’re super powerful.
But how do you use storytelling in content marketing? Whether that’s a blog post, a video, a podcast episode, or even a nonfiction book?
This is a question I get asked a lot. There’s lots of advice out there saying ‘use stories!’, but not much telling you how to use stories.
So I hopped into my DeLorean and went back to my creative writing MA and BA to see how you can adapt what I learnt about storytelling for your content marketing.
Let’s start by looking at the basic structure of a story.
Story structure for content marketing
Beginning, middle, and end
I know this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people get this wrong.
The beginning of your story needs to establish two things: the status quo, and a problem.
In the case of my first book, What Happens in New York, the status quo is that Hollie is working a job she hates to pay the bills and living back at home with her parents after graduating from university.
The problem arises when she quits her job working for a misogynistic boss. How’s she going to pay her bills? Her mental health is all over the place, and she’s not sure where to go next.
Then we have the middle. This is where most of your story happens.
In the case of What Happens in New York, Hollie and her best friend go to New York and meet celebrities. Hollie realises her dream of becoming a fashion designer and finally finds the confidence to pursue it.
The ending includes your climax and a wrap-up.
The climax is where everything comes to blows. Hollie’s new nemesis, Trinity Gold, has a meltdown on live TV and badmouths her and her friends. They get the blame.
Then, there’s a moment of calm before they return home to the UK.
Let’s look at another example for my latest book, The Ghost’s Call.
Beginning: Niamh’s daughter, Edie, wants to be a ghost hunter. Niamh doesn’t want her to be. A ghost gives Edie a message. Why her? Why now?
Middle: Edie keeps pushing Niamh to let her ghost hunt. They keep finding themselves in situations where Edie could be useful.
End: Edie has to do an exorcism on her own, showing Niamh how capable she is.
Calm after the storm: Niamh evaluates the situation with a friend; Edie goes out with her love interest.
These are obviously very cut down, butchered versions of my plots (sorry Hollie, Niamh, and Edie!), but hopefully they demonstrate the basic construct of a story.
The ‘calm after the storm’ is important to help your audience recover from the intensity of the climax. It helps them to know that everything was all right in the end. Or at least, temporarily if it’s part of a longer series. This is also where a cliffhanger would be introduced.
You may find it helpful to analyse short stories as these often follow this structure in a simple way over a short period of time.
The TV show Castle is also good for analysing structure as most episodes follow the same setup—it’s the characters who make it special.
You may notice some parallels here with the problem, agitation, solution copywriting formula. That’s because PAS is basically a shorter version of how to write the basic plot of a book.
All my examples so far have come from fiction, but that’s because there are few better places to learn storytelling.
However, I would also recommend one of my favourite books, Black Box Thinking, by Matthew Syed. It’s a nonfiction book that uses storytelling to demonstrate its points in a very powerful way. It completely changed my opinion of nonfiction books and I recommend it all the time because of how powerful the stories are, and how great the advice in it is.
Find your hook
Your hook is the most important part of your introduction/beginning. It’s the make-or-break point which helps people to decide whether they should stick around, or spend their time doing something else that doesn’t involve you.
Some podcasts or vlogs play a quotable snippet at the start of each episode to hook readers.
Some videos start with a short story about what inspired the episode.
What works as a hook for you will vary depending on who your audience is, what type of content you create, and what your goal is.
Here are a few examples of effective hooks:
‘Get the only emails anyone likes anymore.’ – Laura Belgray (Talking Shrimp)
Email marketing gets a bad reputation. There are lots of scare stories about it.
But, since Laura Belgray’s emails are so engaging, she’s taken some of the great quotes her email subscribers have given her about her emails and turned them into a hook to get more people on her list.
‘Ever wondered what would happen if a comedy hypnotist and a mind reader turned their skills to email marketing? …No…?’ – Rob and Kennedy (Email Marketing Heroes)
This paragraph says so much about Rob and Kennedy. It demonstrates their experience, has humour, opens a curiosity gap, and sets up the rest of the page.
‘Ready to build your online audience?’ – Janet Murray
Janet Murray’s focus is on—you guessed it—building online audiences. This one sentence not only sets up what she does, but it also eliminates anyone who isn’t interested in that from exploring her offerings.
Remember: there’s no harm in eliminating people who are the wrong fit. The sooner you do that, the more engagement you’ll get and the better your content will perform.
‘Create scalable, predictable income in your small business.’ – Andrew and Pete (ATOMIC*)
This is what most businesses want. So by having that as the first words on the ATOMIC sales page, it instantly grabs the reader.
They start to picture themselves generating that scalable, predictable income. Maybe they even picture what they’d do with all that extra time they get from said income.
‘What’s the key to getting paid more?’ – Andrew and Pete (ATOMIC*)
Everyone wants to get paid more, don’t they? Especially if you’re a small business or freelancer, worried about undercharging. Or maybe even overcharging!
The first sentence of this blog post/video description clearly explains who it can help.
*Indicates an affiliate link.
‘It’s too long.’ – Andrew Yedlin (Copyhackers)
Three words. Three words writers know all too well. Many people are afraid of long pieces of content or copy, assuming that people won’t read it all.
But, as any great writer will tell you, it’s not about people reading all of it. It’s about getting the right people to read it, and ensuring they have all the information they need to convert.
Notice a pattern with almost all of these?
- Focusing on ONE thing
- Not giving much away
- Raising a question, or making a bold statement
You can explain your hook in later sentences. (But if it requires too much explanation, it may not be effective. Read the examples above again—you get where there’s going from the first few words.)
If your first sentence is super long and rambling, it will lose you readers. If it’s engaging and strange, like Rob and Kennedy’s, people’s curiosity will compel them to read on.
Make your customer the hero
You may have heard of The Hero’s Journey before. The setup is much like what happens above, although it’s a little more complicated.
We won’t get into the structure of it today (let me know if it’s something you’d like me to cover), but what I will say is that you should make your customer the hero as often as possible. Especially if you’re writing sales copy or helping them solve a problem with your content.
If you’re telling someone else’s story (such as a customer’s success story in a case study), then you should make that person the hero. In every other case, it should be about the person you’re selling to.
You are not the hero. You’re the mentor. Your role is to support and guide your prospect along their journey in the same way that Dumbledore helps Harry.
How to include storytelling in your content marketing
Use it in an example
Stories are great to demonstrate points. For instance, if you want to show someone how a great acne treatment works, or how much a CEO’s life was simplified through using your product.
Using a story with the beginning/middle/end formula above helps people to visualise what you could do for them. This is particularly powerful when someone wonders ‘will this work for me?’
Especially if, after the climax, you have the calm after the storm where you talk about how great their life is now thanks to your help.
Start with a story
Stories make for powerful introductions. Take Bryan Stephenson’s TEDTalk—most of it’s a story.
But it went on to earn his charity millions of dollars in donations within minutes of finishing his talk, further helping him in his charitable efforts. And it’s still one of the most-watched TEDTalks ever, almost a decade later.
If you watch the majority of the most popular TEDTalks, they either open with a story, or they’re mostly story.
This is because, as we discussed at the start, stories help us to remember things.
Explain a complex/abstract idea
Sometimes, explaining something new or abstract to someone can be a real challenge. That’s where stories come in.
I could talk about a scheduling API, or I could introduce you to Mo. Mo has lots of calendars and struggles to manage them. ManageMe is a tool which allows him to connect all his calendars—whether they’re personal, for work, or even family calendars—to one app so that he can not only see his schedule, but also schedule other appointments around them, and even block time out for deep work.
ManageMe uses an API to see and update Mo’s calendar. That’s what APIs do—they connect one piece of software, like a calendar, to another piece of software, like a scheduling app.
If I’d just written about a scheduling API, would someone who isn’t a software developer have understood what one was? Would they have cared?
End with a story
Wrapping up your discussion with a story can help your audience to contextualise and better understand the lessons you’ve taught them.
I’ve seen this the most in the form of a testimonial or case study after a sales pitch. It cements the possibility of the product or service helping the audience with the power of a story.
If you’ve ever done an online webinar, you’ve probably seen one of these pitches.
Storytelling is a powerful tool that can help make you—and your product—more memorable.
It can help key points and learnings to stick in your prospect’s head and give you a unique angle which differentiates you from your competitors.
It doesn’t have to be a complicated, over-the-top story. As long as your story sets up the status quo, introduces the problem, has a climax where the problem is confronted, and is wrapped up at the end, you’ve got the basics of a story your audience will remember.