“Let’s face it. We live in a command-based system, where we have been programmed since our earliest school years to become followers, not individuals. We have been conditioned to embrace teams, the herd, the masses, popular opinion — and to reject what is different, eccentric or stands alone. We are so programmed that all it takes for any business or authority to condition our minds to follow or buy something is to simply repeat a statement more than three or four times until we repeat it ourselves and follow it as truth or the best trendiest thing. This is called “programming” — the frequent repetition of words to condition us how to think, what to like or dislike, and who to follow.”
― Suzy Kassem, Rise Up and Salute the Sun: The Writings of Suzy Kassem
So yes, you are just being human. I am not that different either.
However, let me put it out to you as bluntly as I can.
You are doing it WRONG!
The sole reason is that you are a “marketer”.
Why do you think they always ask for ‘creative bent of mind’ when they post that ad on Monster? It’s not for the sake of including it because it sounds so dandy and the company was in lack of better criteria.
It is because…
Your job as a marketer is to disrupt marketing strategies.
You heard that right.
As a marketer, you don’t follow the age-old, outdated strategies on and on. It will diminish business results further over time and you will end up getting handed the pink slip, ouch!
For example, look at the content marketing industry today.
For God’s sake, every Tom, Dick and Harry is writing 2000+ word blog posts. I never knew there were so many “experts” around me—on every possible niche under the sun.
Tell you what, it’s a fallacy.
But I am not going to criticize the industry here. If one likes to pose as an expert in his black suit and speak to a hall room full of audiences, who am I speak against it?
Everyone has right to do what they want to do (at least within restrictions).
If you as a marketer try to follow the herd and spout out long-form pieces one after another, to prove “Who’s your daddy?” theory, you are the Bigger Fool, my friend.
Rather, do something different.
If they are writing 2000+ words articles, write 200 words—but of superior value.
Make it count.
Remember, at the end of the day, your customer desires higher value, he doesn’t go looking for 2000+ words posts or infographics or whatever.
Because there is no secret sauce in content marketing, my dear friend. Look at my straight face here. I am not joking at all.
In fact, I am going to reveal a profound truth that might have been eluding you for a while.
Digital marketers and entrepreneurs: prick up your ears, as I am going to sprout the century’s most enlightening...
Oh wait! Let me start with a verified truth here.
In life, we tend to chase our tails at times ... in an illusion of the presence of some invisible magical power around us. We like to think or let’s say, we WANT to think in luck—which I totally believe in—that nothing is in our hands. But in reality, a lot remains in our hands. Seldom do we realize that the power is within us.
The magic lies within you as a content marketer.
It’s not by chance that a slight 1 percent of internet entrepreneurs have 100K+ Twitter followers while the rest have a mere hundred. It’s amazing how that little, privileged segment of entrepreneurs are being talked about in almost every other blog in that particular niche. The community admires them, “worships” them and eats out of their palms—even if some of them are selling $2000 ecourses. (Quite a BIG sum, right? Is it worth it? That’s another topic.)
First, can you tell me what’s separates these ‘special’ people from the pack?
Can you guess?
It’s the Power of their Brand.
Are you wondering, “Huh! Why are we talking of Branding now?”
Have patience. Let me explain. (Taking a long sip from my coffee mug.)
Come to think about it...
What’s driving that solid brand in the first place? I mean, how do you think these entrepreneurs created one for God’s sake?
Yes, you guessed it correctly, my friend.
By the Power of Grayskull! (I am kidding.)
It’s through their Awesome Content Quality.
Go through each of their blog posts, their reports, their infographics or sometimes even their landing pages.
You will see that they give so much value. Whether through the interactive quizzes, colourful graphs and geeky informative charts, they give, give, GIVE!
CMI’s Chief Content Adviser Robert Rose says, “If we’re truly focused on delivering value through content — value that is separate and distinct from our product or service — then the experience becomes ‘enhanced.’ This enhancement is what will be additive to the customer’s perception of what that brand provides.”
Only with the right content marketing strategy can you build a solid, time-tested brand for your B2B business. A Brand that stands out and shines in its own industry niche. But optimizing for such a content marketing campaign with the highest return potential requires ... umm ... ATTENTION.
The content: Map the content people actually want and need. Why should people read your article vs. someone else’s? What will you be saying that is new and different?
The influencers: Next, map out influencers who would be interested in this article. You can collect quotes from them, mention them, or simply add them to a list of people you’re going to tweet to or reach out to via email when the article is ready. The more personal you get with them, the more likely they are to share the article.
The media: Map out websites and publishers that would be interested in your article. Many publishers feature articles they find interesting or syndicate content. Reach out to them and let them know you’re writing a specific article they may be interested in. Reaching out beforehand will give you an indication if they’d like to see certain information in that article for them to share it or syndicate it.
The promotion: Writing the content is only 20% of the job. The other 80% is promotion. Don’t just rely on sharing it a couple of times on Twitter and LinkedIn. Have a list of all the sites, communities, and platforms you’re going to promote on.
If we tend to these four factors regularly in your content marketing campaign, you can rest assured that you business graphs—whichever you prefer—will go up.
BUT, BUT, BUT...
There’s one another crucial aspect of a perfect content marketing strategy that we are missing here. Perhaps, that’s the reason why your card house is crumbling down again and again. Or maybe, you are not being able to reap the results you want.
Normally, as soon as we start talking about content marketing, the following objectives begin popping up in our mind from nowhere—it’s become so cliché these days, seriously:
Generate traffic and visibility in social networks
Yes, this one is indeed important. I believe, if nobody gets to see my content, it’s no use creating it. Then...
Improve SEO positioning
Ah, how can we ever forget about the search engine robots, right? With all the hype of automation going on around us, we may as well become robots ourselves. But that’s best kept for another letter.
Promotion of a product or service
Your content needs to sell. Everyone says so. That includes me as well. He he. However, we are still not talking about one particular objective of content marketing.
Getting loyal subscribers
Nopes, this is not the one we are talking about. Yes, getting LOADS of subscribers has never made any marketer unhappy. But guess what, this is still not the one.
Add to this...
Building A Solid, Unbreakable Brand
Seen it and already know how powerful it can be. In fact, all of the above can be accomplished if you manage to succeed at this one only.
(Courtesy to the $2000+ courses! No offence to those entrepreneurs. I know a few and I can tell you, they are a bunch of the most hardworking people on this planet. But frankly speaking, not all those courses are worth it. However, they sell like hotcakes. Brand, my friend, that’s called a Brand. And in case you are wondering, oh, I am damn jealous, you know.)
If you listen to Talia’s advice, you will achieve all of these objectives. However...
I believe we are missing ONE IMPORTANT INGREDIENT from the content success matrix.
Let me add this one.
Want to know about the most consequential, earth-shattering secret sauce to your content marketing strategy?
“Hey, you said there’s no secret sauce at the beginning of this article!”
Well, I lied. Straight face. Can’t I?
The secret sauce of your B2B content marketing strategy is ... wait for it ...
You probably didn’t get it, right? I can see it in your blank face.
Let me say it again ... in a simpler way.
You don’t do content marketing first in order to build a brand as a result.
You focus on branding first for a perfect content marketing campaign.
I think, this has been aptly brought out by Jillian Hillard, director of brand marketing, small appliances, at Electrolux, commented:
“For brands, it’s no longer a question of how you can use content to enhance the consumer’s perception of the brand, it’s a necessity. Content is the gateway into a brand’s soul.”
You build a brand by focusing on BRANDING at all times. You cannot be telling your copywriter, “Hey, get me an article about the latest industry statistics.” And then, you daydream how it will increase the brand score of your business.
You create branded content to create a brand.
Stop reading right now, and give it a long thought.
Doesn’t that really make sense?
Unfortunately, this is where most marketers and entrepreneurs falter. They lack the right content marketing strategy to start with. Needless to say, it doesn’t fetch you the expected results.
3 Main Essentials Of Branded Content Marketing
Your B2B content must demonstrate your brand values and principles.
Content marketing is not advertising—bold and direct. As a content marketer, you need to bring forth the essence of your brand in a subtler manner.
Your B2B content must achieve the business priorities.
Are you trying to find new customers? Retain existing customers? Cross-sell? All three? Are you a direct-seller with ecommerce sales goals? Whatever your marketing goals are, your B2B content marketing strategy must cater to your business goals ... always.
Your B2B content must serve your customer needs and desires—a challenge for most businesses.
We live in a selfish world, and as humans, businesses too care about their self-interests. You need to go further. Traditional research, customer surveys or lengthy pitches from sales professionals might not cut it anymore.
Understand what moves your customers, their needs, their desires and their fears. Create content not to advertise your business, but to cater to their personal lives. Make it ‘shareworthy’!
It is the secret sauce that’s been lacking in your B2B content marketing strategy.
Some special things, including women, come with a very rare quality of their own.
They have the ability to put up an innocent face yet possess complex machinery running inside their interior.
Complex Simplicity. That’s how I call it.
And an analogy, a metaphor or a simile pretty much falls into the same category. They are simple to get your head around but when it comes to actually use them in action—I mean, in marketing copywriting, they are not very easy to apply.
Where do you use an analogy?
Should you even put a simile there?
Is a metaphor more useful than an analogy?
Frankly speaking, I couldn’t find much data on this question.
It’s a matter of subjective opinion and it’s just too hard to be specific in this one. So, I will try to answer this without the help of A/B tests or any scientific research done on this topic (Know of any? Let me know.)
Let’s Start With The Basics… What Is An Analogy, A Simile Or A Metaphor?
Analogy and metaphor are both figures of speech in which reference is made to one thing in order to convey another.
An analogy most often involves reference to something familiar or readily understood, in order to illustrate and explain something more complex and less readily understood. The word comes from the classical Latin analogia, meaning ratio or proportion. Thus an analogy essentially possesses the same properties and characteristics as the more complex thing it’s being used to represent, but in a simplified, scaled-down manner that’s easier to grasp (the ”thing” in question can be factual and exist physically, or be figurative and conceptual). Thus, to explain the way in which modern English has evolved, I might use the analogy of a river in which individual tributaries (representing Celtic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse, Norman French and later influences) flow into a wider stream in which their waters combine. By giving you that picture, I’m helping you to get a clearer understanding via a physical representation—in principle, at least—of a rather more complex and non-physical reality.
To a certain extent, a metaphor works the other way around. The word comes via Old and Middle French from the classical Latin metaphora, which derives in turn from an ancient Greek word meaning to bear or carry. Thus ametaphor—a descriptive word or phrase used in place of another to which it bears no literal relationship—is intended to ”carry” or ”bear” the meaning of the word(s) it’s replacing in a manner that’s generally more vivid and memorable than the original. One scientific study found that comprehension of metaphors is perceptually grounded. Unlike analogy, which involves a measure of deliberation and evaluation (in order to think of a good one), metaphor tends to be a more spontaneous process which we employ all the time in everyday conversation—let alone more structured rhetoric. While formally constructed examples may be complex in the extreme, it’s been estimated we use a simple metaphor, from ”devouring” a book or ”killing” for a beer to ”partying” with friends or being ”hooked” on Quora, up to six times a minute.
What about simile? Well, a simile is basically a type of metaphor. It compares two different objects to create a new meaning or amplify the characteristic of one object based on that of another’s. It was used extensively during the slapstick era (1970s-80s) in Britain. In comedy, similes often connote a negative meaning and were helpful in tackling with sensitive issues in front of the audience. (This approach might not work with copywriting where everything is in print, whether real or virtual.)
“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date.
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines”
Ah, what lines by the Bard of Avon! By the way, this is an extended simile.
Now that we have figured out what these 3 figures of speeches are, let’s answer the most important question.
How Should You Use Them In Copywriting?
I am going to disappoint you now.
I will not be able to give you any specific answer to this question.
But I can provide you with some pointers that I use myself.
When To Use Simile In Copywriting?
A: For Casual Or Funny Comments, For Great Storytelling
Similes are not very powerful in nature, at least in copywriting. They can become impactful ONLY when present in the right context.
Still, it’s hard to bring about—creating the context where a simile brings forth profound meaning along with it.
Rather, use it only when you are using it for humour. Or you are just casually making a simple point.
One thing to note: When it comes to storytelling in copywriting, similes can be very useful.
“As daft as a brush”.
“As slow as a snail.”
“Duct tape is like the force — it has a light side, a dark side, and it holds the universe together.” (Carl Zwanzig)
“Dealing with network executives is like being nibbled to death by ducks.” (Eric Sevareid)
“I’m as pure as the driven slush.” (Tallulah Bankhead, 1903-1968)
“Her vocabulary was like, yeah, whatever.”
When To Use Metaphors In Copywriting? A: For Powerful Impact
The greatest thing by far is to be a master of metaphor ~ Aristotle
Most great orators and writers master the art of using metaphors in their public speeches and writings.
Its incredible power lies in its “complex simplicity”. Not only do metaphors present a wealth of meaning in just a couple of words, but metaphors entwine the human senses, our perception, in such a manner as to make it deeply palatable.
People often associate metaphor with poetry, literature, and art, but we all use metaphor in our day-to-day conversation, often without realizing it. Because they are so effective at instantly communicating both tangible and conceptual information, metaphorical expressions are woven throughout the fabric of the English language.
“She has a special place in my heart”
“I’m at the height of my career”
“Education is the gateway to success”
“Life in the fast lane”
“She followed in her mother’s footsteps”
“A blanket of snow fell last night”
While metaphors are pervasive in our everyday discourse, the strategic use of metaphorical expression can be one of the most persuasive techniques in your linguistic toolbox. Simply altering a single word, phrase, or story can make the difference between the success and failure of and an argument or presentation.
Humans, psychologically speaking — the emotional fools as we are — react strongly to emotions. The power of a metaphor lies in its ability to ignite the emotional part (right side) of our brain before it activates the rational part (left side) of it.
Think about it. A picture says a thousand words. Yes, it really does. Remember when you see your ex’s photos? That sudden rush of emotions inside your heart? You don’t even need any words at that moment. Sometimes, words are not enough.
When To Use Analogy In Copywriting? A: In Descriptions, Creating Mental Connections
Clients often ask me how to write analogies. After all, a good analogy can:
Clarify something by giving your buyer a comfortable reference point…
Inject some humanity and personality into your writing…
Bring a non-threatening, non-salesy way to speak to people, building trust…
Here are a few examples of analogies I’ve used that people have commented on:
“…the first kind of assumption is good — it will make your cash register ring. The second one leaves you destitute, with a naked field of un-harvested crops…”
“…these people have been living here since Christ was an altar-boy…”
“…it’s mandatory, just the same way eating is mandatory if you want to stay alive…”
Analogies add colour to the picture you’re trying to sketch for your readers.
Not much different than metaphors, right?
Well, there’s a difference.
Metaphors are a lot more subtle and powerful than analogies IMO. Metaphors are done when you don’t even know realize that it’s a metaphor. It flows along with the text, along with the context.
However, analogies are straight in the face and they make you think. Or, let’s say, they make you feel. If I am trying to make a point that needs explanation, I would use an analogy. If I am just trying to invoke a certain inside my reader and it just needs to be in one line, perhaps, I would use a metaphor.
There you go.
Analogy…metaphor…simile…and how to use them in your copywriting piece to your advantage.
However, I will still say that it varies according to personal opinion.
As a writer, always go by your “writer guts” and do what feels right to you.
Look, whoever said “being a marketer is easy” is the BIGGEST liar of this century. He probably lives in the basement of his parents’ house and could not market his idea to his dad even, because for all I know…
Marketing—I mean, marketing anything, whether it is a new product or rebuilding an old dying brand—can turn out to be the hardest challenge of your life, unless you are eating dinner with the managing director of IBM or recently resigned as a Chief Technology Officer of Twitter.
In the super-competitive market that we live in today, expect to put in all your resources plus at least 80-90 hours per week and still you might find it not to be enough. In short, being a marketer dares you. Being a marketer drains you. Being a marketer punishes you…like you are a pet dog. Whew!
The question is, can you sustain this onslaught on a daily basis? Perhaps not, unless you include some serious productivity hacks in your daily life.
Divide Your Full Day Into Convenient Time Blocks
Whether it’s 15-minutes or as long as an hour, it’s your call. However, you need to segment your whole day and allot each time block to a single task. Read it again, SINGLE task. Do not multitask—it negatively affects your productivity. Do not create a to-do list. Create a schedule instead. You will benefit just like Rebekah Epstein did:
“Not only did this make me feel significantly less stressed, I was getting more done in fewer hours!”
And oh yes, it’s “crucial to make sure you record all your meetings and appointments in one place instead of having them scattered throughout different calendars, notebooks, and apps,” writes Alexandra Weiss, a partner at CA Creative in New York, via email. “Not only will it save time to only have to check one calendar but it will also help ensure that you are not double booking or missing any meetings.”
Keep Distractions Out Of Your Way
If you study some of the most successful marketers in the world, you will find one thing in common: Focus. Stop checking your emails every 10 minutes. Keep your phone on the silent mode or just switch it off altogether when you are working. Take three 15-min breaks to check your emails and voice mails during the day.
“A sec” probably means a 3-5 minute conversation is about to take place. But the cost of that conversation isn’t just those 3-5 minutes.
Scientific research shows that you need at least 23 minutes to regain attention. Ouch, 23 minutes of non-productively as a marketer—that’s quite a lot!
Preparation Is The Key To Your Marketing Success
Nothing is more than this one. Mr Opportunity might be knocking on the door but if you aren’t there to open it, it’s no use. Mr Opportunity is a fickle-minded and busy person. He won’t wait forever. Prepare beforehand. Start with the end in mind and work on it. So, when the time comes, you are ready to take advantage of it.
As per the words of Eliyahu Goldratt:
“Good luck is when opportunity meets preparation, while bad luck is when lack of preparation meets reality.”
And oh, I have to let Will Smith, one of my favourite Hollywood actors speak here. He is massively successful and just plain awesome at his art, and he says:
“I’ve always considered myself to be just average talent and what I have is a ridiculous insane obsessiveness [sic] for practice and preparation.”
In the marketing niche, who wins? Not the one with the most talent, but the one who puts in the highest level of effort. Resources matter but only to an extent.
I don’t boast often but I must share this little fact about myself. I became a copywriter long before I even completed my college education. I know a plenty of copywriters who have completed their University education and still haven’t gotten hold of the basics of digital marketing. The problem is, they don’t put in the necessary effort to perfect themselves in their art.
But I did. I spent nights completing the AWAI course and reading the Halbert Letters. Put in the effort, man or woman (I am not a sexist, you see).
Set SMART Goals For Every Quarter Or So
Break down the BIG goal into smaller, achievable and quantifiable goals for the short term. Write them down on index cards and paste them in front of your desk. Not only does it help you to keep focus in your regular endeavours, it ensures that the whole business goes in the right direction.
The trouble with not having a goal is that you can spend your life running up and down the field and never score. – Bill Copeland
In his fantastic book, “Delivering Happiness“, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh describes how offering smaller, but more frequent promotions had a measurable increase in employee satisfaction, even though the final accomplishment was the same. Instead of offering one big promotion every 18 months, for example, the management at Zappos found that offering smaller promotions, say every 3 months, would result in increased employee satisfaction and motivation.
You can take this lesson and apply it to your own life. Take the mountains you need to climb and break them up into smaller hills that you can walk. You’ll be happier and more motivated to start working towards that next milestone on your way to marketing greatness.
Work Urgent Tasks First And Delegate As Much As You Can
This is against popular opinion but involves a far more effective strategy. You measure a task on a 2D scale of impact and effort. You finish the “highest impact, highest effort” tasks first and “lowest impact, lowest effort” ones last. What I mean by that is, you should always reward your mini self by finishing off the quick and easy starts, and leave the most complicated tasks to tackle in the end.
And always delegate the tasks you can. As much as you would like to say to your wife, you are not a Superman or even a Batman. You cannot do everything alone. You need help from your in-house associates. You need help from your outsourced staff. In fact, make sure you do only what you cannot delegate to others.
Remember not to work in your business but to work ON your business. (This is mainly applicable to the C-level marketing executives.).
Maintain Daily Routine Of At Least 1 Hour Yoga (Preferably)
If you ask me, yoga has a unique way of rejuvenating your mind and body and strengthens your Self to take on what comes your way. Every successful marketer comes with a strong, resilient spirit, derived from a healthy body and mind. It’s not sitting at a desk for 9 hours after all.
Bonus Tip:Meditate for at least half an hour every day (twice is always advisable).
Shrimati Bhanu Narasimhan of Art Of Living Center In California says, ““Meditation is the mind without agitation.” It’s about sustaining “mental hygiene”. Stanford Researcher, Emma Seppälä, who is also the associate director of the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stanford, says, “It’s very empowering.”
Personally speaking, I meditate whenever I can. And I recommend it to everyone I come across, sometimes even 5-year-olds! (Their moms always love that BTW. I don’t know why.)
Start Your Day By Writing A Journal
Again, this is not what they (pointing at the pop psychologists) will suggest. They say, write the journal by the end of the night—a great way of letting out your emotions and go to sleep peacefully. But as an entrepreneur, you can only sleep peacefully when you have done your day’s work properly.
That happens when you start your day with a little pep talk via the journal. You are basically talking about yourself. You are the patient and you are the psychologist. You listen to your own questions in your “struggling” marketing life (we all go through this) and you yourself start providing answers for the same.
What’s more? Journals can be a great way to start self-discovering yourself.
Paul Smith and Betty Smith, both fashion designers, keep their creativity alive by regularly writing in a notebook. Great writers like Virginia Woolf, Maya Angelou, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Sylvia Path and Alice Walker along with hundreds of writers across time who all kept diaries and journals which has informed their writing and creative productivity.
As the life coach and author, Jackee Holder states:
“Journals are creative portals. Because you’re in dialogue with your inner life when you write in a journal, you solve problems and get creative. Keeping a journal can be both a clearing-house and – in the next word, sentence or page – become an incubator where you tap into your imagination and unleash your creativity and ideas.”
Keep Gathering Daily Lumps Of Gold In Your Knowledge Ville
I cannot stress much on this one. Not only reading stimulates you mentally, keeps you updated with knowledge and builds up your analytical and critical skills, a new study shows that for men, access to books from a young age corresponds to higher earnings over a lifetime.
Now you are listening. It’s not me speaking. It’s Charlie Munger speaking. (If you haven’t heard about his name before, forget reading this letter and Google his name right now.)
“In my whole life, I have known no wise people who didn’t read all the time — none, zero”.
Mark Twain once said, “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” He may not be a young entrepreneur, but his advice still stands over a century later: if there’s something you’ve been dreading doing, don’t let it drag on — just do it and move forward.
Research by Roy Baumeister shows that our willpower starts off high and then depletes throughout the day. Other research shows that starting a goal but not completing it (a.k.a., procrastinating) makes us less effective at the next tasks we perform.
The truth is, being a marketer and watching consumers talk about that old shitty brand in a new light or the sales graph go up every quarter can be a fulfilling life achievement, but only if you make yourself capable of being one.
Or else, know the feeling of drowning? Imagine you are drowning in the middle of the Pacific and nobody is there to save you. That’s how you will feel every day.
When you want to learn how to describe yourself or your business, people look to storytelling as a way to improve their core message.
But what is storytelling? And how do you actually get better at it?
And what does it matter for businesses today?
“Story” — the word is vague and yet so appealing — so it can be difficult to know where to start, and how to use what you learn in your everyday practice.
If you’re not telling your story, who is telling it for you?
This essay will look at some of the core truths about stories and storytelling in Part I, and then I’ll share a few tools that are practical and easy to implement in Part II. Use these core principles across many communication needs, from a personal biography to the description of your company.
Storytelling is a fundamental human tool that we all do innately. The problem is that over time, we’ve been bombarded with terrible examples of bad messaging, and we don’t know what models to look to. Our brains are wired for storytelling, because stories help us learn, explore, and retain information through second- and third-hand experiences. We know when we’re in the presence of a good story, but do we actually know what’s happening inside of them?
We can recognize when we’re captivated by a great story. The problem is, can you dissect what’s happening into tools you can use to your advantage later?
Stories are innately human. Everyone is a born storyteller.
Case in point: when you recount events that you’ve done, even a simple sentence as you walk through the door, you’re setting up a basic story structure:
“You won’t believe what just happened — first I went to the grocery store, then…” — your ears prick up.
You’ve set up the most basic form of a story: do you know what it is?
Here’s another example —
“The beach was dark and quiet. It was eerie — the moon was dark and someone had turned off all the lights on the boardwalk. Alison felt uneasy as she stepped nervously out into the dark. Who had turned out all the lights?”
Both of these examples use a very specific form of storytelling that we’re all hardwired to understand. Do you know what it is?
I’ll explain it today as we deconstruct storytelling. But first, I want to debunk a few myths about storytelling. Somehow we think that only an elite few can be storytellers, and it’s a skill that we don’t have.
Part I: Common storytelling principles that apply to business and life.
1. Everyone is a storyteller.
Some people say that storytelling is limited to an elite few or a professional clique. In reality, that’s not true. All humans are born storytellers, and we are born to look for, hear, and describe our world in stories.
When someone comes back to us and says, “Avoid Atlantic Avenue, it’s crazy full of traffic,” we select a different route because we got information — in the form of a story — about someone else’s experience.
2. We tell stories to connect, dream and imagine.
We use storytelling to connect inwardly to ourselves, outwardly towards others, and to imagine futures. Humans spend up to four hours per day inside of imaginary landscapes — in daydreams, thoughts, visualizations, and places beyond the present. We live in a world of stories.
We use storytelling to connect inwardly to ourselves, outwardly towards others, and to imagine our futures.
Children are born telling stories — in fact, we play for exactly this reason. Playing is our built-in mode of imagining the future and the past. In telling stories, and playing make-believe, we’re able to learn at a much faster pace than if we had to rely only on our own experience.
We are learning creatures. We learn by experience and through our imagination. When something good happens to us, that’s a reward. When something bad happens, there’s a punishment. These incentives teach us over time.
In stories, we get to pick up and enter into the landscape of someone else’s learning — and learn for ourselves, even though we may be sitting in one place, not moving.
3. Stories are how we are hardwired.
Prior to written language, we had to keep important information about the world around us, somehow. We’ve constructed melodies, songs, and other modes of storing information.
Is it any coincidence that “storing” and “storytelling” are related? We are hardwired to remember cause and effect relationships — “I saw a spider, that spider killed my friend, spiders are bad.” “REMEMBER THIS!” Shouts your brain.
Lisa Cron’s research on the brain science behind storytelling is what prompted her book, Wired For Story, if you’re curious about how it works.
In research in The Storytelling Animal by Jonathan Gottfried, he talks about how we actually make up stories all the time, whenever we see two events happening.
If we see a group of women and they’re all wearing tiny shorts, we might tell as a story to ourselves about how they are all going to the beach. In research on people with their two brain hemispheres segmented or separated, they discover that our brains actually wire stories into our minds when presented two pieces of information.
4. A story is what you take with you.
In any situation or setting, a story is what you take with you.
When giving a presentation or sharing your brand or idea, what someone walks away with is the story. They’ve taken all the information they’ve been given and distilled it into the easiest parts to remember.
Listen to what people catch from your descriptions, and guide your story towards what people naturally keep bringing up!
A story is what you take with you. Listen to how people explain
It’s less about what you want to say, and what people do with what you say. Pay attention to what people respond to, and adjust accordingly.
5. We are surrounded by far too many examples of bad storytelling — powerpoints, inadequacy marketing, and droll presentations have numbed our innate ability to tell stories.
Unfortunately, we’re surrounded by terrible examples of storytelling. In The Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, he talks about all the sins of modern storytelling — from our need for vanity to posing as an authority, and more.
There are far too many bad examples out there — boring presentations, terrible pitches, inadequacy marketing — that we’ve forgotten what great storytelling looks like.
Basically, the last century of mass broadcasting let the leaders in charge of storytelling get lazy. There’s too much talking about yourself, not listening to the audience, and shouting lists. Technology (like powerpoint) even encourages bad storytelling by putting bullets and lists as the mode of operation.
The good news is that once we recognize the bad examples for what they are — boring presentations that put us to sleep — we can stop copying them and start engaging.
6. When you sell anything — yourself, a brand, a business — you tell a story.
When you sell things, you tell a story. It’s not about the thing at hand. And powerpoint lists are terrible ways of communicating.
When you sell things, you’re telling a story.
Think about a toothbrush. You’re not selling a plastic stick with a bunch of flexible bristles on it. Why describe it like that?
When you sell a toothbrush, you’re selling the idea of a cleaner mouth. Why is that clean mouth important?
Think about Listerine: you’re not selling a bottle of alcohol, you’re selling … a date.
The ability to be well-liked.
Advertisements are stories about who you are and who you should be, and great advertisements want to capitalize on something deeper than the physical thing that they are selling.
What do they believe about human nature? What story are they telling you, implied or otherwise?
7. We are naturally curious, and we all want to be smart.
Finding Nemo, the movie, is about a little guy who gets lost and needs to find his dad. Along the way, he goes on adventure after adventure in order to return home.
At the beginning of the movie, we, the audience, know the purpose of the whole movie within the first few minutes: this is a story about a father and son finding each other again.
The same is true in most situations. We interrupt because we want to get to the point faster. When presented with a puzzle, most people work furiously to get it right — first.
People like to be smart, and curious. Stories let us engage our curiosity.
We want to be smart. We like the puzzle of a story, and we want to guess how it will end. Stories entertain us because they keep us in suspense, and they tickle our brains to try to guess how something ends.
Part II: How to improve your business and personal storytelling today.
So how do you take all this and make it applicable to your stories and messages? Here are some concrete ways to improve your storytelling right now.
8. Your English teacher was right — it is about “showing” versus “telling.”
Too often we jump straight to the point. Think about each of these as lead sentences:
“It was the hardest day of my life.”
“The thing is, simplicity matters.”
“Never underestimate the power of a good friend.”
These are all true statements, but it’s not gripping or exciting. Whatever your core philosophical statement, think about leaving it unsaid.
Just like the toothbrush examples before, the point of your story isn’t to beat someone over the head with the idea, but rather to SHOW it through lots of vivid detail and an example that highlights your core philosophy.
We don’t need to be hit over the head with ideas. We want to learn through the experience.
For example —
[It was the hardest day of my life.]vs:
“I’d just finished a fourteen-hour shift in the cement factory. I had no idea what my dad did, so that summer I signed up to join him at work. Three days in, and I could barely lift my hands. My forearms burned, and my calves were shot from jumping in and out of the trucks. I’d probably lifted more than a hundred sacks of cement mix in and out of the truck. When I got home that day, all I wanted was to lie down. Then I discovered…”
[Never underestimate the power of a good friend.] vs:
“I’d just found out that my grandmother had passed, and I couldn’t make it home in time. My job had closed the week before, our office putting up the ‘for sale’ sign after more than eight months in the red. On the bus ride home through the foggy drizzle of Portland’s grey fall days, I wondered how I could pay for groceries for the rest of the week.
As I got off the bus, I saw someone sitting on my stoop. “Probably another homeless person,” I muttered to myself, thinking I’d be one soon myself. As I got closer, I saw that it was actually Andy, holding two bags of Indian food takeout. He wrapped me in a big hug. “I thought that you could use this today,” he explained, pointing to the food.
Words are the only vehicle someone has to understand your vision.
9. Detail, detail, detail. The environment matters — because it lays the foundation for imagination.
Words are the only vehicle someone has to understand your vision. The more you set the stage for where you are, the easier it is for someone to buy in.
Great storytelling is about detail — but a specific kind of detail. How do you set the stage and the context for what’s happening? What does it feel like to be you?
Stories immerse us in an event far away from where we are, catapulting us into a new time and space. Key descriptions anchor us into this new space through the use of all of the senses — smell, sight, touch, taste, sound, texture, even kinesthetics.
Begin by describing the world around you, in vivid sensory detail. The English language has thousands of words to describe the subtle differences in texture and weight and material. Tell the story of what the world looks like. Great fiction books often begin with these details — take a look at 1984 or Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance for great opening scenes.
With written narrative, all we have are words. Contrast this to film, where we can show rich detail through visual imagery. In our hyper-visual culture, we sometimes replace describing feelings with posting a quick picture, because it’s easier.
But in writing, all we have are words. Choosing words and describing the scene, in detail, is what brings someone into your story.
10. Introduce conflict — by using the “bait” method.
Here’s a secret about the human brain: we all like to be smart.
We like to figure things out, and know the answers to things. Whenever we are presented with a puzzle, we like seeing if we can figure it out before someone else does.
In storytelling, a great way to engage your audience is to add a teaser at the beginning.
In storytelling, a great way to engage your audience is to add a teaser at the beginning. By using a little bit of bait, you stoke the curiosity in your listener’s mind. Ira Glass talks about this often, and if you introduce a story with an underlying question (like “the house was eerily dark,” or “it was a different night than any other,”) the listener begins to wonder why it was so dark, or why the night was different.
This “curiosity gap” between a piece of information that asks a question, and the story that resolves the question, helps the reader stay engaged and curious about the story. A little bit of conflict introduces a puzzle to be fixed!
11. Shorter is often better. Keep it simple!
At the end of the day, a story is what you take with you — and we don’t remember every detail of every story, but rather, the highlights vividly.
When you’re presenting your idea, biography, or product, start with something short and sweet.
The idea of an elevator pitch is right, but with a twist. It’s not how much you can cram into 1 or 2 minutes, but how easy you can make something that’s understandable and sticky.
At a conference, if you babble and ramble when introducing yourself to people, they’ll forget most of what you said. If you string it into a story, and you keep it simple, people will be able to take that with you.
You don’t need to get all the perfect information into one sentence; in fact, being imperfect can prompt likability and curiosity!
A quick and easy test for how good your story is is to listen in to what’s being said.
Introduce yourself to someone, and then listen to when they introduce you. I’ll often keep it simple — I focus on writing and swimming. I’ll say, “I work as a writer; I teach writing, and I’m also an open-water swimmer.”
Then, when I’m being introduced, Clay leans over and grabs his friend and says, “You gotta meet Sarah, she’s a swimmer!” — I listen to what people hang on to, and what captivates them.
I can’t possibly capture everything about myself (or my business) in a single sentence. But what I can do is find the most interesting part, and start there.
Conclusions and takeaways: journaling and practice.
What did you take away from this introduction to storytelling?
How can you change your story to make it sweeter, simpler, and easier to understand? Is there anything you’re still curious about? Leave a note in the comments, and I’ll be happy to chat with you.
Here are a few ways to take your work forward in your journal and practice:
Practice: how can you write a one-sentence description of who you are that’s super simple? What three keywords or nouns would you use to describe you? Think of it as a gift to your audience — the less you say, the more they can remember.
Writing exercise: describe your environment, in vivid detail. What is the shape of the space that you are in? What does it smell like, taste like, sound like?
Bookmark 10 great “About” pages that you love and highlight what stands out to you. What techniques and styles are used that you particularly admire?
Take a quick look at your email inbox (but don’t get lost in it!). Take a screenshot of your inbox and print it out. Highlight what’s already been read, and what you’ve skipped. Are there any themes? Look at what you click — which email titles are stories? Which ones are boring? What do you skip over? Your inbox is a great case-study for clues to how storytelling works in your everyday life.
Great storytelling, just like anything else, is a learning journey. The best stand-up comics practice their material dozens (if not hundreds) of times to learn what works best.
And remember: a story is what happens between two people. So get out there, practice your story, and use each experience to get a little bit better.
Do you want to write a great blog post or email in half the time without losing quality – and perhaps even making it better in the procedure?
1: Create an outline. Your outline is your plan, plus it is going to make your entire task easier for 3 reasons:
a) Having a plan diffuses procrastination. When we look at a project our mind tells us it is big – too big. This causes stress, which makes us want to avoid the entire thing. By having a plan, we can break the writing down into manageable, stress-free steps.
b) Having a plan keeps you from wandering off topic. In case you’ve a simple outline to follow, it is just a matter of filling out each section of the outline. But with no plan, you can waste a lot of time writing about things that in the end do not even pertain to your main topic.
c) It makes research super easy. After you have an outline, researching can be as simple as Googling each item in your outline. With no plan, your research can lead you into never-ending time-wasting circles.
2: Once you have got your outline, set it aside for an hour or a day and let it bake in your brain.
By setting it aside, you can let your mind focus on something else. Meanwhile, your subconscious continues to be working on that outline. You will be surprised by what your subconscious gives you. All of a sudden you will realize you left out the most important part, or you also have found a far better way to illustrate your main point.
3: Write every day. Writing, just like anything else, is a skill. The more you do it, the better and faster you’ll get.
Write even when you do not ‘fee’ like it. As Stephen King has said, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration. The rest of us just get up and go to work.”
Or as another writer stated, “I wait for inspiration to strike. Fortunately for me, it strikes every day at 9 am.”
Even in the event you absolutely, positively DON’T want to write, tell yourself you are going to write for just 15 minutes. Then start writing. You can write anything – anything at all – but you need to write. Pretty soon you will be working on your project and wondering why you were feeling such resistance to something you actually enjoy.
4: Use deadlines in your favour. With no deadline, there’s absolutely no stress. With no stress, your brain puts off the task of writing for later. After all, writing takes brain power, effort, thinking and decision-making – things your brain would rather put off until later. Or never.
However, when you’ve a deadline, you’re stressed to get the job done. The closer the deadline, the more stress. To relieve the stress, you have got to get busy. Now your brain is telling you to, “Write right now!”
If self-imposed deadlines work for you, then you certainly know what to do. If not,you’re going to need to find a way to get others to hold you accountable for your deadlines. As an example, telling your blog readers that your next post goes live on Tuesday at 10 am PST should work nicely.
No blog readers yet? Have a friend hold you accountable. Should you not make your deadline, you owe them dinner.
5: Focus on the “feel goods.” Back when I had a regular job, I loved my days off. I especially loved them when I knew well in advance they were coming.
But if I found out that morning that I was not working, then half the joy of having time off was gone. There was no anticipation. No looking forward to that day off. Frankly, I felt ripped off if I did not know I was not working until that same morning.
It’s possible for you to use this knowledge to self-motivate yourself. Think about how great it is going to feel to hit publish or send. Think about closing the file and doing whatever you love as a reward. Think about the accolades you will receive for finishing the project, or the money you will earn, or whatever it is that motivates you to keep working until you are done.
6: Turn off the internet. Some folks, me included, tend to get distracted by the internet. We think we are going to ‘sneak off’ for 5 minutes to check Reddit, and an hour later we still have not gotten back to work.
So whenever possible, just disconnect your wifi. Turn off your cell phone. Remove anything else that tends to distract you. And then go to work.
7: Speed up your typing. In the event that you are not able to type at least 50 words per minute, maybe it is time you improved your typing skills.
It is difficult when your thoughts are coming faster than your fingers can tap them out. However, you’ve options:
– Type faster. There are lots of free and paid courses online that can teach you the way to touch type faster.
– Use a voice to text program for example Dragon Naturally.
– Record yourself and have it transcribed.
Writing by itself is not hard. It is all of the baggage we attach to it that makes it difficult. But if you’re able to imagine writing as simply assembling the pieces to a puzzle, you will do it much better and faster.