I took several creating writing courses back in junior high and high school. For a while, as a teen, I even considered pursuing a career as a novelist—until I did some research and realized that the probability of becoming a best-selling fiction author is on par with the odds of winning the lottery. While being attacked by a shark. And struck by lightning. Simultaneously. Twice.
So I went into engineering instead. But my love of writing and storytelling eventually drew me into marketing and PR, where I could bring true customer stories to life and help people understand the transformative potential of technology.
As it turns out, many of the elements of storytelling apply to writing customer stories, new releases, blog posts and other marketing content as well. A customer story or news release shouldn’t read exactly like a novel or movie script of course, but keeping in mind the elements of proper storytelling can help add life and draw readers in to your PR and social media marketing “stories.”
Setting: creating the context or setting the scene is the essential first step in storytelling. Almost everyone of a certain age can identify, verbatim, the setting for Star Wars (“A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”). A fictional story can be set in any place or time. A social business story, however, is always set in the present, the very recent past, or just slightly in the future, and always in your customers’ world—though the setting changes slightly for the different buyers of your product or service (e.g., the C-level, finance, technology or business buyer).
Protagonist: the hero of the story; in fiction, this can be a person, a group, an animal or even a thing. In a social business story, the hero is always your buyer, or in the case of a customer story, an existing customer whom you buyers can relate to.
Antagonist: the villain, the enemy, the bad guy; again, in fiction, the antagonist can take a wide variety of forms, from a person or group to an apparition, an object, the weather, or a monster. In a social business story, the antagonist is often a business problem (excessive costs, low or declining sales, inefficient processes, unhappy customers) but can, effectively, also be more personal (low compensation or recognition, long/late hours at the office, excessive travel, lack of advancement).
Conflict: a key element of plot, conflict is what draws us into a story, makes us wonder what will happen next, the source of suspense or uncertainty; it’s what creates the dramatic tension that makes a story interesting. Suppose someone were to write a story along the lines of: “Fred woke up one morning, then a bunch of good things happened to him, then he went to bed and thought about what a good day it had been.” That’s all fine and good for Fred, but it’s not much of a story. There’s no suspense, no mystery, no wonder, nothing to interest us. Too often, marketing materials are written that way: “blah, blah, our product, blah, features, blah, benefits…” As with Fred, that’s nice for the product or service in question, but not terribly interesting. When writing a news release, blog post or other content, ask yourself—what’s the “hook” that will draw readers in and make them care?
Plot twists: an unexpected turn of events, a surprisingly revelation about a key character, an unforeseen obstacle—these are often what set a good story apart from a great one. Business stories often have plot twists too: a budget cut, the loss of a key customer, an unexpected move by a supplier or competitor, a change in the market landscape, or other events that the alter the course of, complicate, or add urgency to a story.
Resolution: the hero triumphs, the smoke clears, the alien flies off back into space, the bad guy gets what he had coming, the boy gets the girl (or vice versa)—basically, the conflict is resolved and the dramatic tension is eased. How does your product or service help the hero (your customer) to emerge victorious, in a believable manner?
Denouement: the wind-down, the epilogue, the final resolution, the hero riding off into the sunset, the happy ending. In social business writing, this is where you explain how your customer/hero’s life ends up better than before, how their situation is improved, how their world is changed by what you provide.
Obviously, that’s not to say you should literally write a business story like a novel—that would be cheesy—but rather that business writing can be enlivened and inspired by considering the story elements of great fiction.
And don’t be formulaic; stories that are formulaic (Halloween) can degenerate into ironic, self-aware imitations (Scream) and then into parodic farce (Scary Movie). Don’t let your business stories turn into Scary Movie. Be original! But consider incorporating the elements of classic fiction to add life to your PR and social business stories.