Storytelling is a great of building connections with your readers and ideal audience. Like any skill, it takes practice. Our storytelling guide explains more.
Once upon a time, I avoided using stories as part of my non-fiction writing.
I felt like stories were too hard to pull off, they didn't resonate with non-fiction readers, and I didn't have the writing chops to tell a story that mattered. Instead, I leaned heavily on research and interviews.
But my articles and book chapters were dry and bland.
One day, I went to a lecture by the screenwriting guru Robert McKee.
There, he explained:
“He who tells the best story wins.”
He told us storytelling is an art form. The best non-fiction writers use stories as part of their work. It helps writers connect with readers.
And not just novelists.
He called out content marketers, advertisers and non-fiction writers.
I discovered the readers of a well-told story share the emotions of the characters in a story, and they will recall the key points of this story later, far better than any article that's based solely on reason and logic.
I knew I needed to change my approach to storytelling.
Even if you write non-fiction online, incorporating simple stories into your writing will help you communicate a memorable message with readers and even stir up their emotions.
Why Tell Stories?
Stories inform how we make sense of the world, our past experiences, and what the future holds.
They bring people together around a common idea or narrative. Think back to when people gathered around a campfire late at night.
They also stir up emotions in the hearts of a target audience and they remember lessons from the story long after the end.
Stories are also more impactful than facts, figures, logic and reason because they appeal to people's values and beliefs.
What Types of Stories Can You Tell?
It doesn't matter if you're a content marketer, copywriter, poet or novelist. Stories belong in your work.
And you don't need to be Stephen King, Mario Puzo or a great American novelist to use them either.
- If you're a content marketer, tell a story about the brand or include one in a marketing campaign and explain how your company helps a target audience.
- If you're a copywriter, you could tell a story about how a customer used the product you're selling to solve a problem.
- If you're a poet, you could perform spoken word at a recital.
- If you're a podcaster, you could use stories in each podcast episode (oral storytelling has a long tradition and lends itself well to digital media)
- If you're writing a blog post, you could insert a personal story to balance research, recommendations and information.
- If you're delivering a presentation, you could open with a short story related to the topic at hand.
- If you're a business leader, you could tell a story about how you or your company overcame a big professional challenge (great leaders are comfortable displaying vulnerability).
Step 1: Decide What Type of Story You're Telling
Each genre has conventions that storytellers must follow.
A good story achieves at least one of several things.
- It's entertaining. The target audience enjoys hearing, watching or consuming it.
- It's inspiring. People feel motivated to act after the end,
- It's educational. We come away from the story knowing more about a topic or issue.
- It's universal. Although a story may speak to a specific audience, niche or geography, anyone can follow it.
- It's organized. A good story follows a certain framework like the hero's journey.
Step 2: Identify Your Target Audience
Every great story is created for someone. Who is your ideal target audience? What are their:
Understanding this information up front will help you figure out how to deliver your message. If in doubt, survey or interview them.
Step 3: Select the Medium
Thanks to digital storytelling tools, it's easier than ever to mix and match various formats. You could:
- Create a video series on YouTube
- Record a series of podcasts episodes
- Publish several blog posts on a topic
- Create customer testimonials
- Record a short film
- Write and self-publish a book
- Perform your story in front of an audience and record it
It's even possible to take material from one format and remix it for another.
Step 4: Establish Your Central Character
In every great story, a central character or hero goes on a journey or an adventure.
For example in the film Star Wars, Luke Skywalker is the primary character.
He is called to adventure by Obi-Wan Kenobi to rescue Princess Leia and defeat an evil empire.
He's a character we can empathise with. You don't need to love science fiction either to understand Luke's arc in this film.
To tell the story of how I learnt to write 1,000 words day, I could present myself or my reader as the main character. In this case, I picked myself.
For B2B storytellers, copywriters and advertisers, the central character is typically the target audience.
Step 5: Give Your Character a Problem
Now that you've chosen the hero or central character ask: “What is he or she struggling with right now?”
In Star Wars, Luke struggles to escape his home planet after Darth Vadar's troopers kill his aunt and uncle.
In the book and film The Godfather by Mario Puzo, Michael Corleone struggles with his family and the direction of his life after his uncle Don Corleone is shot and his mafia family begins to fall apart.
If you're telling a non-fiction story, describe in a few sentences a problem that you have or one that you know your readers have.
While telling the story of how I learnt to write 1,000 words a day , I wrote about my inability to finish a book.
I didn't increase my daily word count, I would never have anything to publish.
And a writer who can't finish and publish his book has a serious problem.
If you're a content marketer, you could:
- Write about a pain-point customers have like their tax returns
- Paint a picture via video and audio of your ideal audience struggling to understand a part of their business
Step 6: Your Character Meets a Guide
Next, the hero or central character of your story must meet someone who listens to and understands their problems.
This guide should empathise rather than sympathise with the central character of your story and even help them.
In Star Wars, Luke meets Obi-Wan Kenobi who then explains to Luke how he can escape his ordinary life and go on an adventure to rescue a princess.
If you're writing non-fiction, you can present yourself as a guide that understands your reader's problems, or you can write about someone who helped you.
It's easy to present yourself as a guide if you use language familiar to your readers and if you use words like “you” rather than “I”.
For example, I committed to writing 1,000 words a day after Stephen King explained what he does in his book On Writing.
“I like to get ten pages a day, which amounts to 2,000 words. That's 180,000 words over a three-month span, a goodish length for a book – something in which the reader can get happily lost, if the tale is done well and stays fresh.”
Later, King empathised with the distractions new writers face and argued they (me) should aim for at least 1,000 words a day.
For B2B storytellers, your company or its product represents the guide,
Step 7: The Guide Gives Your Character a Plan
The guide's role in your story is to help the hero overcome the problem you identified previously.
In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi helps Luke leave his home planet, find the force and ultimately defeat Darth Vadar.
If you're writing non-fiction, you can give your reader a plan for overcoming their problem by acting as a guide and explaining what they need to do next.
Alternatively, you can write about how someone you met helped you overcome this problem and explain that your readers can do the same.
In my case, I explained how Stephen King gave me a plan: I must write 1,000 words a day every day by eliminating other distractions.
“So okay- there you are in your room with the shade down and the door shut and the plug pulled out of the base of the telephone. You've blown up your TV and committed yourself to a thousand words a day, come hell or high water. Now comes the big question: What are you going to write about? And the equally big answer: Anything you damn well want.”
For B2B storytellers, your company or its product represents the offer.
Step 8 The Guide Calls Your Character To Adventure
Every great story has a moment of crisis where the main character must decide: will I or won't I?
In The Godfather , Michael must decide will he turn his back on his family and a life of crime?
Or will he leave his old life behind him and avenge the attempted murder of his uncle by killing a corrupt policeman?
If you're writing non-fiction, you can call your reader to adventure by asking them to pursue something they desire.
This could be:
- Writing 1,000 words a day
- Publishing a book
- Starting a popular blog
In my case, I explained that after I started writing 1,000 words a day, I ran out of things to write about and had to consider where I was going.
For B2B storytellers, your company or its product represents the call-to-action e.g. buy now, subscribe.
Step 9: Identify What's At Stake
Every successful story contains a moment of crisis within which the story's core value(s) is stake.
In the Godfather, Michael knows his family will be destroyed if he doesn't act and protect them.
However, he also knows he risks his soul if he murders another man in cold blood to protect his family.
The core values here are family and ethics.
If you're writing non-fiction, you can identify what's at stake by explaining what the reader will gain or lose if they take action.
To write 1,000 words every day, I had to give up or cut back on other activities like television and social events (what I stand to lose).
If didn't give these things up and write 1,000 words every , then I would never write a book (what's at stake).
The core values here are immediate gratification and ambition.
If you're a copywriting telling a story, you could:
- Show how a product will save the reader money or time
- Reveal a hidden benefit that only customers of this product get if they act now
- Demonstrate the before and after transformation via pictures or videos e.g. think testimonials from happy clients of a personal trainer
Step 10: Let Your Character Choose
Your central character's decision must have consequences if you want your story to sound compelling.
In Star Wars, Luke must decide if he wants to take his place next to his father and join the Dark Side or reject his father.
He chooses the latter and as a consequence, he sacrifices himself by jumping to his death (only be rescued last minute by his friends).
In The Godfather, Michael chooses to protect his family by killing a policeman in cold blood.
As a consequence, he must go into hiding in Italy and eventually return and assume his place as head of a powerful crime family.
When I started writing 1,000 words a day , I quickly discovered I didn't have an audience for my work and that I would never improve as a writer without an audience. This new knowledge set me on the path towards blogging.
Tip: Start at the End and Write Backwards Before you write your story, think about how it ends.
Why? It's easier to tell a story when you know exactly what happened and how things turned out.
This means doing the following:
- Define your target audience
- Identify what your audience needs
- Pick a problem they have
Many successful non-fiction writers figure out who they are writing for and what they want to say before they put pen to paper i.e. they pitch their idea to an editor before they write it.
Before writing my story of how I learnt to write 1,000 words a day, I identified my target audience as other new writers who wanted to do the same and those who were curious about my journey.
I knew some of these writers and bloggers were interested because they'd emailed me and asked how they can write more frequently.
Storytelling: The Most Powerful Weapon at Your Disposal
It's not as difficult as it sounds to tell a story as part of your non-fiction writing, and it will help you win the hearts and minds of readers.
All it takes is some practice and a little knowledge of what a good story involves.
I used Star Wars and The Godfather as examples because they're fantastic stories that anyone can relate to.
I included my story to show you that you don't need to be George Lucas or Mario Puzo to incorporate storytelling into your work.
If you're still struggling with the art of storytelling, I recommend reading Robert McKee's book Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.
If your story is genuine and honest, you will impact your readers more than through cold logic and reason.
Storytelling Guide Resources
The below presentation explains how to tell simple stories as per the Pixar framework.
Also, check out our guide to the hero's journey.
Storytelling Guide: FAQs
What is the objective of storytelling?
Storytelling should inform, educate, entertain or inspire readers. A good story is universal and memorable. It speaks to the human experience and rises up some emotion in the audience.
What are the benefits of storytelling?
A good story is more memorable than facts, figures and logic. For example, if you're a content marketer, a story may cause your audience to feel loyal to a brand and even buy a product or a service.
What are examples of stories?
Popular examples of stories include Star Wars, The Godfather, Game of Thrones and Finding Nemo. Other examples of stories include poems, the spoken word and even fairy tales.
[Interview] Gaming, Digital Storytelling and Creative Projects With John Romero
In a now-famous essay, Y Combinator co-founder Paul Graham argued for dividing a working day up into maker and manager time.
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In this podcast episode, Romero explains:
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And lots more
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