What storytelling techniques landed this year's hottest directors and screenwriters on the short list for the Oscars?
Creativity Creative Thinking

Storytelling Techniques from 2016 Oscar Nominees—What Content Marketers Can Learn


It’s that time of year when Hollywood’s most talented actors, directors, and writers come together to celebrate the power of storytelling at the Academy Awards. This Sunday, they’ll be all glammed up for the red carpet walk, looking more like runway models than master storytellers, but these are people from whom modern marketers can learn a thing or two.

What do Hollywood types know about content marketing? That’s exactly what Academy-Award-winning actor Kevin Spacey asked when he was invited to give the closing keynote at Content Marketing World 2014.

But the folks at Content Marketing Institute knew exactly what they were doing when they asked him to speak. Actors, directors, and screenwriters have been bringing compelling stories to life for far longer than marketers have. Until fairly recently, most marketers were basically advertisers whose assignments had higher word counts. Now we are tasked with a much more challenging—and more fun—job: to tell great stories.

And where better to turn for storytelling techniques and inspiration than to books, plays, and movies—and the people who know how to make great ones?

Spacey won over the roomful of content marketers with his speech about the most important elements of storytelling and why we must embrace our relatively-newfound role as brand storytellers. As he put it:

The most important element of any story—the audience. The device and the length are irrelevant to the story, which is a central concept that content marketing has embraced more than anyone. It’s no longer about who you know or how much you can afford, but what you can do. And audiences have spoken. They want stories. They’re dying for them. They’re rooting for us to give them the right thing. And they will talk about it; binge on it; carry it with them to the bus and to the hairdresser; force it on their friends; tweet, blog, Facebook, make fan pages and silly gifs, and God knows what else about it; engage with it with a passion and an intimacy that a blockbuster movie could only dream of, and all we have to do is give it to them.

Of course, “giving it to them” isn’t exactly easy. It takes time, creative thinking, and some solid storytelling techniques to craft content that makes an emotional connection with audiences and drives the social media traffic Spacey describes.

With this in mind, let’s turn to some of this year’s Oscar nominees. What are their best tips for crafting award-winning stories?

Bridge of Spies MovieJoel and Ethan Coen, Bridge of Spies

The Coen brothers have each been nominated for more than a dozen Oscars and have won four, both for screenplay writing and directing. Their latest film, Bridge of Spies, is up for a number of awards, including “Best Picture” and “Writing (Original Screenplay).”

The secret to their storytelling success: taking naps.

When NPR’s Terry Gross asked how they write their scripts, Ethan admitted, “It’s mostly napping.” His brother Joel followed up: “We go to the office, we’re there, we’re in a room together. We take naps, but you know, the important thing is that we’re at the office, should we be inspired to actually write something.”

An answer like that might make writer/director duo seem like slackers, but their their prolific filmography suggests otherwise. And so does scientific research into the importance of sleep for creative thinking. For example, a 2010 study found that napping enabled participants to improve their scores on creativity-oriented word problems by 40 percent.

The lesson for content marketers (and their bosses): A short nap might be just what team members need to combat writer’s block and tell better stories.

Inside Out Movie PosterPete Docter, Inside Out

Pixar’s 10th employee, writer/director Pete Docter, already has one Oscar under his belt for Up. This year, he’s nominated for two more—”Best Animated Feature Film” and “Writing (Original Screenplay”—for his film Inside Out, the story of a young girl and the various emotions that drive her as she adjusts to life in a new city.

His secret to storytelling success: making an emotional connection.

As he told Spook magazine:

[In regards to scriptwriting “rules”], I like to read those rules and forget them, then dive in and go with my gut. I don’t think anyone has ever told a story, or least I haven’t, that’s been born out of rules and list making. It’s always something more fundamental and emotionally driven. Those rules are great benchmarks and guidelines if and when you’re lost.

The lesson for content marketers: At a time when brand marketing is quickly evolving, there are no right answers or hard-and-fast rules for how to make emotional connections with our audiences. Now more than ever, we must dig a little deeper, get a little personal, trust our voices, and take some risks in order to stand out from the competition and tell stories that are worth sharing.

The Revenant Movie PosterAlejandro González Iñárritu, The Revenant

Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu cleaned up at last year’s Academy Awards, taking home Oscars for writing and directing Birdman, as well as the “Best Motion Picture” statue. This year, he’s again in the running for best film and best director with The Revenant.

His secret to storytelling success: getting feedback while being true to his vision.

He explained this delicate balance between collaboration and trusting his own voice to Final Draft:

I need to spit stupid things [out] to be transformed into great things, or receive stupid [things] so that I can make [them] great. So, I have found that collaboration [is key]…obviously if everything comes from the right place and there is affection and there is a point of view to share, there’s a joy of being together…I know what I want to say. I think that as a director at the end, you will drive that car. You have to know what [kind of] car you need. So, you have to be very clear on what you are looking for because it’s easy to get lost…If you are clear in that, I don’t think you lose your voice. I think you enhance your possibilities of your voice.

The lesson for content marketers: Feedback loops are an important part of the storytelling process, giving us the benefit of fresh perspectives when we get stuck or when we’re too mired in the details of our stories to clearly see the big picture. On the other hand, when there are too many cooks in the kitchen, great stories can get watered down or pulled in too many directions to be powerful. That’s why we need other talented marketers in our corner, who can provide input when we need it but also trust us to do our own thing.

Carol Movie PosterPhyllis Nagy, Carol

A newcomer to the Academy Awards, Phyllis Nagy is nominated in the “Writing (Adapted Screenplay)” category for Carol, a film about a lesbian relationship in the 1950s.

Her secret to storytelling success: relying on subtlety and subtext.

In a Backstage interview, she explained, “For me, the use of subtext—especially in dialogue—is really the basis of any good dramatic writing. The typical overexplication of things does not interest me.”

She elaborated on this point when talking to Creative Screenwriting Magazine:

For most young screenwriters—and this is true of me, too—there’s a difference between writing a screenplay in your room, and writing a screenplay that somebody will want to produce. Sometimes differences are really subtle, but it’s about your visual acuity, and your lack of interest in what I like to call, “show me, look at me” writing, which tends to be a sort of hyper-verbal, gymnastic trampoline act. Which is really not very interesting, because nobody really likes to hear people be that clever.

The lesson for content marketers: Brand storytelling isn’t about telling audiences what to think or what to buy; it’s about engaging them with compelling and subtle content. Trust your audience to make connections between your story and your brand. They’re smart enough to connect the dots without a hard sell.

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