In your quest to conquer a content marketing assignment, it might seem impossible to service the call for storytelling. Stories have moving parts and pieces, action, turning points, characters—and your primary focus is writing a compelling piece that moves the brand’s audience to action.
As creative writers and journalists enter the content marketing industry with storytelling techniques in tow, traditional writing advice like “Show, don’t tell” has made the journey, too. No doubt, it’s still a clichéd recommendation; outright “telling” takes less space on the page and is to the point. But which of the following samples sentences is more interesting for you to read?
Fiction, journalism, brand storytelling—whichever genre you’re talking about, “showing” is worth the extra words when you’re offering readers something new, allowing them to visualize the scene. Showing not only trusts the audience to imagine their own outcomes, it also connects readers to the content on a more penetrative level that, hopefully, will follow them beyond the end of the article—into their Twitter feeds, their group chats, their office lunchrooms, and beyond.
There’s a reason the six-word story “For sale: Baby shoes, never worn” (allegedly written by Hemingway) elicits the reactions it does, regardless of its origin. The reader must cooperate with the larger story illustrated within, beneath, and around what’s given to them. A smattering of colorful words isn’t the goal, but rather a crafting of impactful words that create an experience for the reader. On a micro level, certain word choices can elevate a story in ways that make it vivid, rather than verbose. What details will make the story sharper, and which will weigh it down?
Love him or hate him, American novelist and freelance journalist Chuck Palahniuk’s advice about “thought” verbs and other words you should avoid when writing hold water; because thinking is abstract, you will always better engage an audience if you opt to show the physical details and actions and allow the reader to do the knowing.
In the wide world of storytelling techniques, this one can make a big difference: While writing your next assignment, try an exercise in avoiding words like “believes,” “understands,” “remembers,” “desires,” or “imagines.” To give the Sparknotes: No more shortcuts.
Consider the keyword “emergency action plan.” Rather than:
The employee understood what to do next, as outlined in the emergency action plan.
With the emergency action plan fresh in his mind, he quickly evacuated coworkers and secured the facility to prevent further damage.
The keyword remains in play, but the character is more active, the scene better set, and the tension outlined in the right amount of relevant detail. All it took was the allowance of a few more words. These storytelling techniques present the details that allow your reader to know, so they want without being told to want, so they feel without being asked to feel.
This is easy advice to follow for novel writing. But when it comes to content marketing, where word limits are tight and writers must adhere to brand voice and tone, is there really room to “show?”
If you follow Palahniuk beyond his words to avoid, you’ll likely find yourself several hundred words over your limit with extraneous details and colorful adjectives. But the truth is, when writing with brand mission in mind, you have all the more reason to unpack the story rather than rely on shortcuts.
Look through your assignment and find where you’re outright telling a reader something they should take as fact, like the first “emergency action plan” keyword example above. Often where thought verbs linger, you’ll find what can be considered a thesis for what’s to follow. Even if the details were to unfold right after that sentence, you’ll use less space (and won’t risk redundancy) if you delete your thesis entirely and use that valuable time and space to illustrate your point.
Avoiding thought verbs opens the door for more vivid details, but how can you tell a story in the sphere of your assignment if your audiences clicked on an article for one specific thing? For example, “How to Prepare Employees for an Office Emergency.”
Using vivid language to show is not incompatible with “how to” or “tell-oriented” articles. Storytelling techniques resonate with audiences of all kinds, in any industry, through any content format, because the power of vivid language is universally compelling. By telling a story that paints a picture for the reader, through relatable anecdotes or thought-provoking “what-ifs,” you’re already doing what others in the field aren’t—simply because you’re creating rather than relaying. There’s already plenty of relaying out there—no need to add to the pile.
Staying on the cutting-edge of your industry is integral to not only gathering an audience (for yourself and your client) but continuing to grow that audience with effective content that keeps them coming back (and bringing their peers). Originality cannot be understated; an effective content marketing story has several key elements, but to stand out in readers’ minds will require vivid language that does more than make the point—it must also bring the impact of experience.