Part 1—How to Be a Good Storyteller: What Brands Can Learn from Songwriters
Storytelling Content Creation

Part 1—How to Be a Good Storyteller: What Brands Can Learn from Songwriters

Storytelling is everywhere—in subways and seminars, office hallways and concert halls. It is foundational to humanity, its core elements—character and conflict—found in all storytelling mediums.

Content creators who study and engage the best storytellers across the arts, entertainment, and media spaces will tell amazing stories, bringing the most personal form of communication into the business world. Those who don’t take the time to learn how to tell stories will miss out on a huge opportunity to connect with people—one that has existed for thousands of years.

This is part one of a series about how to be a good storyteller in which we will feature storytellers from various art and entertainment spaces: music, photography, and video. In this post, we start by drawing on the expertise of songwriters, going straight to the source by sharing insight and content creation tips from eight songwriters on what makes good storytelling.

Marketers and storytellers: Get your notebooks out.

David Pack of Rock Band AmbrosiaDavid Pack: Find the “Meaning Beyond”

David Pack is the co-founder of rock band Ambrosia and a Grammy-winning producer who has worked with Phil Collins, Aretha Franklin, and many other songwriters and musicians. For Pack, great songs and stories both transcend their initial impact on the consumer. They leave the person with a sense of meaning that amounts to much more than the individual pieces that were strung together to complete the story.

“There has to be a touch of ‘magic’ or ‘fairy dust’—something that conveys a much broader sense than just the words and melody fitting together…like standing back from a painting and seeing something you couldn’t understand close up. Like a hidden language that is telling you something even beyond the words and melody and rhythms. ‘The meaning beyond,’ if you will.”

How can brand storytellers reach “the meaning beyond?” Don’t fill in all the gaps.

Stories, for entertainment or business, should leave the consumer with a feeling of wanting more—wanting the story to continue. How many books have you read or movies have you watched where you’ve experienced an intense feeling of wanting more? These are the stories that continue to unravel in our minds long after the final credit has rolled, the closing chord struck, or the last word spoken.

There isn’t one formula for telling a meaningful, lasting story that simmers in our minds. But there is one primary element that stories need to succeed in doing so, and it needs to be executed with precision: namely, consumers need to care about the character(s) and how they react to forces of antagonism pressed upon them throughout the story. How do they change? What risks do they take to try and overcome their conflict? And finally, how do they resolve their struggle? Do they succeed?

Identify your characters’ evolution, and be able to synopsize it in a paragraph. It may not always be clear-cut, but practicing writing it down and vocalizing it will help you discover if there are any gaps in character development.

Dave Munro of Air Traffic ControllerAir Traffic Controller: Find Your Personal Soundtrack

Similar to songwriters, brand storytellers can draw from their lives and use a personal narrative to connect with audiences, especially if the person doing the talking (or singing) has a strong voice.

Former Navy air traffic controller Dave Munro, now frontman for pop-rock group Air Traffic Controller, lets personal experience influence each of his songs.

“Like many songwriters, all of my songs stem from personal experiences. The music is my own story, each song like a page or a chapter in a book. Telling my own story and then seeing others relate to it, seeing it matter to them, is the whole reason I keep doing this. I’m not changing the world, but affecting how someone is feeling for a moment, through music, is extremely rewarding. When people hear a song and connect, they can either put themselves in the shoes of the storyteller, or they can think of their own life story and allow the music to be their own personal soundtrack. This connection we are able to make is what I find most compelling.”

Of course, using the first person voice won’t work for every brand story—but it will lend you power of vulnerability. You, the protagonist, expose an experience that the audience will apply to their own lives upon hearing it. Or, at least, they can imagine what it would be like.

Alexa Morales - Photo by Tom EhrlichAlexa Weber Morales: Set the Scene and Conflict

Singer-songwriter and world jazz/salsa artist Alexa Weber Morales (Grammy winner with Pacific Mambo Orchestra) emphasizes establishing the scene early on in songs and stories as a way of pulling the listener into the narrative.

“I try to hook the listener in with a sense of place or situation. For instance, in my song “I Wanna Work for You,” about being laid off and out of work, I started with the emotional urgency of the situation.”

Grounding the reader in scene is important because it gives the consumer a framework within which to imagine your character meeting conflict. This is true for all types of media used to tell brand stories. It could be GoPro’s video of firemen saving a kitten from a burned down home, or blog posts of stories that started in rented Airbnb apartments.

Wherever it is, make sure you can clearly describe the setting in which your brand story takes place.

Joshua Hyslop MusicJoshua Hyslop: Uncover the Truth

Lies sting.

Fewer things are more off-putting than being lied to—directly or indirectly. You can probably recall at least a few instances of being lied to. While we try our best to forgive and forget, we wear deception like scars—fading but never completely erased.

For singer-songwriter Joshua Hyslop, currently on tour with Vanessa Carlton, truth takes center stage in story.

“I think truth is compelling. That doesn’t mean that every song has to be absolutely true, or 100 percent autobiographical, but I think there needs to be an aspect of truth in every story.”

In his song “Do Not Let Me Go,” Hyslop recalls the time when he was traveling in India and led out to the desert to die by a gang who was working in tandem with corrupt management of the hotel where he was staying. He explains:

The best way to convey truth is to become familiar with the stories you’re telling: Turn theory into practice. Use the products. Meet the people who create the products and learn from them their expertise. Are you writing stories for a coffee producer? Drink the coffee. Interview the roasters. Tour the facility. Talk to the brand’s loyalists; talk to people who hate it. Glean as many perspectives as you can to uncover the truth and familiarize yourself with people’s stories involved with the brand.

And when something doesn’t go as planned, remember what novelist Philip Roth once said: “Nothing bad can happen to a writer. Everything is material.”

Jess DomainJess Domain/Emily Hecht: Accent the Little Stuff

We’re all overdosing on bland content. Tired stories told half-heartedly, songs we’ve heard a thousand times, movies that are cheap remakes of older films. Details, specificity, and originality take a backseat to a need to produce—quickly, constantly—in the modern media whirlwind.

However, it is exactly detail, specificity, and originality that make stories memorable and worth retelling.

“A small detail is never lost on a good songwriter, it’s accented, celebrated, and put in harmony,” says New York City musician Jess Domain, winner of the 2008 ASCAPLUS Songwriter Award.

Emily Hecht - Photo by Loren WohlJust as a musician would stress a lyric, hold a note, or syncopate the bridge section of a song to shake things up, content creators should dig into the details of their story, toss aside bland generalities or rehashes of already-published material, and highlight what it is that’s unique. Double-down on that original thought and construct your narrative around it. Take a fresh point of view and assert your position confidently. Let a few specific details or pieces of data guide your story. As New York City-based singer Emily Hecht says, “Good storytelling in any format comes from specificity—you actually connect with more people by telling your own story, with all the odd details, than by trying to tell every story at once to appeal to some imaginary crowd.”

What are these details revealing? How can you shape your story around them?

Ed Roman: Examine the Past to Frame the Future

Those that fail to learn from history…well, you know how the saying goes.

Musician Ed RomanContextualizing your story in history—recent or not—does more than ground the audience. It establishes you as a credible, knowledgeable source of information. You remind your audience that you are a reliable narrator. Canadian singer-songwriter Ed Roman recognizes this storytelling technique as common among the best practitioners.

“[Storytellers] have a wonderful affiliation for the past. As they themselves listened to stories in their early beginnings, storytellers follow the path of detailed framework that helps them look hard at life and love it in all of its charm and disgust.”

What does this mean specifically for brand storytellers? Do your research, and apply it your work. If you’re writing a story for Ford about car safety, study the progression of safety standards throughout the decades. If you’re writing for an alcoholic beverage company about its collection of spirits, take note of when it introduced each drink into the marketplace, and find out what its competition was doing at the time. Always do more research than needed.

Bleu: Brevity and Complexity Aren’t Contradictory

As online content gets shorter and attention spans shrink, our patience for digesting complex issues diminishes. That makes the digital storyteller’s job hard. How can we possibly do justice to complicated social issues and intricate business problems in the limited space public patience has allotted? How do we reconcile a dwindling capacity for comprehensiveness with the responsibility to tell the full story?

Be concise.

Bleu - Photo Courtesy of Speck ManagementFor Bleu, singer-songwriter and co-writer for acts like the Jonas Brothers and Selena Gomez, brevity and complexity can work together.

“Unlike almost every other medium (including film and television now) we very rarely rewind songs in the middle to see what we missed. Although it often sounds easy, it is actually very difficult to make even a simple story understood in just a few minutes, all-the-while being entertaining, and in the best cases, expressing complex feelings. It’s a balancing act that very rarely succeeds, but it’s one of the greatest joys when it does.”

Here are a couple tips for creating comprehensive stories while working with limitations.

  • Break your story into series installments. Not only will you satisfy those who don’t have time to read, watch, or listen to a lengthy work, but you will create suspense as well as enhance SEO by linking back to previous series segments.
  • Don’t discuss everything. Find one or two specific angles within the broader story, and acknowledge the breadth of the issue (but stay focused on your specific points).

Learning How to Be a Good Storyteller

Good storytellers compress event and understanding, wrap emotion into experience, and incite empathy in their audience. They take complex subjects and present them in understandable, relatable ways. They draw from the past to shine light on the future, while paying special attention to details and specificity. They stay close to the truth, whatever form that takes. Pretty easy, huh?

Take the time to study story and those that create them professionally, and always try to answer the queston, why does this work?

Good storytellers are all around us. Sometimes, we just have to listen.

Want more content creation tips? Subscribe to the Content Standard Newsletter And stay tuned for the next series installment, “How to Be a Good Storyteller: What Brands Can Learn from Photographers.”

Featured image attribution: Gavin Whitner

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Managing editor of the Content Standard, writer at Monster, Sound of Boston, Trill, and others. Hip-hop producer.

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