If you have been a content marketer for a while, you know many buzzwords are thrown around haphazardly in conversations and materials. One of those is the endless pursuit brands have with being considered a great storyteller. On the surface level, this seems like an admirable — and reasonable — expectation. After all, every company has its own founding story, operating principles, and guiding values, and they want to ensure that it’s communicated effectively to each client or customer. And for those who are concerned about the lifecycle of their leads and their base, storytelling can be a captivating and effective way to keep audiences engaged.
However, as with most parts of marketing, storytelling can be complicated and create messy, confusing content if not strategized specifically to each goal and purpose. All too often, companies try a little too hard and end up losing the attention and admiration of their fans.
If you ask experts, these mistakes happen because there are so many widespread beliefs about storytelling that simply aren’t true — and frankly, don’t work. In an effort to better understand how to use the practice and talent of storytelling in a beneficial way, we spoke with those who do it best. As content marketers develop gameplans for their current clients, and set lofty goals for growing their businesses, having a firm understanding of storytelling is essential. This guide can be a jumping-off point that fundamentally shifts how you write — and how that content not only serves but surpasses the needs of your clients.
6 storytelling myths in marketing
Below, we cover the most common myths about storytelling, along with expert-guided insight on how to actually use storytelling in copy. This includes:
- How to write clear, poignant storytelling copy.
- How to determine, conceptualize and execute the right type of story for every type of brand.
- How (and why) to stop using ‘being different’ as the main crutch and central plotline for all storytelling methods.
- How to convince clients of the value of taking time to craft storytelling methods, rather than jumping the gun.
- How a picture-perfect, cookie-cutter story won’t move the metrics or attract large fan bases.
- How to cut back on the amount of content you deliver, and instead, invest efforts into quality content.
Myth: Storytelling is about what you say and how you say it.
Truth: Storytelling is about what you don’t say. It’s about relentlessly removing extraneous words and phrases.
During my junior year in college, I worked for the campus newspaper. Though I was a mid-level senior editor, I reported to an executive editor who was given the final approval before printing. After a few weeks of receiving my copy, he pulled me aside and complimented my work, but made one suggestion that’s stuck with me for more than 15 years: “Do a search of all copy for ‘that,’ and in most cases, you’ll realize you don’t need the word at all.”
Guess what? He was right. And there are plenty of additional phrases and words that aren’t necessary at all. Now, without fail, I never submit a story without combing through the sentences, figuring out where I can improve flow and sequences. In storytelling, many people believe the power is found in what you say and how you say it, but as marketing expert and co-founder of Questus, Jeff Rosenblum, reminds, it’s actually quite the opposite. Those who are the best in attracting and keeping attention do it concisely.
Why is it better to have a few stand-out paragraphs rather than a novel in your newsletter? If you ask Rosenblum, it comes down to our DNA.
As he explains, the human brain was built over millions of years to filter out threats. While in the beginning, the grandiose fear was woolly mammoths, in today’s ever-digital landscape, we inherently fight against wasted time and energy.
“People are exposed to more content than ever before. It would be impossible for any human being to fully process every bit of information that he or she is exposed to. So the human brain continuously filters out unnecessary information.”
In fact, sections of the inner brain — like the amygdala — determine if the information is needed or is a threat. If it’s actually useful information, then the prefrontal cortex, where decisions are made, is activated, he explains. The goal of any storyteller should be getting on that cortex’s radar.
“The best storytellers aren’t simply trying to add drama and emotion to their information. They work like comedians to strip out extraneous words and get to the punchline as quickly as possible,” he adds.
The myth: Being ‘different’ is enough to propel your brand story into the hearts and minds of your target audience.
The truth: Having a differentiated brand story is important, but it’s not the secret sauce.
It may be a popular storyline for nearly every rom-com out there, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best tool for storytelling marketing. In fact, it’s not the aloof wallflower type of brand that creates a movement or becomes a billion-dollar company. Being ‘different’ should never be the crux of a story, or the central theme that a business relies on in their marketing. How come? Every competitor will claim they are unique, so the message doesn’t add anything to the conversation. And it doesn’t propel them to take action.
As Denise Blasevick, a marketing professional and CEO and co-founder of The S3 Agency explains, having a feature or offering that sets you apart is excellent. But how you communicate that in your storytelling efforts is more critical.
She says a differentiation must meet these three criteria:
- Authentic to the brand
- Sustainable for the brand
- Meaningfully relevant to your target audience
One solid example is REI, which has made a movement with its strong anti-Black Friday stance for years. Instead, they encourage employees and customers to spend time with those they love in the great outdoors, rather than shopping the day following Thanksgiving. Since 2015, they’ve closed all of their 167 store locations, call, activity and distribution centers, and their headquarters, giving everyone paid time off. This is an effective storytelling practice since it’s authentic to the outdoor retailer brand, they can afford to do it, and their customers care about being part of Mother Nature.
As you help clients come up with their own campaigns, Blasevick challenges content marketers to think of it as a storybook. There are endless ones on bookshelves, but the authors who keep you coming back are the ones who deliver about topics that matter and interest you. They don’t let you down, so you keep picking up their latest.
“When crafting your brand story, make sure it’s got enough content to go the long haul — for book after book, not a one-time read,” she shares. “If you’re looking to create rabid fans, you need to deliver on the promise that you are creating.”
Myth: Every company has a story to tell.
Truth: Every company wants to tell stories but is not effective in doing it.
We have all been on a client call, with a passionate founder who is thrilled to share her personal story and how it led her to create her brand. But as you listen to her go through the various stages, you can’t help but stress about how you’re going to make it relatable to the general public.
This is, in essence, one of the greatest misconceptions about storytelling, according to Michael Shmarak, president of POETIQ/Sidney Maxwell Public Relations. As he puts it, too often, a brand’s stories don’t have meaning to anyone outside of the company. And perhaps more to the point, they are basically regurgitated brand messages that feel good when executives read them but don’t serve their intended purpose or meet goal objectives.
Another way brands and content marketers miss the mark with storytelling is to explain why a story matters instead of focusing on what the story is about. For instance, consider a female founder who started her business in a male-dominated field after she was laid off during a round of financial cuts. Determined to make her own path and to carve out a runway for other women to follow, she decided to open her doors and invest in herself.
Rather than explaining why equality matters in the workforce, Shmarak says it’s smarter to immerse the reader into the founder’s story since they may be able to put themselves in her shoes, ultimately delivering the same impact. By doing this, you avoid ‘marketing speak’ — and you give the story the much-needed moral it requires to be a page-turner. And thus, snag a lead.
“Think of the best brand stories you know. What did you learn about the product/brand that is a definable takeaway? Marketers of all shapes and sizes often have trouble giving an answer to this. Good stories, like any other marketing, should be measured. Put simply, did enough people do something with the story than just read it and see it? That’s the question you should be answering in storytelling.”
The myth: Delivering perfection is the goal.
The truth: Of course, we all want to deliver the best marketing we can, but getting caught up in the perfection loop can delay — and even harm — a brand’s storytelling.
Do a quick scroll through your Instagram. After a few minutes, ask yourself these questions:
- What posts make you stop to read?
- Which ones resonate with you so much that you give them a double-tap or you write a comment?
- Who did you repost — and why did you repost him or her?
Chances are slim that you re-grammed an idealistic-looking family with airbrushed skin and designer-everything. Particularly during a financially strenuous time like a pandemic, people relate the most to reality. So when a brand decides to go after the ideal of perfection, rather than relating to their consumers on a human level, they aren’t telling the story most want to hear. While Blasevick says a company can effectively come across as ‘lofty’, it must be powered by real people in order to connect with real people.
In storytelling marketing, this may take form behind the scenes, as nervous leaders wait until the right moment to release statements, revise content 65 times, and miss opportunities to be part of relevant conversations for fear of not appearing perfect. This slows down progress and ultimately makes a company seem detached and out of reach.
Sometimes, this may even be as simple as taking ownership of a mistake when it happens. Earlier this year, Blasevick received a ‘blank template’ email from VRBO with the subject line: ‘Internal User Test — 6 months.’ The email copy included placeholder greek text, including a CTA button that said ‘This is a CTA button.’
“I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who forwarded this to a few of my friends for a good — albeit empathetic — cackle. Then a day or so later, I got an email that said ‘Oops: We sent you a test email by mistake,’” she continues. “They owned it, and turned the mistake into an opportunity to connect in a real way. The copy inside referenced something about their mistake, meaning they need a vacation, and they pivoted that to their vacation services. It was smart!”
Since then, like most of us, Blasevick has received an innumerable amount of emails. Yet, this was right at the front of her brain when looking for an example of a brand embracing imperfection as a way to connect. That is storytelling — and guess what? It was the opposite of perfect.
The myth: Storytelling has to be told in a linear way, with a conclusion.
The truth: The success of storytelling is subjective to the reader.
According to Mallory Hauser, freelance storyteller and head of client and creative solutions at Fort View Productions, it’s time to forget what your middle school literature teacher told you when it comes to crafting a story. How so?
For starters, stories don’t need the following:
- A beginning
- A middle
- An ending
- A pretty bow to sew it all up
As she explains, life and human emotions alike are fluid, and the best stories are those that connect with your audience and allow them to create their own conclusions.
“It can’t always be packaged in a perfect linear construct. You can get a little creative with how the story is told and the purpose of the story,” she continues. “Sometimes it’s to bring joy. Sometimes it’s to ask a question. Sometimes it’s just to say ‘You are seen.’”
By not providing an ending to every storytelling medium, Hauser says you allow humans to draw their conclusions, or if they want, sit with and reflect on an unanswered question.
“Either way, they will decide, and that’s a good thing. Give them the opportunity to get there,” she shares. “Trust that the openness of a story without a resolution will bring a more authentic connection to your audience. Not having a resolution can spark inspiration, action and even hope.”
The myth: Content marketing is a numbers game. She who has the most content wins.
The truth: Now, if that were true, there would be a lot more brands out there killing it.
We’ve explored the quality vs. content debate in content marketing before, and it’s one that’s important to discuss in storytelling. The best content marketers espouse getting more and more content out there since it may not be up to the brand’s right standards. As Blasevick says, it’s a tricky slope since frequent content updates are essential.
However, to maintain a customer-focused and customer-serving brand stories, that content must offer a site visitor a sense of satisfaction.
“That satisfaction can be education, entertainment, and so on, but it has to fulfill something,” she shares. “Otherwise, that individual will be less likely to return, no matter how many updates they see from your brand. They will be less inclined to amplify your brand via content sharing. And they may ultimately opt-out of your brand. It’s not that all of your content needs to be perfect, but it needs to have value. If it’s not worth ingesting, it’s not worth creating.”