My name’s Marli, and I’m here to speak today about storytelling as it relates to content strategy. I wanted to write an introduction that was also a story, so I thought I would tell you all a little about me. I’ve always loved words and stories, and I wanted to be a writer when I was little. I made up stories all the time. I even went to college to become a writer, but I decided to study theater, to help my writing. In theater, I became a stage manager.And when I graduated college my stage management skills got me a job as a project manager at a UX agency. The more I learned about UX, and content strategy, the more I became fascinated with words and stories again.
This is a story many people know. This is the story of The Ant and the Grasshopper.
In a field one summer's day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart's content.
An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.
"Why not come and chat with me," said the Grasshopper, "instead of toiling and moiling in that way?"
"I am helping to lay up food for the winter," said the Ant, "and recommend you to do the same."
"Why bother about winter?" said the Grasshopper; "We have got plenty of food at present." But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil.
When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger - while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer.
Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to prepare for days of need.The Ant and the Grasshopper is a simple story, but it’s one we’re very familiar with. Have you actually told or heard this story in the past year. In the past five years? The past ten years? I know I haven’t read the story in almost twenty years, and yet we all remember it.
Stories stick with us.So today, we’re going to talk about why we all remember the Ant and the Grasshopper. We’re going to look at why stories are so valuable in general, and how content strategists can use stories to create compelling long copy.The Ant and the Grasshopper makes many good points
For one thing, we live in a world of grasshoppers. Our society, on a whole, has very short attention spans. According to the Associated Press, the average human attention span in 2012 was 8 seconds, down from 12 seconds in 2000.
As usual, Calvin and Hobbes says it best.In the 1950s and 1960s, the average commercial was 1 minute long. Today, the average commercial is between 10 and 30 seconds long, which works with our current attention span of 8 seconds.
And sometimes that feels unbearable. Just to give you an idea of how long a 10 second commercial is, here’s one.
Here’s a five second commercial.
But here’s the thing. The five second commercial was not twice as effective or twice as interesting as the 10 second commercial. What’s more important that the length of commercial – what’s more important than the length of anything, is the value of its content. In fact, in many situations, grasshoppers or not,
long copy has proven more effective than short copy. So, this is confusing. We have short attention spans, but we prefer long copy? How can that be?Before we get into case studies, let’s see what Albert Einstein has to say on the subject.
One of the best known case studies on long copy vs short copy was done by Conversion Rate Experts, on the Crazy Egg site.Crazy Egg, if you aren’t familiar with them, provides analytics reports with information on click-thru rates,
referrals sources, how far people scroll down a page, and where on the page they hover the mouse.
Through heat map testing and analytics, they determined that Crazy Egg’s conversion rate was low in large part because visitors had questions that were not being answered on the homepage. Visitors were navigating aimlessly through the site, and ultimately leaving the site without converting to customers.
By expanding the homepage copy – making it literally 20 times longer, Conversion Rate Experts increased Crazy Egg’s site conversions by 30%.It didn’t work because the content was longer. It worked because the content was better.
Before, the content did only one thing. It told users what Crazy Egg was – but it did so with a ton of information spread out around the page.
Now, instead, the content answered necessaryquestions,engaged visitors, alerted visitors to additional benefits, and targeted the primary customers. The visual cues help, certainly, but there’s also necessary content. Where before, the primary call to action was “Show me My Heatmap,” here the content tells a full story about a person with a limited budget, who is looking to gather more analytics and wants to be in control of what sort of tracking happens on his site. That’s a story many of us identify with, and through that story, Crazy Egg prompted additional conversions. The story led users comfortably from the starting point, through the middle, to a point where they were ready to purchase.
Most importantly, the story was engaging, which prompted one of my favorite quotes. “In reality, you cannot have a page that’s too long—only one that’s too boring.” –Conversion Rate ExpertsSo our challenge, as content strategists, is not to create longer content.
It’s to create more effective content that attracts users and engages them. That’s how we manage to have two conflicting statements, which amount to one thing: it’s not about size. Wehave to ensure that our copy is a pretty girl, and not a hot stove.
With literally trillions of websites in existence, the thing that attracts, engages, and educates people is not a good website. It’s a good story.
Why is the ant and the grasshopper a good story? Distilled, it comes down to 3 points:1. Hard work pays off.2. Sometimes we need to do things that aren’t very fun.3. Plan ahead, like the ant, and you won’t starve.But those three basic morals are not nearly as memorable as the (much longer) story of the Ant and the Grasshopper. This story is very old.
It’s certainly lasted a long time. A version of it first appeared written in Greek, in a man named Babrius’ collection of Aesop’s fables, somewhere between 300 BC and 300 AD. Another version of The Ant and the Grasshopper appeared written in Latin, in the 5th century AD by a man named Avianus.
Stories are memorable. Orson Scott Card, author, playwright, and essayist, said "Fiction, because it is not about somebody who actually lived in the real world, always has the possibility of being about ourself." Stories help us to relate to one another. Stories give us the context to understand all information.
So we want to create that story, and make that story accessible to our target audiences. This is a story that has survived for over 2000 years. How long do you think those three morals would have survived, without a story to make them interesting?“Hard work pays off” isn’t the most exciting thing, and it’s unlikely to stick in the brain.
“Hard work pays off,” is just a sentence.
But when we hear the story of the ant and the grasshopper, we feel the ant’s frustration as he works, sweaty and tired all summer long,
and we feel how relieved he is to be safe, warm, and relaxed and happy in the winter with his family, and how proud he is to have accomplished his goal.
We empathize with the ant when we’re working hard at something that feels thankless, and we remember that hard work really does pay off, and we too will be safe and happy when winter comes.
The same thing is true with non-fiction stories. Basecamp, a project management system, tells a story – and a very simple one, at that.
“Basecamp is a great way to organize projects,” we might not remember it.
Instead, Basecamp makes a point of telling us a story, and bringing us into a world where thousands of companies sign up every week to track files, discussions, and everything else that they need.
They liken their company to a literal base camp – a spot at the bottom of the mountain from which mountaineers scale great heights.
The Basecamp software, their story says, allows companies to scale great heights, from a safe base that takes care of the organizational aspects for them.
In 2006 and 2009, studies were published showing that people who read fiction were more empathetic, and were better equipped to understand other perspectives and the world around them. Then, in 2012, further studies of MRIs showed that the areas in the brain that activate when a person tells a story, are also activated in the listener.
In other words, through storytelling, one person can actually control the emotions, ideas, and feelings in another person’s brain.
What I’m getting at is that although content strategy is a new industry, the work of a content strategist is not brand new. Storytelling has existed since for thousands of years. We know storytelling works, and we’ve looked at why. Now let’s look at a few of the ways that storytelling is particularly influential.
The first painted symbols on cave walls are over 27,000 years old. But, in caves in France and Spain, anthropologists and paleontologists found line patterns that have been previously overlooked. Until last year, when these symbols were noticed, scientists had been focusing on the paintings of horses, bison, or other creatures.
They knew something was being communicated with those pictures. But they hadn’t noticed that the lines actually appear to be a form of language, and the cave paintings were actually telling stories. This is the oldest recorded storytelling medium.
Greek and Roman mythology uses storytelling to explain the seasons, the weather, and life and death. One Greek myth is that of Pandora’s box, and tells how Pandora was the first human woman on Earth. There were Gods and there were Titans, but no humans. So each God gave Pandora a gift: beauty, charm, music, curiosity, and persuasion among them. (Many people say this explains why all women are curious and persuasive. I think it must also explain why all women are beautiful, charming, and musical.)
Anyhow, Zeus, ruler of the Gods, also gave Pandora a box (or a jar, in the original Greek), and he told her not to open it. Curiosity got the better of Pandora, and she opened the box, and out flew disease, hatred, war, and all sorts of terrible things, but it also held hope. The Greeks used this to explain all of the evils in the world, and how humans could still have hope in spite of all of that.
Many cultures also understand the value of storytelling. In Arabian Nights, the Sultan finds that his wife has been unfaithful. Out of revenge he has her beheaded, and then begins marrying a series of virgins, killing each one the morning after the wedding. One night, he marries a woman named Scheherazade, and on their wedding night she tells him a story, and stops at the most exciting part. He lets her live just one more day, so that she can continue the story, and so it continues for 1001 nights, with Scheherazade telling stories, stopping at a particularly interesting moment, and being allowed to live just one more day. He didn’t let her live for her beauty, or her achievements or her brilliance. He let her live because of the power of her stories.
More recently, and in a non-fiction context Iranian author EmadeddinBaghi was imprisoned in 2010 for “attacking national security” in his books. He wrote about a series of murders known as the Chain Murders, which took place in Iran from 1988 to 1998 by Iranian government operatives. Poets and authors, along with political activists were killed in a variety of ways, including car crashes, shootings, stabbings, staged robberies, and simulated heart attacks. By telling the stories of these murders, Baghi has made them memorable, and the power of those stories terrifies the Iranian government.
This is this morning’s news. Let’s take a vote. Is the top story interesting? Is it something important for most Americans to be aware of?
The Onion, a fictional news publication, does perhaps the best job of portraying the issue. Two weeks ago, after the VMA awards, CNN spent more time on Miley Cyrus’ performance than on Syria or the 50th Anniversary of Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech. The Onion posted a story mocking CNN for this choice – one of my favorite quotes paraphrased is, “There was nothing, and I mean nothing, about that story that related to the important news of the day, the chronicling of significant human events, or the idea that journalism itself can be a force for positive change in the world. But boy oh boy did it get us some web traffic.“
The HBO show “Newsroom” is all about how one new organization attempts to take back the news by making the most important news into the best stories. The fictional Atlantis Cable News is dealing with the problem head on, and it provides a fascinating challenge to solve: when viewers want to see the most “interesting” story, how do you manage to inform them? In essence, this is the same issue we have as content strategists: we need to make information into compelling stories, regardless of our topic.
Nike’s content strategy team does an excellent job of providing a story, instead of selling a sneaker. Sneakers are not inherently interesting. Nike sells a story about who you are, and who you dream of being. Anyone who has done any competitive sport knows this story – the story of how you go from being a beginner, to being a winner. And when you decide to buy a Nike sneaker,
you are buying in the hopes of making that story your story.
“People need stories more than bread itself. They tell us how to live, and why.” –Arabian Nights
Not all content creators are storytellers. Some content creators pull up dry facts and rely on a talented visual artist to pretty it up and entertain the audience. And some content creators present straight facts, and allow the audience to build their own story. But by and large, most of us who call ourselves content strategists, or content designers, or deal with content in any way, tell stories.
ResearchEstablish the storyAddDistribute
The first step to communicating with the audience is learning what our audience needs, and through what stories we can best communicate with them.The way to do that is not through telling stories. It’s through listening to them – through user research.
Good user research is the first step to personalized user content. Some content strategists feel that user research is not their job, and it’s true that user research is a huge job, and there are people who dedicate themselves to nothing but that research. But that doesn’t make it any less valuable for a content strategist to listen to the target audience.
We do that best by way of ethnographic interviews – interviews, or really conversations, designed to do nothing more than observe how the target audience spends their time, and how they speak. By interviewing five people who have been identified as members of the target audience, we can get a gestalt of the vocabulary they’re comfortable with and the stories they empathize with – and therefore, the vocabulary and stories we should use to best communicate.
The questions to ask are simple. Ask them to explain what they do at work all day, and ask them to describe the details. Learn what acronyms they use, and how much work impacts their daily life. Ask them about their families, and how they spend their free time. Most of all, ask what frustrates them at work, or at home. The more comfortable they are speaking, the more vocal they’ll be. And somehow, everyone seems to warm up when they’ve been invited to complain a bit!
I was recently working with a brand new startup. They had begun as an in-person healthy cooking group, and their goal was to turn the group into an online community, where they could connect with similar-minded people across the country. My first step, to learn about their audience, was to interview their group members. The first group member was a woman in her thirties, and when we sat down to talk she had as many questions for me as I had for her. I asked her how often she was online, and she hedged – she was a little embarrassed to tell me how many hours a day she was online. I told her that I was often online for far too many hours a day, and she laughed. I was tempted to tell her about the evenings that I stayed on my computer until 2 or 3am, to make her laugh again – or even about the time that I spent three days straight obsessively watching The West Wing on Netflix, but I realized that wouldn’t help me to learn about her. Instead, I laughed with her, and then I held my tongue.
When she realized I was honestly interested in hearing about her day, she told me about the websites she generally visited, and gave me a window into her online life. I realized later that I had hit a lucky break by saying “far too many hours a day” instead of giving her a number. Had I said “I spent 10 hours a day online,” she would have judged her own choices rather than share openly with me. By the time I had listened to five users, I was starting to see patterns. All five of them had fulltime jobs, and spent most of their time online in the evenings. Four of them had families, and struggled to focus on online reading. None of them felt secure about their ability to use the Internet “correctly,” and so they often gave up on reading an article or watching an email if the link didn’t load quickly, or if they were required to remember a password to use a site. I could never have guessed before the interviews that these would be the patterns I would find. There’s no quick fix or cheat to user interviews. The only way to learn about people is to listen to them with an open mind and true interest. That’s how we learn about their stories.
Next we establish the story. This,the creative part of the content strategist’s job is the hardest. We need to create the story the company wants to tell. Nike’s content strategist created the story of beginner athlete moving to the pros. Equally, we need to determine the best story for our audience. We need to approach it as with any story, giving it a beginning, a middle, and an end.
It could be a tragic story, warning the audience of the horrors that will befall them if they don’t buy DirecTV.
Or it could be a story with a moral, like the Ant and the Grasshopper, where the family sees the benefits of a good Life Insurance policy. Or it might be a happily ever after story. In a fairy tale, the story might look something like this:
Beginning: Little Red Riding Hood wants to visit her grandmother.Middle: She meets the wolf, who eats her and her grandmother.End: The huntsman kills the wolf, and Red Riding Hood lives happily ever after with her grandmother. For a company, we create a similar story.
Beginning: Joe (the target audience) wants to spend more time with his family.Middle: Joe buys the new Moto X phone, which allows him to work from anywhere.End: Joe leaves the office early, to take his family on a picnic, because he can check in with the office from anywhere. They live happily ever after.
After identifying the vocabulary patterns of the people I interviewed for the startup, it was my job to help establish their story. My goal wasn’t to invent something for them. Instead, I looked at what they had already shared with me.For example, since the startup’s target audience was busy parents with an interest in cooking, I began with a common use case: needing a recipe.Most of the users had mentioned frustration with websites that appeared unsecured or unintuitive, and most had assumed it was their own “fault” that the websites hadn’t worked, I knew that the middle of the story had to do with solving that issue.And finally, the end situation needed to include something our target audience was hoping to achieve, such as impressing the in-laws.
Next, we add details. Stories give us context, but this is where many people trip up. They create a basic story, and understand where their audience fits into it, but they leave the story at its outline. No one cares about a story of a person who goes for a walk, walks into a house, and then gets kicked out when the owners return. What makes the story interesting is what it expands into.
The person changes to a little girl. The strangers become bears. The bears become a family, the family enjoys a morning walk, which explains why they were out of the house. The little girl becomes Goldilocks, a very curious girl, who is always poking into other peoples’ business. (probably because Pandora, the first woman ever, was curious.)And on and on and on. If Goldilocks had a Twitter account, it would likely be filled with reports on bears, and recipes to make oatmeal. But over time, it might also expand as the character of Goldilocks expanded. It might include information on her favorite types of breakfast, or even less obviously related items, like her favorite color, or a book she happened to be reading.
A company’s story expands in the same way. What makes Home Depot’s Twitter feed so interesting is not just the deals it offers via Twitter. It’s the articles that are not about construction, but still entertain Home Depot customers. Home Depot has expanded their story to include not only work around the house, but also football, artwork, and summertime – all things that their customers enjoy, even when they aren’t specifically DIY projects.
For our startup, we wanted to go beyond food. As a result, our social media, emails, and other communications needed to target diverse elements of the target audiences’ lives. So, what we needed to determine was what our audience had in common, besides food. - These were predominantly women with careers and families who struggled to take time for themselves. - We identified that many of them wanted a hobby, but felt guilty, and as though they were not allowed to do anything alone. - Therefore, in addition to cooking, we found that they were interested in anything that felt both productive and relaxing. - They were tempted by discounted massages, time-saving suggestions, or things they could do with their children or friends who had children. - And we could offer them more than just a website. - We could offer them a community, and a solution.
And lastly, we must Distribute the story. In theater, it’s commonly said that the show is not complete unless it has an audience. The same is true of a story. The story is nothing, without the audience. The best part is that the same story may have multiple parts. Nike’s story, which we showed earlier in a commercial, also exists through other content that is shared across their website, on their Facebook page, and on their Twitter feed.
Their story is the story of their brand. And they tell a part of that story in every communication with every user. They’re not trying to sell; that’s just a byproduct. They’re engaging their audience by offering articles, videos, cartoons, and news that interests them. We’re not content strategists if we’re only interested in creating a story. We need to focus on the story, and how we share that story with our audience, and the story our audience will help us to build.
I spent months with the startup company doing user interviews, reviewing the business goals, creating an internal mission statement and a vocabulary for users, and building brand guidelines. But every time we talked about marketing, they shied away. Their SEO was decent, and as a result they got occasional visitorsthrough search. But their Facebook page was dead, and their Twitter was silent. Overall, their content marketing was nonexistent. Their content was outstanding, but it wasn’t reaching their users.The breakthrough came when they explored Quora. Quora is a website where people ask questions, and receive answers. There, the company was able to participate in conversations where they felt comfortable. They were able to reference blog posts they’d written. They began to follow Quora users on Twitter, and soon their Twitter feed was drawing attention because the conversations were full of valuable information.A story is still a story if it has no audience, but it’s not a very complete one.
So, I want to leave you with suggestions, of how you can implement storytelling into your content strategy.Create a storyPersonalize a storyUse different mediumsInteract with your audienceTrust
Create a story, and build the brand around it. If you want your users to learn the value of hard work, tell them the story of the ant and the grasshopper. If you want them to recognize the value of your product, tell them a story where they can be the hero.
Personalize your story for your target audience. Listen to the people you want to help, and keep an open mind, the same way you would if they were promising to tell you the secret to happiness. They are telling you a secret – the secret to a great brand.
Use different mediums to help grow the story. If your users are on Twitter, follow them there. But if your users are predominantly Facebook-happy, don’t waste your time trying to interact with them in a space they never visit. That’s about as useful as waiting for an Eskimo at the beach.
Interact with your audience. Engage them. If you try to sell without having a story, you’re basically offering them parchment paper without a donut in it. But if you create content and don’t bring it to your audience, you have a great donut with no way to share it.
Trust the story to pull in the audience. If you build it (and enjoy it, and share it) they will come.
CS Forum - What's in a Story?
What’s In a Story?
I wanted to be a writer
when I was little.
In a field one summer's day a Grasshopper
was hopping about, chirping and singing to
its heart's content.
An Ant passed by, bearing along with great
toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.
"Why not come and chat with me," said the
Grasshopper, "instead of toiling and moiling
in that way?"
"I am helping to lay up food for the winter,"
said the Ant, "and recommend you to do the
"Why bother about winter?" said the
Grasshopper; "We have got plenty of food at
present." But the Ant went on its way and
continued its toil.
When the winter came the Grasshopper had
no food and found itself dying of hunger -
while it saw the ants distributing every day
corn and grain from
the stores they had
Then the Grasshopper knew: It is best to
prepare for days of need.
History of Storytelling
Myths and Legends
Text and visuals
Visions and Prophesies
Establish the Story
Little Red Riding Hood
wants to visit her grandmother.
She meets the wolf, who
eats her and her grandmother.
The huntsman kills the wolf,
and Red Riding Hood lives happily
ever after with her grandmother.
Establish the Story
Joe wants to spend
more time with his family.
Joe buys the new Moto X
phone. He can work anywhere!
Joe leaves the office early, to
take his family on a picnic. They live
happily ever after.
Establish the Story
Sally needs a recipe to
On her recipe website, the
chicken recipes are bookmarked.
Sally makes a wonderful
dinner, repairing her relationship
with her mother-in-law.