How storytelling can inhibit good communications

Storytelling has become a buzzword in the communications industry, but sometimes it pays to be simple and direct. Consider these insights.

Nothing ruins a good writing session like the Evil Story Whisperer who lives in the back of my brain, deriding my how-to B2B marketing posts because they aren’t epic narratives.

I defend myself, casting around my outline looking for a setting, plot, characters and conflict. The blog post is a sequence, I say. The hero is the reader; the journey is a series of steps.

The Evil Story Whisperer is not satisfied, but I’m learning to tune him out.

Readers are savvy. They know what they want, and it’s not always a story. (Special thanks to Andy Crestodina, who made a similar point, giving me the courage to write this.)

Why practical is better

Practical B2B content won the day in 2018, according to an analysis by BuzzSumo, which looked at the 50,000 most socially shared articles, videos and other content published on B2B sites last year.

The six most popular headline phrases were:

  1. “The future of”
  2. “How to use”
  3. “Need to” (without “Know”)
  4. “How to create”
  5. “Here’s how”
  6. “You need to know”

Though there may have been story elements in each of these posts, it’s clear the focus was practical. When crafting content for B2B audiences, PR pros should think about how readers define success, and what stands in their way of obtaining it.

Then, they should remove the obstacle, with words and images.

Be human

Storytelling in B2B marketing usually represents writing goals like empathy, humanity and interest. Do not under any circumstances throw those babies out with any writing bathwater!

Here’s a quick look at the top 10 B2B articles from 2018:

In seven of the top 10 posts, you can identify an emotion the author played on quickly. They include:

  • Fear
  • Insider information
  • Invasion of privacy
  • Justice
  • Injustice
  • Ego
  • Power

The remaining three posts in the top 10 are hard-core practical information.

As a B2B marketing content creator, you must develop an ability to describe processes well, and an ability to connect with audiences on an emotional level around work topics.

Banish wimpy words

Here is the opening paragraph from the TechCrunch article at the top of our list.

The credit rating giant, one of the largest in the world, was trusted with some of the most sensitive data used by banks and financiers to determine who can be lent money. But the company failed to patch a web server it knew was vulnerable for months, which let hackers crash the servers and steal data on 147 million consumers. Names, addresses, Social Security numbers and more — and millions more driver license and credit card numbers were stolen in the breach. Millions of British and Canadian nationals were also affected, sparking a global response to the breach.

Some of the more dynamic language is highlighted. What happens when you remove these powerful words?

Equifax, a large credit rating company, had financial data that banks and financiers used to determine who can be lent money. But, the company didn’t patch a web server it knew was broken for months, which let hackers use the servers and access data….

This version is perfectly serviceable, but a lot less interesting to read. Finding more dramatic words to substitute for bland blather isn’t hard or time-consuming. It just requires discipline.

How narrative can be practical

In “Voice phishing scams are getting more clever”, Brian Krebs uses story to disarm the reader and get their attention.

He introduces characters with their digital pedigree front and center. These characters match his readers’ profiles, and quickly makes the point that if a phishing scam could happen to them, it could also occur to readers.

Another narrative tactic is also a subtle way to describe a process without using how-to format. That’s the approach in “Capture the flag: The emergence of complex cooperative agents. The article walks the reader through a project, with images and videos that show the tasks that were accomplished.

Content creators can reframe many B2B writing projects as a story, in a second piece of content. This allows your story to double the impact of your work.

Hollywood may never call for the movie rights to my “Ultimate Guide to Facebook Engagement”, or “How to Generate Endless Blog Post Ideas for B2B Marketing Content”.

That’s OK. My content has a heroic mission to solve real problems, elicit emotion, grab attention and maximize return on investment with sensible use of narrative.

How are you using narrative smartly in your B2B content?

Susan Moeller is a business development manager at BuzzSumo. A version of this article originally appeared on the Spin Sucks blog.

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