5 tactics to sidestep common storytelling pitfalls

A dry chronology will bore readers to tears—if they read the piece at all. Don’t think hyped language will save you, though. Consider these techniques for spinning a compelling yarn.

Storytelling roadblocks

Throwing facts and figures at a business audience won’t necessarily win them over. A great story, on the other hand, is more persuasive and more memorable.

At a time when we have more data than we can possibly use and people connect on social media platforms, storytelling is an ideal tool for PR and marketing.

That doesn’t mean it’s easy. Entertainment options are everywhere, and crafting a business story designed to promote a product or service doesn’t always measure up. People are busy, overwhelmed and even cynical.

On the PR agency side, we serve many masters. Sometimes we communicate through journalists who have their own story priorities. Clients might have their own vastly different ideas about what makes a great story. When considerations collide, storytelling suffers.

Here are some ways to overcome common roadblocks along the way:

  • Forget the chronology. There’s a natural impulse to start at the beginning and tell a chronological narrative, especially if it’s about a new company or product, but that can be complicated, lengthy and boring. When promoting a business, pretend you’re making a 30-second video. Start with a pivotal moment. It might be when a founder set out to solve a common problem, such as how to dress well without spending a fortune (Rent The Runway) or the “new” idea that software should be available 24/7 (Salesforce.com). Everything revolves around those high-impact moments that become obvious in retrospect. Start in the middle, then fill in the blanks.
  • Leave the rough edges. There’s a tendency in business storytelling to sugarcoat anything negative or embarrassing. High-growth tech entrepreneurs tend to be more open about setbacks than larger companies are. Most businesses aren’t wild about revealing weaknesses, miscalculations or mistakes. Yet these are the very developments that make a narrative more compelling and real. There’s power in admitting you’re not perfect, in part because it’s not expected and everyone can identify.
  • Remember, it’s not always about you. Mediocre stories are about businesses; great stories are about people. Every story needs a hero. The most interesting and authentic hero could be a low-level employee in an organization, or perhaps a customer. Intuit and Hubspot both do a great job celebrating their core customers, small businesses, in their storytelling. Slack’s Variety Pack podcast does something similar, by championing the end users of its product—workers themselves.
  • Don’t confuse emotion with hyped language. Maybe the story isn’t so exciting, so the writer throws in lots of empty adjectives to spice it up. It usually has the perverse effect of making things even less interesting, because there’s no substance. It’s far better to be straightforward with language. Mark Twain famously wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” When it comes to adjectives and “action verbs,” less is definitely more, and a more precise word will beat a vague one anytime.
  • Break the cliché habit. A great story will focus on high-stakes moments, such as early failures, internal or external conflicts, or business threats. What if those moments are already well known? What if they just don’t exist? Change the point of view, or try an analogy. Take software testing. It’s a commodity, but like everything else, there’s an art to it. As one engineer put it, “Writing (software) tests is like sex: The more you do it, the better you get at it and the better it feels.” Now, there’s an interesting opener.

Dorothy Crenshaw is CEO of Crenshaw Communications. A version of this post first appeared on the Crenshaw Communications blog.


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