Storytelling expert Jill Pollack gets very frustrated with how boring much of the development and delivery of communications are today. The founder of Chicago’s StoryStudio Chicago says she always has to remind people that even if you’re in a B2B environment, you’re still selling to people.
“Companies don’t buy services, people do. That’s why storytelling is so important,” she says.
Pollack graduated with an undergrad degree in theatre, and believes she has “drama in her bones.”
But after college and tiring of eating macaroni and cheese every day and not earning any money in theatre, she transferred her skills into writing for PR firms, before striking out on her own and becoming a consultant to Fortune 1000 companies, including Motorola, Sears, Lands’ End, Abbott, and McDonald’s.
Her epiphany moment came when she had had enough of corporate-speak, and in 2003, she set up StoryStudio Chicago, a for-profit B Corporation, aimed at teaching creative writing and “words for work,” consumer-based communications for the Internet age.
Fifteen years on, she credits her success to knowing how to combine a small amount of technical knowledge with story skills.
“No matter how good a storyteller you are, if you don’t understand the medium, you’re not going to find the success you want,” says Pollack.
Content magazine sat down with Jill to get the low-down on how to be successful in storytelling.
Content: How should stories be written for the Internet age?
Jill: With an eye on details! There are so many storytelling elements that should be incorporated. For instance, I teach about the importance of white space. If you take a look at blogs, from the early 2000s, they’re mainly a straight shot of text.
Nobody reads that.
You need to break up the paragraphs, add images, alter text and vary the fonts.
Another element that content marketers should know is, the way you see your content for one medium needs to be completely different for another because you have to present the content in the space and environment that’s provided.
You shouldn’t design a Facebook campaign in the same way that you’d do a Twitter campaign.
But a lot of people do.
The marketing world has fallen in love with storytelling. What does it do that other forms of words don’t?
The reason why I am so committed to storytelling is:
because there’s science to back-up how stories work in our brain, and how stories are effective as a communication vehicle; and
because I don’t like to be bored; and if you just give me information, the chances are it’s not going to grab me.
If you use some classic story skills and story craft to give me this information, then I am allowed to be involved in the story.
I always remind people that content is not a one-way communication vehicle.
It’s got to be a conversation.
If you’re not using some basic story craft, you’re not building a conversation, and there’s no way for your reader or listener to get involved.
If the audience is not involved in the conversation, they’ll move on to something else.
What are the basics of getting that kind of conversation going?
People get so mad at me because they want a formula, and there is no formula.
There’s no formula for content marketing.
There’s no formula for creating good content.
And there’s certainly no formula to building a good story.
We run a programme called ‘Story Mode’, aimed at teaching storytelling to people who have to communicate at work.
We teach people to avoid using general phrases like “integrated solutions”.
Because, what does that even term mean?
Yes, it’s jargon, but it’s a generality.
Chekhov said, “God save us from generalities” and he’s right.
Phrases like “integrated solutions” do not reside anywhere in the brain, because they’re devoid of emotion.
It’s our emotions that drive our interest. It’s our emotions that drive our participation and, of course, it’s emotions that drive our decision-making.
People also need to find a human element to the story that they can relate to.
For example, if I’m presenting a story about rates of cancer around a nuclear power plant, and I just give statistics, and maybe a quote or two from a community activist and the power plant administrator, that’s going to go straight to the logic center of the audience’s brain.
They might calculate some of those numbers, but it’s not going to pull on their emotions.
But if I was to start talking about a child named Ian, who lives in the shadow of this power plant, and suddenly his mother started noticing odd spots on his skin, that’s putting detail to a general story, and my audience will be able to connect to their emotions.
Statistics don’t mean anything until we understand how they affect people.
Do you think every brand has a story to tell?
Even if you’re in a B2B environment, you’re still selling to people.
An engineering company isn’t going to buy your services. A person at that engineering company is going to buy your services.
The New York Times’ writer Jonathan Gottschall wrote a book several years ago called ‘The Storytelling Animal.’
In it, he goes back to the days of cave people and explains how stories are hardwired into our brain, and I mention that because I think everybody communicates in stories.
We’ve recently had Thanksgiving, and families all across America will have sat across from each other at the dinner table, telling each other stories.
Somehow, we got this idea that we had to leave that method of communication behind as soon as we walk in the door to our businesses.
So, the short answer is, yes, of course, every brand has a story to tell because every brand is made up of people; the people who make it, the people who buy it, the people who use it.
So, perhaps the question is, does every brand tell their story well, or is every brand successful using story to sell?
The answer to that is no.
How can marketers tell whether they’re telling a good story, or not?
At Story Mode, we talk a lot about building your PEN; we call it a Peer Editor Network. Make sure at least some of your colleagues are well-versed in building good stories and clear communications.
I’ve earned my living almost my entire career by writing. People pay me to write. That means I’ve got to be a really good writer, yes?
Well, the only reason I know I’m a good writer is because I have editors. I have this fantastic Peer Editor Network.
I rarely publish anything without several pairs of eyes going over it and giving me feedback.
We have students who think that needing an editor means they’re not good enough, but needing an editor means it’s just the next step in the process.
I always tell my students, “Masterpieces aren’t written, they’re rewritten.”
Content marketers are under such time and deadline pressures that they often think, “I don’t have time to make this any better,” and that’s the wrong way to go about it. If you’re not writing at least two or three drafts, and if you’re not getting feedback on those drafts, you’re not going to be putting out good stuff.