Storytelling and Social Media: Eight Techniques
Do you remember the 1999 horror movie “Stir of Echoes?” It tells the story of a father and son, Tom and Jake, who are psychic radio receivers — they see visions and hear voices of spirits the rest of us can’t perceive. I won’t give away any plot points, but at the end of the movie, Jake, who is maybe five or six years old, claps hands over his ears in an effort to block out the thousands of voices trying to communicate with him. In his head, it sounds like a quiet cacophony, a maddening susurration of pleas, demands and inquiries.
As a modern consumer of content in the information age, it’s easy to feel like Jake. Every day, we’re bombarded by the maddening susurration of voices coming to us via the internet. Much of it is potentially interesting, but most of us don’t have the time, inclination or supernatural abilities to absorb it all. That’s why, as marketers and communicators, we must produce content that stands out and grabs the attention of our busy and easily distracted audience.
One great way to do that is to stop selling features, benefits and facts and start telling stories. In this article, we share some basic storytelling techniques that can be adopted easily as you develop content for common social media platforms.
Let’s face it … simply presenting a pile of facts or describing features about a product or service is boring, especially if you resort to the go-to communications technique of many marketing writers — a list of bulleted points (ack!). Bullet points have their place, but they can’t form a compelling narrative. Why? Because narratives — stories — rely on a progression of ideas, an arc of time and emotional transformation that a list can’t convey. By their very nature, lists can be read in any order; one point carries no more weight than another. As a result, they can’t tell stories. Which is why most PowerPoint presentations are miserable failures: they contain too many slides, too many facts, too many bullet points. A really great presentation, like the kind used in a TED Talk, serves as a set — a backdrop that accentuates the person on the stage, who is (gasp!) telling a story.
Telling stories is an innately human way to communicate. As soon as language evolved, we gathered our tribesmen around us and began, “Once upon a time and place …”. What followed was a classic tale about our latest adventure, an unfolding narrative filled with all of the story elements we learn about in creative writing — protagonists, antagonists, setting, rising action, climax and denouement. Today, we may not gather our tribe mates around roaring bonfires, but we can still use stories just as effectively to share information with others — to educate, to persuade or to inspire.
Through stories, a business can show a passion for what it does and how it does it. It can also show that it’s authentic and empathetic — that it understands and relates to the people who may want to buy its goods and services. So, don’t throw away the facts and figures (they’re still useful in their proper place), but also be willing to embrace your inner storyteller. Here are seven techniques that can help you do it as you prepare content for your website, blog and social media channels.
Technique #1: Show Don’t Tell
This is the first lesson every fiction writer learns. Don’t just say, “It was bitterly cold when Christian stepped outside. The thermometer recorded five degrees.” Instead say, “Christian stepped outside, took a deep breath and felt the January air seep into the depths of his lungs, burning. When he exhaled, a white jet of smoke, his chest already hurt.”
See how the second approach sacrifices the thermometer reading (the factual information) and replaces it with vivid imagery, with sensory evocation, to convey how cold it is outside? You can do the same with your business communications, especially on social media, which makes it easy to use imagery to convey your point instead of words alone. Channels like Instagram are obvious choices to put the “show don’t tell” rule into action, but you can do the same thing on Facebook and Twitter. It can be as simple as a few photos to go along with a short caption or a custom-created graphic designed to visually share and explain complex information. Even a simple trendline graph and pie chart can speak volumes.
Web-based tools like Canva, Shutterstock and Infogram let you easily and quickly create all kinds of custom graphics for use on social media.
Technique #2: Create A Sense of Place
In creative writing circles, it’s known as the “white room syndrome” — not providing sufficient setting details so a scene feels like it’s taking place in an empty, white-walled room. Yet readers need a sense of place because it connects them more deeply with the story and helps them see the world through the main character’s eyes. To do this well, it doesn’t take a deluge of details. In fact, a sprinkle often does the trick.
So how does this apply to marketing communications? Don’t be afraid to convey a sense of place to your audience. If your office space used to be a 19th-century grain mill, that could be an interesting detail to reveal in social media. If your organization supports an employee volunteer program, show those employees out and about in the community. If your company has been located in the same small New England town for 150 years, tell its history in words and pictures.
Whatever you do, make sure you’re authentic. Instead of resorting to stock photography, carefully curate photographs of real people and real places to use on social media channels like Instagram or Facebook. And don’t forget that your employees can be great sources of authentic images that provide a sense of your culture and workplace environment. Images of places evoke strong feelings in many of us, which in turn foster a strong sense of connection to your brand and the content you’re trying to convey.
Whatever you do, make sure you’re authentic. Instead of resorting to stock photography, carefully curate photographs of real people and real places to use on social media channels like Instagram or Facebook.
Technique #3: And, But, Therefore
Sometimes, people equate “story” with “long,” “difficult” or “challenging.” But great stories don’t have to be long or take a long time to write. Ernest Hemingway once said his most powerful story consisted of just six words: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”
And what about this one: “A young boy lives with his aunt and uncle on a desert planet, and he yearns to find adventure as a rebel pilot fighting against the evil empire, but the appearance of a battle-scarred droid brings disaster to his guardians; therefore, he begins a journey that takes him to the far reaches of the galaxy as he comes to understand who he is and from where he comes.”
This latter storytelling technique is known as the And, But, Therefore (or ABT) method. In one or two simple sentences, you can convey the essence of a story by writing [THIS HAPPENED] and [THIS HAPPENED], but [THEN THIS HAPPENED]. Therefore [THIS OTHER THING HAPPENED].
It’s a simple, powerful way to tell a story — and one that’s ideally suited for social media, where longer narratives aren’t possible. The next time you feel stuck for a story, give the ABT method a try. You’ll give just enough information to draw your audience in, inviting them to click on the subsequent link to read more.
Technique #4: Use Strong Characters
Every good story — even on social media — has conflict, typically involving memorable characters that play the roles of protagonist and antagonist. You can think of them also as good and evil or hero and villain. Effectively, the protagonist is the main character in the story, and the antagonist opposes him or her. Strong characters make a story better because we can more easily empathize with them. It also helps if the protagonist is moving toward some great understanding or personal growth as the plot unfolds.
The antagonist isn’t always another being. Plenty of great stories tell tales of escalating conflict and ultimate resolution between man vs. nature, between man vs. gods and between man vs. technology.
Let’s say you’re creating a YouTube video to tell the story of your brand or to tell a customer success story. When you develop the script for the video, establish clear protagonists and antagonists. Make it obvious who is whom, and make your characters strong by conveying their hardships, heartaches and imperfections. Include tension and triumph to evoke feelings in your viewers so that they will be able to clearly understand and relate while also being motivated and inspired.
Technique #5: Follow A Story Arc — Beginning, Middle and End
Most great stories have a very simple structure. They have a beginning that presents the characters, the setting and the hero’s challenge. Next comes a middle that follows the hero as he faces a number of obstacles and setbacks in an effort to overcome the challenge. Finally, there is an ending in which the hero overcomes the challenge (or doesn’t), and the story is resolved.
In playwriting circles, this is known as the three-act story, and it most definitely has a place in business communications. In fact, every case study ever written follows this exact format. Corporate histories and origin stories also take this structured approach. Don’t believe it? Check out the origin stories of Hewlett-Packard and Johnson & Johnson.
With relatively recent social media tools like Instagram Stories or Facebook Stories, we can now tell those stories in real time, as they happen.
For example, on Instagram, rather than making a conventional post, you can use Instagram Stories to share multiple photo and/or video posts together in a slideshow format that’s available for 24 hours, after which time it disappears. Instagram adds to the appeal of stories by letting you augment text and other special effects on top of a story’s photos and videos. It also places stories at the top of followers’ feeds, making it much harder for them to miss your messaging.
Learn more about Instagram stories and how they work.
Learn more about Facebook stories and how they work.
Technique #6: Stimulate the Senses
Think about some of the most iconic cinematic stories: “Star Wars,” “Jaws,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone with the Wind.” All of these movies have spectacular visual effects, but they are known just as equally for their music and sound. That’s because sound can be one of the most powerful ways to evoke a sense of place or to elicit emotional responses. It’s hard not to hear the wooden crack of a baseball bat and not think of long summer days, the smell of peanuts and popcorn, and the warm sun shining on the back of your neck.
The next time you’re putting together a blog post, think about what you can do to make the communication multi-sensory. Can you work in photos, audio clips and videos? Can you add more descriptive language to better connect with your reader? Use words, visuals and sounds to create a more authentic storytelling experience that better conveys your values and messages.
Of course, social media channels make it easy to publish video stories. You can post videos on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat and, of course, YouTube. The biggest challenge is using the right specs, sizes, dimensions and ratios for the various channels. This guide, put together by Sprout Social, can help you stay on top of the details.
Sound can be one of the most powerful ways to evoke a sense of place or to elicit emotional responses.
Technique #7: Get Others to Tell Your Story
Talking about yourself gets boring fast. Do it too much, and you can quickly come across as obnoxious, self-centered and egotistical, which doesn’t inspire most of us to want to purchase from you. This is where others can help tell your story for you, and there are few ways to do it.
First, you can use your own social media channels to share the stories of others who have had positive experiences with your product or service. Be sure to highlight how their experience made them feel, and tell the story with passion, not just one boring fact after another.
Second, you can recruit others to serve as Brand Ambassadors, who actively tout their own experiences with your brand and its offerings on their own social media channels, ideally tagging and linking to you as they do so for maximal effect in referring customers your way. When done well, Brand Ambassadors can add authentic enthusiasm to your larger storytelling social media campaign.
Learn some tips for running a successful Brand Ambassador program.
Technique #8: Keep it Simple
Last but not least, always remember to keep it simple, no matter what platform you’re using. Love it or hate it, Twitter has taught us something: messaging that’s short, sweet and to the point can be a powerful way to communicate with an audience. And while Twitter’s original 140-character allowance has been expanded to 280 characters, that’s still not a lot of space to fill in each Tweet, and you don’t have to use it all in every post. Learn more about how to say more with short Tweets.
That said, whether you’re posting on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, mercilessly edit your posts. Use fewer total words and choose your words carefully, opting for strong, active writing versus passive verbosity. Write it in a conversational style and strive for clarity, especially when you’re communicating complex ideas.
And remember that people respond viscerally to stories. They can relate to them because they have characters, setting and action that drives to a resolution. Used wisely, stories can ensure that your messaging is not just another unintelligible echo in the great stir of echoes that is marketing communications.
Whether you’re posting on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, mercilessly edit your posts. Use fewer total words and choose your words carefully.
When writing this article, we especially enjoyed the following resources:
• The Storyteller’s Secret by Carmine Gallo
• Houston, We Have A Narrative by Randy Olson
• How To Use Social Media For Storytelling
• 3 Social Media Storytelling Ingredients For Brand Narrative
• Storytelling On Social Media: How To Do It Better