Countless experts say that target audiences are looking for good storytelling in content marketing. Fortunately, most marketing professionals acknowledge this now by using creativity and craft to drive toward a unique and valuable connection to their intended customers.
Yet, do they come up with stories with “show” details related to plot lines, pain points and essential solutions in the process? Or are they merely “telling,” i.e., saying, “you need to just trust our message because we say so.”
The difference between “showing” and “telling” often distinguishes strong storytelling from the wealth of uninspiring content marketing efforts that compete for audience members’ time.
The Difference Between Showing and Telling
“Showing” is about conveying concrete details and even painting visual images through keen observations/insights and solid research. The tech company once known as Carpathia Hosting nailed this when it described what a single petabyte of data “looks like,” as summarized in a wonderful sentence that appeared in Computerworld: “One petabyte of data is equivalent to 13.3 years of high-definition video, or all of the content in the U.S. Library of Congress – by its own claim the largest library in the world – multiplied by 50.”
In contrast, “telling” audiences about the size of a petabyte would amount to indicating that this would be, well, a “really, really large amount of data.” Obviously, such a description is easier to write. But good writing is never easy. It takes more research and thought to make an esoteric statistic like the petabyte example “come alive.” That’s what separates good storytelling in content from an exercise in tedium.
The W2 Communications team demonstrated that it “gets this” content marketing approach with a blog about a Black Hat Conference in Las Vegas, in which our Vice President Christine Blake describes the sheer size of the event by noting that “the Starbucks line snaked all the way down the hallway.”
Digging for the Right Details
I arrived at W2 Communications after a long career in print journalism, both in newspapers and magazines. When I started, wise editors taught me to not settle for “telling” when our stories demanded something better. I was once assigned to write about a local man dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease. I went to his home, where his wife cared for him round-the-clock.
In the latter stages of the disease, the man spent his entire days on the couch, completely immobile.
I asked his wife how he passed the time on that couch, day after day for all of those hours.
“He watches TV,” she replied.
I asked his wife what he watched on the TV for all of these hours.
“The usual daytime game shows and talk shows,” she said. “But he also likes to watch videos.”
I was sensing I may be on to a good detail … “What videos does he watch?” I asked
“Old family videos,” she said.
I could have stopped there. “Old family videos” is a decent storytelling detail. But I wanted to go further. I didn’t know what I might find. But I knew I wouldn’t find it unless I continued this inquiry sequence (while making sure I was respectful in my approach). So I asked her if there was a specific family video he liked watching.
“Yes,” she said. “He always wants to watch a video of our daughter’s sweet 16 birthday party. She’s grown now. But he loves to watch himself with her in the video.”
Now I knew I had a strong and poignant detail. But I asked one more question to see if there was something better:
“What does he do in the video?”
“He dances ‘the Twist’ with our daughter,” she told me, her husband right next to her, physically unable to convey any reaction, not even a sad smile.
At that moment, I had what I sought – even though I wasn’t certain as to what I was looking for when I started asking the questions. Writing about the image of the man spending the last days of his life, motionless on a couch, watching himself dance the Twist with his daughter on her 16th birthday made for a much more poignant “word visual” than simply writing, “He spends his entire days watching TV on the couch.”
Taking that Mindset to Marketing
Of course, we do not generate content about such heartbreakingly human circumstances for our clients. But the same techniques still apply. For instance, for a recent client case study, a transportation company owner told me that his trucks delivered auto parts, goods and food throughout the South. Yet, with a few more detail-oriented questions, I was able to write the following to begin our case study:
Today, (the company delivers) bumpers, instrument panels, suspensions and other parts to manufacturing locations … (and) shipments of paper and charcoal, and slabs of ham and bacon packed inside its refrigerated vans.
Similarly, in attempting to describe a new biometrics cybersecurity solution that uses physical human “signature” movements to authenticate users, I came up with “famous icon celebrity” examples to explain what a human signature was:
A consistent, individual signature marks the essence of human movement and touch: Fred Astaire never danced like Gene Kelly. Joe DiMaggio didn’t swing the bat like Ted Williams. Jimi Hendrix strummed a guitar in a way so that you just knew it was him playing, as opposed to Jimmy Page.
At W2 Communications, we aren’t satisfied with “telling” in our content marketing. We understand that – in identifying and describing target audiences’ pain points and describing how our clients can solve their problems in clear and even vivid detail – we can raise the bar by “showing.” If this sounds like something you’d like to know more about, please contact us.