The Art of Storytelling: What I’ve Learned in 8 Years of Writing

Jessica Thiefels on Thursday, January 9, 2020

the art of storytelling

The art of storytelling is one that many writers know well. Andrew Stanton, a master storyteller, the creator of the Toy Story (and other) movies, gave a Ted Talk that nailed the definition of good storytelling. “It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing that everything you’re saying, from the first sentence to the last, is leading to a singular goal, and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understandings of who we are as human beings.”

Content marketing is storytelling. You’re not creating content for the sake of creating it. You’re moving the needle, reaching customers, telling your brand story. Marrying that purpose, that business goal, with an entertaining narrative is where the art of storytelling comes in to marketing, and this is a skill I’ve honed for the past eight years. 

If you’re not telling a story, you’re simply sharing facts or retelling a story we’ve already heard before. This doesn’t entertain or engage, and instead, reads as another thin piece of content that anyone could have written. To create valuable content, you need to tell a story and I’m going to teach you a few strategies for doing exactly that.

Storytelling Strategy #1: Understand Your Audience 

Who do you want to reach with your story? Your audience guides the topics, message, and overall tone. For example, when writing for a blog with an audience of IT leaders, my articles are technical with a professional tone, like the post I wrote for The Manifest. However, on a women’s empowerment website, I tell personal stories, with real-life anecdotes, in a conversational manner, like in this article on She Owns It.

When you know your audience, you can speak directly to them and their interests, (in their preferred language) and tell a story they actually care about.

Storytelling Strategy #2: Always Have a Plan 

As Stanton said, your entire story should lead up to a punchline. How do you ensure that an article is cohesive, organized, and ultimately supports your main theme or goal? An outline and a plan for what main points you want to get across. Even though my outlines are quicker and shorter after much practice, I still write one for each article or project to make sure I stay on point. Even a skeleton outline with your topic, subheads, and a few bullet points will help you stay organized and tell a cohesive story that keeps the reader hooked.

Storytelling Strategy #3: Relate to and Engage the Reader 

Powerful stories are ones that your reader can connect with and relate to. Don’t be a selfish or show-off writer; the art of storytelling is drawing the reader in so they think it’s about them. Yes, you can use personal experiences, like I’m doing here, but don’t make it purely about you. 

Always weave the reader into your story, giving examples and stats that give them something to think about and connect with throughout. 

Storytelling Strategy #4: Support Your Ideas 

Great storytelling isn’t just about your opinion and your voice. Bringing other voices (and data and insights) makes a more compelling story that also provides legitimacy we don’t see  enough of. As Gareth Lofthouse says: 

“There is an awful lot of content out there at the moment which, at best, is interesting opinion, and not much more than that. At worst, it’s self-serving and rather salesy. Good thought leadership does more than that. It brings original insight backed by evidence, and that’s why you see research as a big part of the thought leadership mix.”

While Lofthouse refers to thought leadership, this same concept applies to all content and storytelling. Even experts bring in data, resources, quotes, and case studies to support their ideas and claims. Arianna Huffington is a leader in publishing, and founder of Huffington Post and Thrive Global, and in her article for the New York Times: How Small Habits Can Lead to Big Changes, (which also details a personal experience), she still uses data that strengthens her story. 

If you need help finding relevant sources and data, check out our guide to blog research

Storytelling Strategy #5: Inject Humor and Your Personality

Personal experiences, viewpoints and ideas guide your narrative, and humor can be used to keep readers interested, but knowing your audience is crucial. If you watch the first minute of Andrew Stanton’s TED talk referenced above, you’ll see he uses a rather colorful joke to hook the audience, but it was the appropriate setting to do so. 

The wrong joke, with the wrong audience, can turn ugly quickly. Don’t make that mistake. 

Storytelling Strategy #6: Introduce Conflict 

The conflict is the hook—it’s how you convince the reader to keep reading past the introduction. For example, the “conflict” in this article is that storytelling is important and if you aren’t a good storytelling, your content may be falling short. Every piece of content needs a “conflict” that tells the reader why it’s important to pay attention to how you will help them resolve the issue.

Storytelling Strategy #7: Make it Actionable 

You introduced a conflict, supported your ideas and claims about how to overcome said conflict, now bring it home with a takeaway. Sharing actionable tips for the reader is an essential element in the art of storytelling. What can the reader gain from the story? Give them to take on the conflict themselves to make your story memorable. 

Good storytelling (especially in marketing) empowers the reader, whether it be with information or solutions. 

Storytelling Strategy #8: Don’t Doubt Yourself 

This tip is easier said than done, but any marketer who’s struggled with writer’s block or gotten lost in the weeds knows that analysis paralysis is REAL. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve second-guessed a concept, or spent too much time looking for data and quotes, all because of doubt. More often than not, I go back to my original idea, and all I did in the meantime was waste valuable time. 

If you have a strong point you want to make, don’t overanalyze it. Instead, trust your gut and let the story tell itself. You can always go in and refine after.

Storytelling Strategy #9: Remember, Every Word Counts

I’ve been an editor for as long as I’ve been a writer and one of the most common writing mistakes I find is using words that aren’t necessary. If a word isn’t adding value, if it’s not directly relevant to the main theme of the story, or if it’s superfluous, cut it. Yes, details are important, they set the stage and help the reader understand, but they need to serve a purpose. Good writing is concise and to the point. Your reader is busy, don’t waste their time with unnecessary sentences.  

To tighten up your writing, refer to Julia McCoy’s brilliant list of 25 phrases and words to cut from your content.

Embrace the Art of Storytelling 

I love telling stories, especially when I can help other businesses or leaders develop their message. In marketing, the art of storytelling lies within an interesting tale that also serves a business goal. While it can be a fine line to walk, with practice and guidance, you, too, can master the art of storytelling.