Observations and insights about content, copywriting and the French language.

Storytelling: writing to better capture attention

by | Dec 8, 2019 | Blog

Above all, the art of storytelling – whether it’s a descriptive hook or the creation of full-fledged narratives – refers to the idea of writing text that takes into account the most fundamental component: the reader. Then come a brand’s tone of voice, the impact you want to produce and, chiefly, the conversion you wish to generate. Here are a few observations, tips and avenues for reflection when it comes to storytelling.

Copywriting: Ingredients? A recipe?

An initial assessment regarding storytelling: there are too many available ingredients for anyone to claim that there be such a thing as a foolproof recipe. I also think it would be a tad reductive to characterize storytelling as a tried-and-tested method or a proven science.

One need only look at the results of an election to realize that consumers are more than a simple, homogeneous mass, locked in time and space: a kind of colossal consumer-citizen, ready to gobble up messages like a robot. Yes, even when such messages are imbued with emotion.

In this context, the key is to know how to tell the right story, at the right moment, to the right audience. In the truest and most noble sense of the word, ‘storytelling’ benefits from rapidly integrating and responding to concrete strategies, instead of merely existing in a hollow, esoteric bubble populated by self-styled gurus who mostly just sell the idea of storytelling.

Thus, before speaking of recipes or ingredients, storytelling has to be planted, grown and harvested on solid ground. In the real world. You want to stir up emotions? Great. First, realize that it’s not by resorting to an abundance of adjectives or “heart-warming” words that you’ll get there.

If you’re searching for a training session, workshop, conference or personalized coaching on the topic of storytelling, I would invite you to consider the following: often, after three hours or a full day, those with whom I share my modest expertise feel much better equipped to apply new approaches and re-think the content of their communications. Although that, in my opinion, is only half the battle.

The real, tangible benefit is that once you return to the office tomorrow, you be given the freedom to revamp your communications. Otherwise, as dutiful storytelling gurus, we profess, trumpet and demand, head in the clouds, without seeking to transform the most important clientele: the management at your organization.

Storytelling: dare to take it even further

I like how certain emblematic institutions dare to go further. The Fonds de solidarité FTQ (the largest development capital network in Quebec) and Hydro-Québec, each in their own way, have taken sharp and conspicuous turns. They did so while skilfully thinking through every curve – an art unto itself. They share the right stories, in the right way, on the right platforms, according to the right targets (including Millennials), and do so with consistency and relevance.

Their approach and tone are both well defined and distinctive, notably on social media and on an assortment of platforms that are in sync with their clientele. It’s particularly fascinating how, in an environment that’s highly sensitive to criticism, Hydro-Québec’s community managers, on Facebook for instance, strike the perfect balance between:

  • Sharing stories.
  • Letting Internet users express themselves, even when their views are extremely negative.
  • Responding to comments in a flexible yet firm manner. This requires utmost confidence on the part of management, which lets writers answer without imposing a series of filters that would render their messages too blah and beige. (To such an extent that at certain organizations, we’re left feeling as though each answer has been jointly devised by a robot, an accountant and a lawyer.)
  • Reacting in an exemplary way on the basis of the following principle: better to answer “moderately well” right away than to answer “perfectly” but too late. Especially knowing that no answer can ever truly be perfect.

Ultimately, what you should aim to achieve through storytelling:

  • Establish your credibility.
    Create a climate of trust.
  • Humanize your organization.
  • Recognize and value all teams, especially the people involved (a critical point).
    Express and share your difference.
  • Contextualize your narrative within the latest news, trends and realities of your sector or market, thus bringing your content to life in an environment that’s familiar to all.
    Encourage an honest approach.
  • Do it for real.

Importance and nuance

While it’s one thing to create content that enhances the value of your existing services or products, it’s even more lucrative, engaging and motivating to develop products or services in anticipation of this, depending on the story to be told. At the assignment stage, it’s the difference between saying:

  • Here’s our story – can you write a text to define or express who we are?
  • Here’s who we are – can you help us write our story?
  • What can we create at the outset in order to tell the best story?

The aim is to move from theatricality (traditional storytelling) towards the design of products or services that can be rolled out as part of a rich and scalable narrative.

The shameless plug for my website

Of course, we must pay attention to what works for us. In my case, for instance, I rely on person-to-person relationships to find new customers, given that I’m not at my best at networking events.

In this regard, I fuel my website’s SEO with a combination of formal writing and storytelling. By doing so, my website has been generating clients “on its own” since 2017. If you type “rédacteur”, “copywriting Montreal”, “rédacteur pigiste” or “freelance copywriter Montreal” in Google, it’s highly likely that my site and services will show up in the first page of search results. As they say in Cambodia, regarding SEO performance, my website always gives an Angkor.

That said, once you land on my website, you’ll be able to see firsthand that it doesn’t reveal all that much – meaning that it’s very informative, organized, itemized and, let’s face it, a little dull.


Riding a unicycle

In my opinion, storytelling is as much about saying certain things as it is the art of excluding others. By this, I don’t mean to conceal, but rather to choose between what is truly relevant for my business objectives and showcasing my skillset, and my ability to produce, adapt or translate copy while juggling fire torches, sitting on a unicycle and riding a tightrope. Also, I believe in the importance of letting readers write some of the script using their own imagination.

Truth be told, offering writing, transcreation and translation services via my website is a particularly perilous (!) exercise insofar as I am exposing myself to a series of immediate judgments. Some will hunt to find a grammatical mistake, error or typo. Justifiable, yes, but also terrifying!

What’s more, I’ve deliberately opted for a neutral tone, colours in shades of grey and rather formal content. In doing so, I’m betting that I will be judged on my skills as opposed to my style, knowing full well that while one can adopt many styles, one can never buy skills.

Accordingly, the challenge is to find the right balance between revealing everything and creating a “mutual recognition and identification” effect, and not saying too much to let the idea that “anything is possible” float around. One thing’s for sure: my site isn’t the platform to share my passion for urban beekeeping or my most recent marathon, even though therein lies much potential to give rise a good story.

I don’t enjoy all stories, even the best ones

It’s equally important to have the humility, will and ability to acknowledge that what is of interest to us won’t interest everyone!

I don’t enjoy all stories, including those penned by the greatest novelists. Their narratives can leave me unmoved, put me to sleep or, worst-case scenario, scare me away. The same goes for movies and shows. Generally speaking, in a professional context, when I’m asked for recommended readings, I answer this (see my recommendation) as well as books that deal with the craft of writing.

Storytelling: it’s also the art of transforming oneself

I will say it again: while the numbers, studies and practices of other companies are integral to any attempt at distilling the ingredients of a recipe intended to attract consumers’ attention, it’s equally vital to go beyond current communications. By triggering a real-world willingness to remove barriers. By ridding oneself of buzzwords and setting up solid pillars that cement the benefits of storytelling.

The art of telling stories is also the art of transforming oneself into a historian, anthropologist, sociologist, psychologist, journalist, pamphleteer, publicist and strategist to:

  • Ask (good) questions
  • Dig beyond initial answers
  • Keep probing and press for more: why, how, who, with whom, and what are the consequences?
  • Broadcast the results of your investigations

The goal here is to transform these answers into messages, and above all, into a specific tone and personality. Not only will it inspire, it will also create a sense of belonging, whether one is aware of it or not. “I am like them, they are like me, I see myself in them.” Or it will generate a healthy distance: “It sounds interesting, I want to know more.”

I insist on tone: it’s more important than the story itself. Than the words, even. A tone of voice workshop helps reveal the character and essence of a brand, to then launch into the development of narrative content and structure.

Finding the right tone, in support of an organization that wants to take things a little further, is a fantastic quest with an incredible potential for growth.

A quick tangent on a factor that, in the eyes of some, arguably works against the word ‘storytelling’. The term itself derives from the idea of “telling stories.” It’s an expression that implicitly suggests a kind of lie or, at the very least, a half-truth. As in “he’s making up stories” to explain why someone is saying pretty much anything. Others will argue it’s nothing more than a buzzword that allows agencies to overcharge and ride on its popularity wave.

Authentic, inspiring, bold and other words that mean (almost) nothing at this point

Certain words are endlessly repeated and bandied about at every opportunity. I understand that some people swear by these words (authenticity, experience, boldness, etc.) Others find them overused. Yet they are merely words, whereas the principles that underpin them have been and always will be meaningful, relevant and effective.

Another slight note of caution regarding narrative composition: keep it real. Really, though. While it’s already a tad reckless to confuse consumers or journalists by withholding information, leaking half-truths, playing down the facts or excessively embellishing reality, it’s all the more dangerous to mislead the most important people with whom you share your content: your organization’s employees.  If they pick up on the fact that you’re distorting reality in your internal or external communications, you will witness the emergence of a toxic environment where people let things go unsaid. If your employees do not recognize themselves in your narrative, they’ll become cynical or disengaged. At a time of widespread labour shortages and concerns about loyalty, that’s not a good look.

Nothing to write home about

Storytelling that’s meaningful and authentic (!) is built on a what-you-see-is-what-you-get foundation, solidly entrenched and capable of blossoming thanks to a tone of voice that’s both acknowledged and consistent across all units, sectors and departments. I must reiterate: if marketing acts and disseminates messages in an X manner, while communications prefer the Y approach and human resources take up the Z method, the organization waters down the potential to create credible and galvanizing storytelling. And this type of discrepancy unfortunately happens far too often.

Copywriting: double vision

I recently had the pleasure of writing long-form copy for a large company, working simultaneously with two different departments.

One of the departments literally referred to my written content using the word “perfect”. They came close to making zero changes overall, which I say in all humility. In the other department, my copy triggered a substantial round of revisions.

The same type of content, same storytelling, same company, same copywriter, but individuals (internal clients) who perceive things differently. Is this normal?

Once all of this content made its way to consumers, the results in terms of engagement were as follows: the content that had been subjected to little monitoring, whose tone was less promotional, more human, less in keeping with the company’s traditional buzzwords – in short: content created at the ground level, with the readers in mind, as opposed to staying in a theoretical and rhetorical stratosphere – generated much more conclusive results.

Coherence, consistency, confidence

What seems odd and slightly paradoxical about this human tone, as well as this art and mastery of storytelling, is that the content itself is intended for people with reduced attention spans (that includes us!) who are perhaps less likely to be moved.

And yet that’s precisely what storytelling is looking to spark: an emotion, at the very least a feeling, a lasting impression – we often speak of something ‘memorable’ or worth remembering – by way of a message intended to foster a climate of trust.

Briefs and approval chains

I’d like to digress for a moment to broach a delicate topic: the approval chain. Which, sometimes, lives up to its name. At least in its most literal sense: it sequentially links approvals together!

I’m incredibly fortunate to work with clients I admire. When I think of everything I do, the sum of all mandates, they are the ones that first come to mind. I’m honoured that these dedicated and passionate folks put their trust in me, which I consider to be the most precious asset in allowing me to perform my job both well and enthusiastically.

The Voice

In the case of new clients, on the rare occasions when I decided to pass – either upon receiving a brief or somewhere along the way (without charging, of course) – it’s because a similar scene always played itself out. Once the copy had moved through the approval chain, I would witness the following phenomenon: no matter what the content, style, tone, direction or angle may be, irrespective of whether I turned right or left, INVARIABLY – and I insist on the uppercase letters – the client would be unsatisfied. Why?

The brief: a baffling puzzle

On the one hand, because of the magnitude of the approval chain, and on the other, because the deliverables consist of realities as compatible as Donald Trump and Greta Thunberg. The mandate was at once very important, extremely urgent and based on an ill-defined brief. In such situations, I soon become aware that I’ve been contacted as the only remaining option, receiving a bundle of files attached to a single email, often followed, within a few hours, by a flurry of subsequent emails containing more ideas. The mandate? Solve the puzzle in pitch darkness.

A lack of direction, a cryptic brief, ideas that change by the hour, too many cooks in the boardroom or teleconference kitchen, a strategic alignment based on trial and error, a guessing game entitled “we don’t really know what we’re looking for, but our subconscious knows in advance that we won’t want anything to do with your v1 when we get it.” All of which contributes to reducing the desired impact.

Storytelling: Ditching the unsolicited diagnosis

Every time I ignored my inner voice, instead reasoning with myself that I couldn’t possibly miss out on major brand X, my computer keyboard caught fire. A shrink might venture that my subconscious brought about the (negative) outcome I had initially anticipated. But that hunch would be dead wrong.

We aren’t in the realm of feelings here, but rather of a quasi-exact science. As a matter of fact, what could be more logical than to carefully think over the brief, sequence of actions, process, workflow, approval chain and willingness of the people involved in such a chain to work towards a common goal, in a spirit of trust?

I know. Many of these people are themselves caught between a rock and a hard place, wondering how to bolster confidence or how to (finally!) summon the courage to express their concerns and challenges to their boss. Best of luck, I feel you.

Traveling to Toronto in a hot-air balloon

If experience has taught me anything – and I notice this in particular as Director General of the World Press Photo Montreal exhibition – it’s that whether you take the 401, the 2, a train, a hot-air balloon, a glider, a kayak, a snowmobile or a flying unicorn to get from Montreal to Toronto, what matters is showing up to the meeting (with consumers, clients, citizens, the media) on time, with the right attitude and the best of intentions.

The same holds true for content creation. The infamous my-way-or-the-highway isn’t an appropriate attitude. Generating enthusiasm always proves to be more profitable than focusing all of one’s attention on the way to reach the destination.

For the record: let me reiterate that receiving comments, feedback and clarifications is highly important, even crucial, especially when the content pertains to a specialized branch of knowledge we might not necessarily master. But a too weighty approval chain is (highly) likely to muddy the message. And, let’s be frank, it points to a lack of confidence, which might also be reflected in the narrative. And throughout the company.

If you’ve read this far, bravo!

Let us put the question another way: why would someone invest in copywriters, whether they be internal or external, without actually trusting them? I want to emphasize that’s not the case of my current clients – quite the contrary! Hello there, client – I like you, so very much, and thanks for your tremendous trust.

So how do we generate such highly touted storytelling? By ensuring we have a thorough understanding of the approaches, principles and writing toolkit underpinning it all, which are essential to building the kind of sturdy narrative structures that rest on solid ground. Which can change and evolve over time, as we move through the seasons.

An adverb-packed conclusion

In a nutshell, this isn’t about syntax or grammar rules. Nor is it about journeying into the wide blue yonder. This rather has to do with the design and implementation of certain simple strategies and accessible tools, destined to encourage and enable an evolution, as opposed to a revolution.

Storytelling thus needs clear mechanisms, solid benchmarks and a strong foundation to better attract attention, build support, (ideally) encourage conversion and (ultimately) prompt your audience to take action.

And that’s what The Art of Storytelling training session at the Infopresse Campus explores and breaks down.

Storytelling, copywriting, coaching and training in Montreal 

One thing is for sure: in the realms of marketing, communications and human resources, the notion of storytelling resonates deeply, with each person adding their own definition to the mix. But how to stand out? Draw attention? Improve your daily practices? This training is designed for communications, marketing and HR managers. For branded content buffs, social media managers and whoever wishes to elevate their brand or organization – to give it a personality.

I provide a plethora of observations, examples and practical tools to improve one’s editorial and narrative approach, as well as enrich one’s style and tone.

> Sign up to the next training session.