A storytelling framework for content people
I’ve always been fascinated by the power of storytelling.
I went into marketing largely because of this fascination. I’m interested in understanding what makes a story resonate, and how we can tweak and adapt a relatively standard formula to create many different types of stories across a growing collection of media, channels, and formats.
Having transitioned into content strategy, I’m now thinking about how to use storytelling in other business contexts. When is it useful, and when is it not? How can we adapt it for specific applications? Can storytelling be useful in the world of content strategy?
Storytelling is at its most powerful in a business context when it’s used to communicate ideas and rally support for those ideas. For example, one of the challenges that content people often have in large companies is getting support and resources to make improvements in how the company approaches content.
These larger improvements often require executive buy-in. Improvements might involve shifting to a user needs-based approach to content, or making changes to content processes to improve efficiency and content quality. Or they could involve any number of other improvements that need to be made to content planning, creation, and management. Communicating ideas effectively—and in a compelling way—to the right people is critical to getting support for content projects like this, and storytelling can help.
There are many different ways to structure a story, but the one below is based on the Hero’s Journey, which I think is the most useful for connecting with target audiences in a business context. In this story framework, your target audience is the protagonist (or hero) of the story, and the story is built around a problem or opportunity that your hero is facing.
Here’s a breakdown of the general elements and how you can apply them in a business context, but there is flexibility within them to adapt the structure to your needs. Below, I offer some suggestions for how this framework can be used by content people.
A storytelling framework for business communication
1. The Hero
- Have a deep understanding of your hero; your target audience. Although you will not state this explicitly when telling your story, having this understanding will allow you to frame the story in a way that resonates with your audience, keeping who they are and what they need in mind.
- Who are they? How does your story relate to them?
- What are their pain points and challenges?
2. The Current Situation
- Articulate your hero’s Current Situation in the context of the problem/opportunity you’re going to address. Be descriptive; make your audience see themselves in your hero’s frustrations or challenges.
- What does it feel like for them, their team, and/or their company?
- What are the challenges and their business implications?
- Why and how is this frustrating for the hero, their team, and/or their company?
3. The Trigger
- Identify the event that motivates the hero to move from the Current Situation towards a new goal. This can be an internal realization or an external event. Some examples include:
- A new person is hired and sees a problem/opportunity, a department is restructured, new technology is being adopted, a crisis results because of how things are currently being done, etc.
If the story is a retelling of something that happened (a case study, for example, or to demonstrate how changes you made resulted in successes), the Trigger will be part of the story you tell.
If the story is intended to persuade your audience that something should happen (for example, a business case for a proposed change/project), then your story would (hopefully) be the Trigger, and would not be part of the story you tell.
4. The Goal
- Paint a picture of the new situation that the hero (your target audience) envisions, in which the challenges outlined in the Current Situation stage have been resolved, and describe the business implications of that resolution. Focus on what your hero wants and needs.
- What will it feel like? How will things be better? What does that look like to an employee and on a business level?
5. The Quest
- Describe the work required to get the hero from the Current Situation to the Goal.
If the story is a retelling of something that happened (a case study, for example, or to demonstrate how changes you made resulted in successes), then this section describes the journey that took place to reach the Goal, including the detailed steps/process, and the unexpected and expected challenges and how they were overcome.
If the story is intended to persuade your audience that something should happen, or to show them how to do something within their own organizations (a business case for a proposed change/project, for example, or for a conference/webinar presentation), then this section describes how to move forward to get to the Goal. This should include a step-by-step plan that accounts for expected obstacles and challenges, and that demonstrates a clear path forward.
6. The Climax
- Identify the point at which the hero has completed the Quest and achieved the Goal.
- This is the point at which the work needed to take the hero from Current Situation to achieving the Goal is complete.
7. The New Situation
- Paint the picture of how things are now (or how they will be) after the hero has completed the Quest. This section should revisit the Current Situation and articulate the changes resulting from the transformation to this new normal.
- How are things better? What data is available to demonstrate this?
- How have the problems laid out in the Current Situation been solved?
- What has been put into place to maintain this new normal?
8. The Take-away
- Summarize the change in perspective that your audience has (hopefully) experienced through your story, and lay out the actions they should take next based on this change.
That’s the basic framework. In addition to this structure, emotional elements are also critical at each stage. Your ability to make the hero’s problem and journey relatable and resonant with the target audience will depend on how well you’ve done your research. It requires understanding, on an emotional level, who your target audience is, what they want, and what their pain points are, and then making your audience feel those things. Get descriptive.
How content people can use this framework
Put together a business case for a specific content strategy project
If you have a specific project in mind and are creating a business case for it, this framework can be a great way to structure your pitch to make sure it’s framed in a way that resonates with the people you’ll be pitching to; the ones in charge of approving your project.
Following the storytelling framework, you can craft a presentation that:
- Draws the audience in by putting forward a clear problem or opportunity that they care about solving or exploiting.
- Flows in a logical and easy-to-follow way.
- Gives a satisfying conclusion that wraps up the initial problem or opportunity posed, demonstrating the value of moving forward.
- Provides all the information needed for the audience to take action and make a decision, or to come to a new understanding of the problem/opportunity.
Get leadership and stakeholder buy-in for an improved approach to content strategy
We hear repeatedly that one of the biggest challenges content people face is a lack of buy-in from management for better approaches to content. Often, budget and resources are not available to support improvements in content processes, planning, creation, and management. So what’s a content person to do?
We come across this problem a lot, and we recommend a three-step solution (hint: the last step is where you’ll use the storytelling framework to communicate your successes).
1. Identify opportunities
Identify opportunities to improve your approach to content that don’t involve using extra resources. This is important in the beginning, when you don’t have a lot of support. You can learn some specific ways to do this in our posts on adding content to your UX methodologies, content insights from growing companies, and finding content gaps and opportunities to map content to customer journeys.
2. Track and measure
Once you’ve started to make small changes and see improvements, the second step is to track and measure those improvements. As a starting point, we’ve written about how to use KPIs to measure content, and how to know if your content is working. Be sure to measure before and after you make changes so that you have a benchmark and can show the impact of your changes afterwards.
3. Share your successes (using storytelling!)
After you’ve collected some small victories, business communication comes into play. Now it’s time to show people the value of an improved approach to content. This step is critical if you want to win over leadership and other stakeholders, build support, and ultimately secure a greater commitment and more resources towards making content changes on a larger scale.
This is where the storytelling framework comes in. Present your successes to stakeholders to communicate the effectiveness of these small changes, and leverage your results to get support for other content initiatives. In particular, try to keep your audience in mind as the heroes of your story, and frame the story in a way that shows them how these results improve things for them, as well as for the business.
Other ways content people can leverage storytelling for business communication
If your company uses testimonials or case studies on its website or blog to demonstrate value to potential customers, using a story structure can make your story more relatable and resonant with your audience.
There are a multitude of ways to structure your journey mapping framework, but I’ve found that in some cases (such as when focusing on specific problems that your user may be trying to solve), mapping the user journey to the storytelling framework can help you navigate through their thought process and help you ensure you’re helping them through each stage of their problem-solving process (or at least the stages where your company has a role to play).
Change management during transformation:
You may be on the verge (or in the process) of leading a significant transformation within your company, such as a website redesign. Presenting the upcoming changes as a well-crafted story can be an effective way to get people more comfortable with the change by helping them visualize it, and link it to the business objectives, as well as their own roles. As outlined in a Forbes article, “Through storytelling, you can share knowledge, describe pain points to be addressed, deliver the satisfaction of a resolution to a problem and convey a sense of culture.”
Spreading content ideas throughout the content community:
As a content person, you may find yourself giving talks and presentations about content at conferences and meetups, or as a guest speaker on webinars or podcasts. Following the story structure can be an engaging way to share case studies on how you solved a content problem in an organization, or to share an idea, tool, or solution that you’ve created, or that has worked for you.