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Storytelling with Social Media

My good friend Adam Helweh just sent out a mass question over Facebook as follows:

“What are some good books on the art of storytelling?”

I started to review my library of writing texts, my archive of blog posts about short story writing. Then I realized he wasn’t asking about creative writing.

He was asking about “the story” as a marketing concept.

I know this animal well.  But I am afraid there really aren’t very many good books out there about it.

There are articles, and chapters of books, and maybe an e-book or two, but nearly all fall short because “the story” is much, much bigger than most people realize. (Guy Kawasaki’s Enchantment is among the best efforts out there, in my humble opinion.)

So why the lack of good social storytelling texts?

Because most writers fail to note that social is always more than writing (but you know this). It’s also video, graphics, interaction, game strategy, community building. You can use all of these elements to tell the story.

But it’s even bigger than that.

Story telling in a business social media environment is better approached at the highest level, where campaigns and messaging and strategy are determined.

This is where the brightest minds in marketing, PR, advertising and sales all need to come together to define the high level story, and then the pros can be tasked with building the elements.

But it’s even bigger than that.

When I think of social story telling, I picture a big production, like the making of a movie. Here’s why.

Even if the movie has a great story, you still have to create a number of stories about the story. For example, in order to get people interested in producing and distributing your movie, you have to tell a story about it.

Then you have to tell a story to get it financed.

Then you have to create another story to get audiences to come.

Then there’s the wide variety of media and other elements that are necessary to create these stories: scripts, story boards, actor bios, screen tests, filming, audio production, editing, trailers, test showings, advertising, interview roadshows, the opening night, etc. In each case, there is a story being told and each is a part of the bigger story that you are trying to sell.

I’m not trying to scare you. I’m merely suggesting that if you want to tell an effective story in a social environment, you should understand that the big story is much bigger than the one you tell your audience.

Let’s take an example. To my mind, the very best practitioners of this idea are the people at Walt Disney. As much as I may sometimes dislike their massive marketing machine, it is wildly effective. Movies like High School Musical can become a sensation even beyond the studio’s expectations.

The first thing they do is to decide whether the story that they want to tell their audience is good enough to be a  hit.  They work the script over multiple times to ensure that it is. They bring in their best writers, actors, directors, songwriters, special effects artists, etc. and just make it pop.

High School Musical was actually a great example of this. It really did become a sensation far beyond what the studio anticipated. Why?

Because they nailed the audiences – kids and parents – with a fun, wholesome, beautiful production that told a really nice story about high school…not the high school experience that you or I had, but the high school experience that everyone wishes were true. And it was delivered on TV, not in a movie theater, so the audience was able to see it again and again, for free (it also became a very popular DVD).

At the same time they were hammering this story out, they were working on the other stories that they could tell about the story.  These are the trailers, the ads on Disney Channels, the music CDs, books, interviews, articles. This blends easily into other marketing gimmicks like toys, interactive games, songbooks, karaoke CDs, cartoon shows, spin-offs, theme park attractions and so on.

The point is, the story that they are telling the audience is just one part of a much bigger story.

The same strategies can be applied to social communications. Maybe not toys and karaoke CDs, but a lot of what I have described does carry over.

Even if your campaign is low budget and incredibly simple, there are still multiple stories that can be told about your story. Think of it: Without any coordination, your marketing department, PR department, sales force and customer service personnel will all tell stories about your company and products on social media anyway.  If you can get them to tell consistent stories, you’ll have accomplished much.

And for public consumption, don’t forget that it is also vitally important to have a good story teller.

The one place where many, many companies fall down most often, is in their choice of the person to tell the story.

The best story teller is a genuine employee with a passion for the idea and a confident, professional delivery. A good story teller is present for his audience, not just for his material. In other words, he’s giving them something of intrinsic value, so it need not be oversold. The delivery is key.

Okay, so, how do you tell a good story?

Let me go back to where I was at the start of this post.  Reviewing my creative writing books.

I only have a few books about creative writing that I really enjoy, and all of them are about the art of screenwriting.

Even though my favorite medium is the short story, screenwriting books take into account much of that bigger picture, and they talk about a much larger audience than most creative writing texts typically address.

One good book is Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field. Another is Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee. Both are very comprehensive, almost academic reviews of screenwriting from almost every aspect: story construction, set design, scenes, etc.

There’s also an excellent presentation that I had the honor of attending, by another screenwriter whose name escapes me at the moment. I went in wholly unprepared and scribbled notes on the back pages of the text. The main point of his presentation was that almost every good story in any medium is going to have eight parts to it, and each of those parts is going to put your protagonist through an increasingly difficult challenge, until it seems there is almost no hope of escape or resolution, and then in the end, he or she wins, and in doing so has a subtle but at the same time profound effect on all  of us who participate by watching.

And that is the essence of good story telling: bringing to life an idea that touches us in small but profound ways, that turns us to a new realization about ourselves.

I could read my best short story right now and it would make me cry just like it did as I first wrote it.  Not because it is all that, but because it grabs a particular set of emotions and sets them free. Crying (and laughing) is a release, and a great story will help us release emotions within ourselves in ways that are curiously satisfying.

I’m not suggesting that a marketing-related story should pull at the heartstrings, although some do.

Rather, a good story simply makes a sincere connection with the audience.

Correction: a good story IS a sincere connection with the audience. Like everything else in social media, it is shared, it is transactional.

A good story may also ask the audience to suspend disbelief, and get immediate acceptance.

Pixar Studios’ Wall-e is a great example. Here’s a cartoon about a recycling robot on a futuristic earth who somehow manages to save humanity from itself. As a disassociation from reality, that’s just off the charts.

But it works, immediately, because we identify right from the start with the sad tedium and silly habits of the lonely little robot. Almost immediately, we become him.

The biggest downfall of most stories is that fail to make that level of connection early on.

But if you do make that connection, your story can go almost anywhere and your audience will go along for the ride.

So to recap:

  • Know your story
  • Know your audience
  • Know your big story
  • Connect right away with your audience
  • Suspend disbelief with this connection
  • Bring to life an idea that touches us in small but profound ways
  • Test your protagonist relentlessly until she wins.

You’re probably asking, as you read that last bullet point, why you would want to test your protagonist in a social media marketing setting.

The answer is simple: because that’s how the hero – you – wins.

Think of Apple Computer. Steve Jobs was never satisfied to simply roll out a  product. He designed it, and redesigned it. He simplified it, and simplified it again. He added functionality, and then he added more functionality. He made it do things, and then he made it do more than anything else. Test, test, test…over and over, until you win, because in the end, it is spectacularly better than anyone anticipated – even within your own company.

Most organizations are satisfied to qualify a beta product, write a press release and set up a few editor interviews and maybe a demo.

Companies like Apple tell very, very big stories with every product introduction, and there are many side stories to each.

Can you do that on a small budget?

Realistically…yeah, you can.

You just have to be committed to making sincere connections with your audience.


3 comments on “Storytelling with Social Media

  1. Todd Lohenry
    August 15, 2012

    Reblogged this on e1evation, llc and commented:
    Another good post from the ‘Silicon Cowboy’. imho, all great marketing is simply great storytelling…

  2. Jeff Vankooten
    August 20, 2012

    This is a great post! Storytelling is the essential thread weaving all of us together. Social media is the ultimate cocktail party in which to do it. But as you said, telling it is an art that can be enhanced for all of us.

  3. Pingback: SiliconCowboy’s Best Blog Posts of 2012 « Siliconcowboy's Blog

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This entry was posted on August 14, 2012 by in Art of Communication.
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