I love a good story, which is why the stack of books on my nightstand is usually dominated by fiction. But when my aunt recommended the decidedly non-fiction “Winning the Story Wars: Why those who tell – and live – the best stories will rule the future,” I picked it up. The title reflects my own views about what successful marketing looks like, and the details in Jonah Sachs’ book kept me reading (and underlining and highlighting and taking notes).
Sachs’ company is behind viral video campaigns like “The Meatrix,” which promotes local and sustainable food production, and “The Story of Stuff,” which tells the tale of production and consumption. Sachs says that when brands invite customers to become characters or heroes in a plot or conflict, they are better able to “become vehicles for explanation, meaning, and story.” And that, he argues, is when organizations can compel their audiences to action – whether that action is taking a stand on a social issue or choosing to buy a specific laptop computer.
There is plenty of interesting stuff here about how to reshape your organization into a mentor for your customer-hero. Sachs refers back to our history as oral storytellers, as consumers of myth, and talks about how to identify your business with an archetype like the rebel (think Harley-Davidson), the muse (think Etsy) or the magician (think Pixar) to better shape your story around a familiar ideal. More valuable is the continual emphasis on focusing the narrative on your prospects. “What audiences really want is to see their own reality and values reflected in a message,” writes Sachs.
For those of you who love a good story but prefer the visual version, check out this video. It’s an entertaining overview of the book’s premise.
I was putting breakfast on the table, checking email on my smartphone and listening to NPR this morning when a story came on about how media – social and traditional – is reshaping the way we process information. Apparently, we’re not so skilled these days at focusing on one thing without interruption.
Jessica Helfand, author of “Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture,” explained that the students in her classes at Yale are so devoted to multitasking via mobile devices that she fears they skim everything and assimilate less than they should. She calls it the “short attention span theater,” and said it points to a “culture of narrative deprivation.”
Helfand focuses on using visual elements to reach members of this culture, but marketers must also be concerned with the words they use to reach prospects who have grown accustomed to skimming more than reading. For those of us writing blogs, newsletters, articles, website copy, and other collateral to support marketing and sales efforts, there are a number of things we can do to reach people who may be engaged in other pursuits as they scan our words.
1. Keep it short. No, doubt, you love what you do, and you could talk about it all day. Unfortunately, a skimmer doesn’t have time for that. Edit ruthlessly, or find someone to do it for you.
2. Give readers multiple entry points. Skimmers aren’t start-at-the-beginning-and-keep-going-to-the-end kind of folks. Give targets a few different ways to consume your piece. Add a picture and a caption. Use short, interesting subheads. Break copy out into sidebars. Blow up an important quote or statement to stand out from the rest of the piece.
3. Use bold face type and bulleted lists. A list can be a gift to a skimmer, who might struggle to digest a long narrative on his iPhone while he walks to work, but who can easily read a list and determine whether it’s compelling enough for him to answer a call to action or share it with friends via social media.
4. Keep your copy useful, funny, controversial, or all three. Your marketing copy is competing with video, TV, mobile apps, social media, and more. Plain vanilla writing won’t grab anyone’s attention in this environment. Make sure whatever you’re putting out there serves a purpose for the reader – educate, entertain and engage.
I’m guest blogging today at The Urban Muse, where I make the argument that SEO writing starts with quality content, not keyword tricks or search engine baiting.
When I sent my post to Urban Muse owner Susan Johnston, she said it brought to mind a recent tweet from Roy Peter Clark, who teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, where I was a fellow in the College Graduate Newswriting and Editing program a few (more than a few) years back.
When it comes to the relationship between SEO and writers, here’s what Roy Peter Clark has to say in fewer than 140 characters:
SEO is not the whole party. Without a strong SVO strategy, businesses waste their time, effort and money.
Want to read more? Please click here.
I’m a low-maintenance kind of gal. I don’t spend a lot of money on beauty products, nor do I use many. However, I do like The Body Shop, and I think it has everything to do with the company’s brand identity.
Here’s how The Body Shop describes itself:
We’ve believed this for years and still do. We constantly seek out wonderful natural ingredients from all four corners of the globe, and we bring you products bursting with effectiveness to enhance your natural beauty. While we’re doing this we always strive to protect this beautiful planet and the people who depend on it. We don’t do it this way because it’s fashionable. We do it because, to us, it’s the only way.
I’m not sure what “bursting with effectiveness” means, but the whole nature’s-way schtick makes me want to pop in there and buy some lip gloss.
As I walked by my neighborhood Body Shop this afternoon, though, I was disturbed by the list of values I noticed posted in the window. If you can’t make out the text in the photo up there, here’s how it reads:
Protect the planet Defend human rights Activate self esteem Support community fair trade Against animal testing
I’m pro-planet. I’m pro-human rights. I’m pro-self esteem. All of the content was on target for me as a potential buyer. But the disconnect in this series of value statements was almost as bothersome as pink-frosted lipstick made from whale blubber and tested on baby monkeys.
Here’s why: If you have a series of five statements and four of them start with verbs, the fifth one should also start with a verb. Action items are good. They make writing alive, and they position the associated brand as one that is decisive and assertive (in a good way). Also, eighth-grade grammar says you have to keep items in a series parallel. The Body Shop can support, activate, defend and protect, but it can’t against. Against is not something one can do. Plus, all of those verb statements are positive actions, and “against” just throws off all that good karma with negative positioning. Why not say the company “defends animals” or “advocates safe testing”?
So. I had my word-choice fit on the sidewalk in front of The Body Shop, snapped a picture, and walked away. And I saved myself 10 bucks I might otherwise have dropped on makeup I don’t need.
I sat next to a professional bullshit detector at a seminar last week. He had his notebook out and ready to jot down whatever interesting things the speaker might have said. I peered over his shoulder every time he picked up his pen, and here’s what I learned: if you pepper your messages with marketing-speak, BS is all your audience will hear.
The man at the podium that day was no slouch. An accomplished Silicon Valley-type, he had an insider’s view on trends that were relevant to his audience. This presenter had charts and facts to back up his points, and he had a couple of suggestions that might have been helpful to those who were tuned in.
Sadly, though, this speaker packed his talk with jargon. When you lean too hard on buzzwords, it’s hard for audiences to hear you. Or like you. Or believe you.
Throughout the seminar, I stole glances at what my neighbor was writing down in his notebook. It was full of one-word quotes: “ecosystem,” “surfacing,” “impactful,” “revolutionary.” The BS detector was turned on full blast, and no real information seemed to be getting past it.
The language you use to communicate with prospects, potential partners and anyone with an interest in your business or industry should read as if humans wrote it. It should be crafted so other humans will want to read it. It shouldn’t set off any BS detectors.
What are the overused words and phrases in your market? Identify them, and then eradicate them from your marketing copy. Test your messages out on your friends and family. Do they know what you’re trying to say? Are they laughing at the way you say it? Is the text on your website heavy with vague language? Is it focused on your target customer and what he or she needs to know?
These are all questions small businesses need to consider, especially if they want to evade BS detectors and win customer trust.