Skip to content

5 (More) Secrets of Great Storytellers

You know you’re in the presence of gifted storytellers by the things they make you feel. Anticipation. Surprise. Awe. Anger. Joy. Sadness. Fear. Relief. Nostalgia. Determination. And – when you can break from their spell for a moment – sheer admiration for their craft.

Some people seem to have a knack for it. The rest of us have to work at it, right?

Here’s a secret: Even the most seemingly effortless storytellers work for it, training formally, studying storytellers they admire, or perfecting the tale by telling it again and again at conferences, dinner tables, or campfires.

When you’re struggling to say something that moves people, remember that even Tina Fey acknowledges how hard it can be.

A year ago, CMI’s Stephanie Stahl gathered together 4 Secrets of Great Storytellers. Today, I share five more secrets from experienced storytellers in the hope it gets you through everything before command P.

1. Tell unique stories or give old ones a new twist

Though this tip seems obvious, it’s more difficult than it seems. Ira Glass, whose radio show This American Life (and its TV and live spinoffs) has captivated audiences for more than 20 years, says:

People don’t really tell you this, but often the amount of time finding the decent story is more than the amount of time it takes to produce the story.

He and his team spend more than half of each week finding and trying stories for the weekly show.

Few people understand how much time goes into finding great stories, says @IraGlass. #storytelling Share on X

Add in the pressures and considerations common to a marketing team, and the search for a story gets more complicated.

Melanie Deziel, StoryFuel founder and one of the first hires for digital branded content at The New York Times, points to the “press-release mentality” as one cause of stress. Many marketers think – or are pressured from execs to act as if – everything the company does is interesting or newsworthy.

And yet, as Melanie told her audience at Content Marketing World 2018, “The fact that your product comes in a new color doesn’t even begin to register on what (audiences) care about in a day.”

To discover stories that make audiences sit up and listen, Melanie says, find something unique about what you’re doing.

To discover #stories that make audiences sit up and listen, find something unique about what you’re doing. @mdeziel Share on X

An easy place to start is if you’re working on something that’s truly the first, the biggest, the longest, or another “est.” You also can look for something different or surprising – in the material itself or the way the story is told.

Think of the quick rise of the “hands-and-pans” cooking videos on social media. Where how-to cooking content previously was written in steps or demonstrated with a cook talking to the camera, BuzzFeed brand Tasty built a huge social following with videos that simply show hands working with ingredients in or on, yes, pans (or pots or bowls, cutting boards, or other vessels).

Many brands, including Food Network, adopted the format, but Tasty earned coverage and credit as the innovator in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications.

Serial (a podcast spinoff of This American Life) is another example. Although true-crime stories abound in network television, documentaries, and publishing, the newness of the format combined with a story filled with as many questions as answers earned more than 175 million downloads for its first season. It dominated watercooler conversations for months and eventually earned a spoof on Saturday Night Live.

2. Use questions to keep people hooked

Questions are the lifeblood of all effective stories. At the beginning of the process, asking the right questions can help you figure out whether the story will matter to your audience.

Michelle Park Lazette honed her storytelling instincts as a reporter at local newspapers and business publications. Now that she’s a senior writer for the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland, she relies on her journalism training to evaluate story ideas and then craft the right ones to meet the bank’s needs.

Michelle shared these story-vetting questions in her talk at Content Marketing World 2018:

  • Who should care about this? Is your audience part of the set of people the story will matter to?
  • When did this begin? If you’re suggesting a story about something that happened a few years ago, does it still matter?
  • Why does this story matter now? What makes it timely now versus last year or next year?

The idea, Michelle says, is to help readers find the “so what,” the potential impact to them and what to do about it.

Help the reader find the “so what” in the story, says @mp_lazette. #storytelling Share on X

Questions help you decide whether you have a story in the first place. Then, when you start creating the story, questions keep people interested. That’s because they create what Andrew Davis calls “the curiosity gap,” the idea that we, meaning all humans, want to “fill the void between what we know and what we want to know.”

Serial’s first episode starts with an intriguing, implied question: “For the last year, I’ve spent every working day trying to figure out where a high school kid was for an hour after school one day in 1999.”

Right away, listeners wonder why. Why does it matter where this kid was so long ago? Why did Sarah Koenig devote a year to finding the answer?

Soon after, Sarah shifts into asking her audience direct questions: “How’d you get to work last Wednesday …? Drive? Walk? Bike? Was it raining? Are you sure? Did you go to any stores that day? If so, what did you buy? Who did you talk to?”

And, of course, the series itself hinges on one overarching question: Did Adnan Syed commit the crime he was sentenced for – the murder of Hae Min Lee?

That curiosity gap kept people listening episode after episode.

Even if you’re not writing about a controversial murder conviction, you can find ways to raise questions to create moments of suspense in your writing.

Michelle gave this example:

The eggs, olive oil, butter squares, and chopped onion didn’t get much attention. But when Chef John J. benJohn said of one ingredient, ‘These are our friends, here they go,’ many in his wide-eyed audience leaned forward for a closer look. Some grinned. Some raised their eyebrows. One woman covered her mouth.

The ingredient could have been revealed in the second sentence. Instead, she took a beat to let readers wonder what mystery ingredient could provoke those reactions.

By the way, the ingredient was mealworms (beetle larvae). And, yes, Michelle ate them.

Creating these moments of tension and resolution act like gold coins in video games, she said, rewarding readers for their attention and keeping them around in case they find more.

3. Lead readers to make a conclusion; don’t tell them what to believe

One of the lessons from Melanie’s training as an investigative journalist applies surprisingly well to marketing: “It’s not our job to tell the audience what to think or how to feel or what to do, but to paint a picture. Give them enough information so they can make those choices on their own.”

It’s not our job to tell audiences what to think or how to feel or what to do, but to paint a picture. @mdeziel ‏ Share on X

That may make sense in stories for newspapers, but isn’t it counterintuitive in marketing? Isn’t the point of our storytelling and audience-building to ultimately “drive profitable customer action”?

Absolutely, if you accept CMI’s definition of content marketing. But how often does simply telling someone what to think, how to feel, or what to do get the intended result?

“The reality is, we like our own ideas much better than other people’s ideas,” Melanie says. If you can lead people to form an opinion, their opinions will be stronger.

Any marketer can see the opportunity in that.

To demonstrate, Melanie showed three examples based on a New York Times native advertising piece she created for the Netflix show Orange Is the New Black.

First, she shared a statistic: “Over the past three decades, the number of women serving time in American prisons has risen more than eightfold.”

Next, she displayed a chart showing the sharp spike over time.

Image source

Finally, she told the story of Rusti Miller-Hill who served two-and-half years in prison for a non-violent drug offense: possession of crack cocaine with intent to sell. While Rusti was incarcerated, her two children went to foster care and eventually were adopted. Rusti hasn’t seen them in 20 years.

Each of the examples imparts information. But only one makes people feel something.

The emotional connection made with the audience made that piece of native advertising show up on the’s most emailed list.

4. Focus on action, but make it add up to something

In the Ira Glass interview, he boils storytelling down to a sequence of actions.

What is a story in its purest form? A story is somebody saying this happened, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing, and that led to this next thing.

The momentum inherent in that structure keeps the reader hooked for a while, no matter “how boring the facts are,” he says.

It’s sometimes difficult to know where to start the story. And it’s a high-stakes decision. As Ann Gynn writes, “next to the headline, the lede is everything. It’s the determining factor on whether to read the article.”

Next to the headline, the lede is everything. It’s the determining factor on whether to read the article. @anngynn Share on X

The same principle applies in audio and video – the opening scene or anecdote must convince people to settle in for the story.

You could start at a logical beginning, say the college choices that led the person to the position they have today. Here is an example from Michelle:

Todd Mason initially studied accounting and computer science in college so that he could afford to grow crops on a family farm. At the time of this interview, he has 250 acres of corn, beans, and wheat in the ground about 15 miles from his main office, one of the five branches his community bank operates.

Or you could drop the audience into the middle of the action. Here’s Michelle’s example:

There’s a human cost to change, and that cost felt especially biting on this morning. Without warning, a company had laid off hundreds. A union rep called and informed United Labor Agency of the scene: People were reporting for their shifts on Christmas Eve only to find the company gates locked.

Both examples came from profiles Michelle wrote of the Cleveland Fed’s board members. Why did she start at the beginning for one story and in the middle of the action for the other? She let interesting details she gathered make the decision for her.

No matter where you open the story, the sequences should lead people somewhere so they know why the story ultimately matters.

South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker explain their approach to making scenes pay off by linking the series of actions with buts and therefores rather than simply ands:

“Instead of ‘this happens and then this happens and then this …’ the actions should depend on each other: ‘This happened, therefore this happened, but this happened, so therefore this happens.’”

5. Don’t leave them hanging

Making sure each beat relates to the others in the story prevents people from finishing it with unresolved questions. That kind of gap frustrates an audience because the curiosity never gets satisfied.

Anybody remember fan reaction to the series finale of the TV show Lost? How about The Sopranos? While that frustration might keep people talking about a TV show long after its conclusion, alienating big swaths of your audience probably isn’t your goal.

Ira Glass says the key to avoiding frustrated cries of “what did it all mean?!” is to include a “moment of reflection.” That’s when you pause the action to explain the bigger thought the story’s driving toward or the reason the story matters.

It’s your job to be kind of ruthless and understand that either you don’t have a sequence of actions to make the story part of it work, or you don’t have a moment of reflection that works. You’re going to need both.

What parts of brand storytelling do you struggle with the most? How do you solve them? Let me know in the comments.

Refresh your content marketing story. Add a new chapter. Enroll in Content Marketing University’s spring semester by March 31.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute