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4 Secrets of Great Storytellers

What’s your story? It’s a common question when you’re first getting to know someone. It begs for details about your past, your career, your family, your hobbies. You probably never hear anyone reply: “I studied content marketing as an undergraduate and earned a Ph.D. in creating great customer experiences.”

Those degrees don’t exist, of course. But that’s OK. Great storytellers come from all sorts of places. And they’re telling stories in so many new ways that each day seems to add proof to Daniel Pink’s dramatic 2006 assertion:

The future belongs to a different kind of person with a different kind of mind: artists, inventors, storytellers – creative and holistic ‘right-brain’ thinkers whose abilities mark the fault line between who gets ahead and who doesn’t.

Great storytellers come from all sorts of places, says @EditorStahl. #storytelling Click To Tweet

Captivating examples of this “different kind of mind” at work emerge seemingly one after the other. Let’s take a look at the secrets to their storytelling success.

1. Great storytellers collaborate

In his keynote presentation at Content Marketing World last year, Joseph Gordon-Levitt served as an in-person example of the “different kind of mind.” He’s an actor, a producer, a director, and a writer (phew!).

His talk explored how thinking differently about creativity led him to form a new kind of collaborative production company. Anyone anywhere in the world can contribute to one of the company’s creative challenges by submitting (text, video, music, art) through the HITRECORD website. Ideas get remixed and refined by other contributors, and the best examples make their way into short films, online videos (some sponsored by brands), and other creative works.

2. Great storytellers know who they want to enchant

For many brands, video has become an important form of storytelling, whether it’s educational, entertainment, or a mix of both. “Video presented itself via co-collaboration and creation with others on the same mission: teaching self-reliance,” says Laura Berkobin, director, digital and content at Pull-A-Part, which created a successful miniseries for DIY aficionados. “For brands to figure out video, they need to first ask themselves and answer, ‘Why would [my customer] spend their time [watching, reading, listening to] my content vs. someone else’s? What’s our expertise and edge?’ Determine your ‘why’ and ‘what’ before you tackle the ‘how.’”

Determine your 'why' and 'what' before you tackle the 'how,' says @Berkobin. #video #PullApartChallenge Click To Tweet

Want to see how to convert an undrivable vehicle to a pickup truck worthy of a tailgate in under 11 hours? Pull-A-Part has it covered through education and humor. Now that’s expertise and edge.

.@PullAPartAuto DIY #video: converting broken vehicle into tailgate-worthy truck. @EditorStahl Read more> Click To Tweet

The series, three years in the making, required executive buy-in, influencer relationship building, and content co-creation. But the result was worth the effort.

“The real ROI is that, within a group of top-tier DIY influencers in the automotive repair space, Pull-A-Part (a salvage yard) is now in their world view. And they’re in ours. It’s return on relationship with a side of butterfly effect.”

3. They match the experience to the medium

In January, virtual reality debuted at the Sundance Film Festival, where Oculus Story Studio showed several VR shorts. These movies both represent and require different ways of thinking about story delivery and experience.

In his new book Storytelling for Virtual Reality, John Bucher interviews Jessica Brillhart, Google’s principal filmmaker for VR, about this storytelling shift. “What’s interesting is shared experience – having something big happen,” she says. “You’re right there next to the hero watching it. That creates camaraderie. That creates shared experience. That creates empathy.”

A few brands took advantage of the 2018 Olympic Games in Pyeongchang to experiment with VR to engage a broader audience. NBC and Intel partnered to show 30 events in VR through headsets, smartphone apps, or 360 video. Meanwhile, The New York Times created an augmented reality section for Olympic features.

These examples (and VR experiments emerging in fashion, cosmetics, comics, publishing, and the list goes on) mark the early days of this exciting medium for storytelling.

It’s the perfect time for brands to experiment with the possibilities of #VR, says @johnkbucher. #storytelling Click To Tweet

Although VR hasn’t quite broken out of its video game/classroom niche into the mainstream, John (who also is a multi-hyphenate talent: actor-director-producer-writer), thinks this is the perfect time for brands to experiment with the possibilities. “Today’s VR projects may reach small audiences,” he says, “but they teach brand leaders the medium and how to communicate with this form of storytelling.”

4. Great storytellers don’t let the medium distract from the story

Despite new options, the fundamental elements of powerful stories remain the same, Denise Roberts McKee, COO, About Face Media Inc., reminds us. Whatever the medium – fireside ballad, printed page, documentary film, or VR experience – the power of the story determines whether an audience will applaud the content or click away too soon. Maybe it’s a relatable hero, a clear goal, the passion and grit to overcome obstacles, or a meaningful resolution; the formula matters.

The power of a story determines if an audience will applaud or click away too soon, says @drmckee.‏ Click To Tweet

Content marketing’s heart in your hands

The heart of content marketing is the ability to tell compelling stories that attract (and retain) an audience. The most successful brands, agencies, and media properties will be those that continue to tell great ones and adapt to new ways of doing it.

I started this piece with one question: What’s your story? I’ll end it with another: How will you tell it?

Once upon a time, this reader decided to invest in expanding their storytelling skills and learn in person from Laura, John, and Denise, who shared briefly in this post about how to be a great storyteller. So they registered for Content Marketing World and used the code BLOG100 to save $100. And their content marketing success story continued …

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute