How to Tell the Stories Your Audience Wants to Hear

image of vintage phone dialer

You only have about 90 seconds to tell your story online. Probably less, but that number reflects conventional wisdom on the matter.

We all want to get pulled into a great story. It’s hardwired into our psychology. Storytelling has been an integral part of humanity since charcoal met cave wall.

And we’re surrounded by more and more stories every day. Stories we read, stories we listen to, stories we watch, and the stories we share with each new digital mode of communication that arrives on the scene.

And — if you’re lucky — you’ll get a minute and a half to tell your story (may the late, great film director Tony Scott rest in peace).

But if your stories aren’t original, creative, and relevant to your audience … no one will listen.

Here’s a few ideas on how to change that outcome …

Your content is your story, so tell a good one

Behavioral psychologist Susan M. Weinschenk Ph.D. notes:

Research shows that stories create images in the mind that may also trigger mirror neurons. Use stories if you want to get people to take an action.

Sounds a lot like the basic principles of Content Marketing 101, right?

I think the first rule of Copyblogger needs to be revisited here. If your content sucks, no one will tune into your story, and no one will take the action you want them to take.

But where does great content come from? Google thinks that relevance and originality count for quite a bit. Your search rankings — good or bad — prove this.

The online market is the big conversation we’re all having, and your product is the content and the story that you share with that market. If you’re not telling an original story, in the voice of a normal human being, people tune out your message, and incoming traffic to your site literally stops.

“Original” stories are found, not born

Need some help finding some creative inspiration? It’s all around you.

Well known voices in the field of “combinatorial creativity” like Kirby Ferguson (filmmaker), Maria Popova (journalist and interestingness curator), and Austin Kleon (NY Times bestselling author of Steal Like an Artist) all tout a well known secret of highly creative and prolific content producers.

“Everything is a remix”. Nothing is truly original. All stories are really mash-ups and derivatives of stories that have been told before.

Great ideas come from taking two completely different ideas and jamming them together to come up with something utterly original and new, but somehow familiar.

This is what all audiences crave. It’s why Hollywood still makes combined billions on remakes and adaptations of stories we’ve all heard a hundred times before, but want to see told again and again.

Star Wars, one of the most influential genre films of all time, borrowed elements from Joseph Campbell’s work on mythological traditions, classic Sci-Fi television serials, and Japanese samurai films to become something original and relevant.

Great copywriters have been borrowing from each other forever. They collect something called a swipe file of succesful ads to see what’s been proven to work, and to cull inspiration for new projects.

Austin Kleon writes “Your job is to collect good ideas. The more good ideas you collect, the more you can choose from to be influenced by.”

Of course fabrication, lying and outright thievery aren’t new to content creation either.

It happens every day, especially in high stakes journalism and publishing, but you don’t want to be that kind of storyteller.

Do your research. Combine what you know and love with your audience’s needs and desires to create something utterly unique, memorable and worth sharing.

Your original, creative content is your unique story, and if you tell it right, your audience will keep coming back to hear more.

Remember: The writer runs this show.

The underlying framework of all great online content is the written word. The blog post, the book, the podcast, the screenplay, the checklist for your fantastic interview, they are all words written by you.

The discipline of the writer

Write, write, write … and then write some more.

1,000,000 words.

That’s the amount of writing author Henry Miller thought you needed to get down in order to find your voice.

The original, relevant, and unique voice that makes you stand out in a crowd.

Sounds a lot like Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000-Hour Rule”.

How long does it take write a million words?

“Ray Bradbury wrote at least a thousand words a day from the age of 12 on.”

He was making a living, and earning accolades as a writer in his early twenties. Coincidence?

Over to you …

Maybe you don’t have an NEA fellowship, or you’re not independently wealthy. You can still set aside the time to write, every day, no matter who or where you are.

Scribble those flashes of brilliance when you’re stuck in traffic in a small notebook (I never leave the house unless it’s in my back pocket). Beam your ideas into Evernote.

Wherever, whenever, whatever it takes to sketch the foundational ideas that will eventually grow into your timeless story.

As Mr. Ferguson reminds us, “Copy, Transform, and Combine.”

Now that you have all the tools you need to tell the story your audience wants to hear … what are you waiting for?

Note: In the spirit of derivative creativity, the headline of this post is a mash-up of a Gandhi quote “Be the change you want to see…”, a quote attributed to author Carol Shields “Write the book you want to read…”, and the classic copywriter’s workhorse … the how-to.

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Reader Comments (45)

  1. says

    Just be careful how you compose your story. If I remember correctly, studies have also shown that activating mirror neurons can result in making a person feel as though they’ve already taken action, and so reduce the chances that they will take actual action.

    The context of the study, I believe, was self help books. Supposedly, they found that reading self help books can trigger the same brain activity that actually taking the actions the book describes would. Therefore, you never actually take the actions the book recommends, no matter how useful they might be, because you’ve already been made to feel as though you accomplished something!

    I’ve been unable to find the reference for where I read this, so take it with a grain of salt. But if you want to use mirror neurons to motivate people to action, it might be better to tell a story that creates a situation your reader would want to act on, and then stop there, instead of giving them a “here’s how we fix it” resolution.

  2. says

    After coming up with a topic that I feel would be compelling to my audience, I always think — how can I make this into more of a narrative and do so without confusing my readers.

    It can be a tricky thing. That 1 million words number is probably pretty accurate.

    Thanks for sharing,

  3. says

    I think the mash up, combining 2 elements and finding a way to tell the story differently, is good advice. Thank you for continuing to provide content that reminds us what we should all be doing!

  4. sandy says

    Don’t mean any disrespect but this story is getting old. Most people know it takes years to become a writer. End of that story. But the bigger story here is that people want to know how to get there. And, the big and that people want to hear are the stories of those who are making a decent living online, as you are. I suppose, until they get there. Now that’s the real story.

  5. says

    I use Evernote to organize my swipe files. I have examples of power words, winning headlines, character names, opening and closing paragraphs, contests and other useful information. It’s a terrific way to build your own reference library.

    • says

      I love Evernote too, in fact, I often take my hand written notes and transcribe them into Evernote so that I can easily reference them later. I wonder if David Ogilvy would have used Evernote if he’d had the chance. Thanks for commenting:)

  6. says

    What great insight! To summarize in a mashed up Beatles quote, ” Take an old song and make it better,” for your audience at least.

    Thanks for the great post!

  7. says

    The idea of telling a story to capture an audience’s attention transcends the Internet or even offline print media. I’m a radio talk show junkie so I have my radio app going for hours every day. I hear hundreds of commercials and yet I rarely remember any of them – until yesterday. A local window company, who has been doing radio spots for years, changed their ad format. Their latest one is the owner telling a STORY about his childhood and the old crappy windows his house had. Long story short, when I started hearing the ad I found myself stopping what I was doing and actually listening to the ad. I had the perfect image of this guy’s childhood and his experience with these crappy windows. I could totally relate with this guy’s story. It’s the most compelling ad I’ve heard on the radio in a long time.

    Travis Van Slooten

  8. says

    Hey Kelton,
    I really appreciate coming across this today, and here’s why:
    It took me FOREVER to embrace the truth that everything is a remix. This was extremely detrimental to my progress as an online entrepreneur. I literally sat on the sidelines for almost two years while I wracked my brain with how to be “an original.”
    And even though I read Sonia, Brian, and John, preach “tell your story” in different ways over and over again, I totally resisted the idea. I thought my story wasn’t interesting enough, I thought it wasn’t “original” enough. So I wrote, and people read, but they didn’t meaningfully respond.
    And then I finally found the courage to make a remix. To combine the things I’m most passionate about with my story. I found a way to tell an original story, in the voice of a real human being, and I had been sitting on it the whole time. I had even resisted it (thank you Lizard Brain!).
    If you had told me that I could talk about faith, Jesus, business, marketing, and making the most out of life, and that people would come out of the woodwork to listen – I wouldn’t have believed you. But that…that was my remix, and wow how the traffic, personal e-mails, and “thank yous” have proven it doesn’t suck – that it is an original.
    Your advice is sage wisdom – I mean it’s Copyblogger – hello.
    But really, you’re right.
    If you want to make “money online” have the courage to think, to tell a story, and to write, write, write.

  9. says

    Hi Kelton, Thanks for writing this post. I needed clarification on story telling.

    Your post above confirmed that with my over 200 how to blog posts at my bookcoaching site, my hooks “asking questions to my book wriiting, self publishing and marketing audience about where they are now in thier book project challenge is kind of a story, although just a sentence or two. So many gurus suggest story telling and do not include the opening as meeting readers where they are now and solve their challenges or concerns in your area of expertise. I’m stoked and ready to create several new posts with a good short story. Do you think we should keep telling stories throughout the post? Such as using our client case studies revised?

    • says

      You bet Judy. Case studies are great stories and social proof that build trust for sure. I think that depending on your audience, you have to experiment a little and see where you get the most positive response. Try one method, see if you get some good results, then switch it up a little. Keep innovating:) Good luck, I’ll be interested to hear how it works for you.

  10. says

    Yeah, sure Evernote is good for it, but I still prefer the .txt files, organized in folders in my Dropbox. Easy to open, edit and store.,..

  11. says

    Yes, I keep a pocket notebook for ideas, too! (I use it mostly for recording financial transactions.) There are some ideas that have come from that notebook that led to great articles I’ve posted online that help share my story of what I do and how I like to help other self-employed people. I find that I act on ideas quicker from my handwritten notes than what I end up putting into the “Evernote file of someday.”

  12. says

    Personally, this post is one of those easier-said-than-done things. Few weeks back I rewrote an almost year-old article trying to incorporate some story-telling elements, yet it still didn’t produce my desired results.

    OTOH it got shared in Twitter and received a few blog comments, more than my original article ever did. So, I guess that’s an achievement in itself.

    Still, I’ll take to heart what you wrote here, Kelton, and at least try to do what you suggested in this post. I just don’t know if I’m possibly “doing it right”, but doing something is better than doing nothing at all.

    Thanks for writing about this.

  13. says

    Not sure about you guys, but whenever I need inspiration for writing compelling stories (to sell), I almost always turn to the Gary Halbert Letters. For both inspiration, and the LOLs.

  14. says

    Excellent post. Telling stories is a great way to connect and build trust with your readers, especially if they are stories which many other people can relate to. Telling stories can be very powerful in building and sustaining an audience for your blog but I think that many people are missing out and not doing this because they don’t want to reveal themselves online.

  15. says

    Excellent article! Mostly, I agree that the quantity of writing that one does contributes to finding a voice and developing a style, which may be the same thing. In my view, though, refining some of that writing into finished pieces is an important part of that process. Writing a million words without honing some of them into final form probably won’t give you the result you seek. Thanks for the insights!

  16. says

    It is so true about write, write, write and then sit down to write some more. We just can’t get enough of it and we all need to keep finding our voice, tweaking it and fine tuning it. And keeping it all original is so important to stay true to ourselves.
    We also need to keep reading other blogs as very often inspiration can come from there. I love to read, but when I sit down and write my novels, it all comes from my head.
    I do like the idea of keeping some type of notebook to jot down our title ideas and any other little thought that later on could be something. I’ve signed up for Evernote but I haven’t used it much. Maybe I should go back and use it more often. Very good tips here.

  17. says

    Good article, I too agree in general. Today the much touted call is “content is king” with any article published or distributed online. Original content comes from fresh thinking and fresh eyes whether the topic has been revisiting many times a new perspective will always be an original readable article.

  18. says

    Keeping your reader audience focused and excited on your content is what it takes to be a successful blogger. This is why you MUST have research, studying, and tweaking to allow the blog posts that you write to become useful and helpful info for the reader PLUS allow them to not be bored in the process. You’re right, it takes some talent to write this way, and I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t write like this all the time, but when I DO you can tell it in the traffic, the shares, and the comments.

  19. says

    Hey Kelton,

    nice article and I believe it boils down to two things – having something you want to write about (whether or not it has been written about before) and doing so in your own voice or with your own perspective. In fact that’s what plenty of very successful authors do – most contemporary best sellers are regurgitated old works or packed with research which is basically other people’s stories (or experiments) – like a lot of Gladwell’s work,

    great stuff & interesting food for thought…

    and I thought mash-ups were just for music… 😉

    take care & best wishes,

  20. says

    Like the hundred monkeys pounding on typewriters until Shakespeare comes out, methinks that a mantra of “just write” leaves out some clear guidance on how to create your story. While it’s true that you only have 90 seconds to tell your story, this post left me hungry for some of your solid screenwriter skills. I would be curious to hear your point of view on point of attack (where to begin the story), and focus (on the chase? the triumph? the character?) as I believe you might have some great insights to share. An overview of the importance of story is great, and I enjoyed the post…but I believe people want and need to know how to create their own story. As you mention, we can’t all be Ray Bradbury or Henry Miller – and knowing how to do something is the first step towards doing it – the first hour of the million hour march! Look forward to additional thoughts from you, on how to create the stories that are so important…

    • says

      Thanks Chris, I like the ‘million hour march’ analogy, sounds like a revolution in the works. I have another post in the pipeline that will get at some of those very insights. Stay tuned…

  21. says

    I’m new to the site and love it. Thanks for all your hard work and great insights. This site never fails me in finding good information.

  22. says

    Original stories are found not born. This is one of the corner stones of building your brand through story telling. A lot of people still have not realized how important it is to tell the stories as it is and not how they wished it to be.

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