One of the first things you learn as a trainee journalist is the importance of the ‘so what?’ test. Unless your story makes people stop and take notice, writing it is probably a waste of effort. That might seem harsh, but in today’s multimedia world, there is no shortage of content competing for attention.
The most common trap that organisations fall into is imagining that people will be interested in something just because they’ve said it. If your CEO is Richard Branson, you might get away with that. But for the rest of us, it takes a bit more effort to get attention.
The key is to start by thinking about your audience. You don’t need expensive research. Just ask yourself what content arrests your own attention on LinkedIn or Facebook. What makes it compelling? Chances are it’s because the story is about something much bigger than its source.
It’s tempting to think that, because we are talking about B2B communications, our audience will be predisposed to read technical content that directly affects their jobs. The reality is very different.
As humans, we are much more likely to read something that speaks to wider issues we care about, or that affect our daily lives. To engage the reader, you must first catch their attention – and then give them a reason to stick with you.
So what makes a great story engaging? One of the most important principles is to keep it simple. Identify one idea that you want to get across with your story and stick to it. Be ruthless in excluding extraneous ideas and avoid going off at a tangent.
Secondly, deliver the unexpected. Imagine the interest you could pique with a headline such as: ‘Oil prices are falling – is now the time to ditch fossil fuels?’ Business experts Chip and Dan Heath call it ‘violating people’s expectations to gain attention’, in their book Made to Stick: Why some ideas take hold and others come unstuck.
The Heaths also talk about the importance of telling your stories by using real-life examples. Credibility is vital. Cite your sources or, even better, quote an expert. But don’t forget the need to connect emotionally with your audience through a human perspective.
Lastly, offer actionable insights. People love nothing more than being offered solutions to the situation you have described. Explainer stories often take a line such as: ‘Here are five things we can all do about climate change’. It’s a way of rewarding the reader for sticking with your story.
Choose your style
Now you have the basics, what sort of story will you write? I describe nine styles in my book. Choose the one that fits your objectives and best suits the idea you are trying to get across. Here are a few from my list:-
Insight pieces are a great way of showcasing your organisation’s expertise; think about interviewing some of your key people to uncover their insight as a starting point.
For sheer narrative power, the hero-and-villain format takes some beating. It’s a classic storytelling technique in which the hero takes on seemingly overwhelming odds, endures challenges which change them for the better, and ultimately triumphs.
For proposing change, the ‘what if?’ format is perfect – what if the and of course, the practical ‘how to’ approach is a great way of adding value for your audience. And then there’s the listicle – a neat storytelling style we have all seen dozens of times on websites such as Buzzfeed.
Learn from the best
The World Economic Forum, a leader in the effective use of brand journalism, often deploys the listicle to get multiple ideas across crisply. A listicle draws audiences in with a top 10 – or in the case of this example, a top five.
A buzz is a short blog, a bit like the one you’re reading now, while a Q&A with a subject expert can be a good way of demonstrating not only that you know the questions troubling your audience, but that you have the answers they need.
Whichever style you choose, the key is to start with your audience, not yourself. Think about what keeps them awake at night, the challenges they are facing and their wider worries. Keep it simple, surprise and inform, and you will soon be producing great stories.