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Where storytelling meets social influence

August 12, 2013 1 comment

Experience may be the best teacher, but a compelling story is a close second. This is true as much in the workplace as it is in content marketing.

Let me explain with a story from my work life.

The meeting about meetings

In one of her first acts as the new manager, Sami called a staff meeting with one item on the agenda: meetings.

“We’re having a meeting about meetings? What’s that about?” several people wondered. I had my theory.

The weekly staff meetings were out of control. We never made it around the table for individual updates because each time the meeting would get hijacked by the same four people.

storytelling social influence

Storytelling at work.

They would consume the time with tirades about everything that was not working and how others in the organization were thwarting our efforts. Eventually others joined in:

“The sales reps are too lazy to pick up the phone and make a call.”

“I’m losing revenue because the plant is holding up production.”

“We can’t sell this product because the finance department priced it too high.”

The result was always the same: a rehash of the same issues every week with no solutions, but lots of hyperventilating. Mondays at 10:00 were my time of dread.

Sami had attended some of those meetings. My silent prayer was that she would bring change. That prayer was answered in a way I did not anticipate.

She opened the meeting that Monday morning with a statement that caught everybody by surprise. “I think we should discontinue the weekly meeting. I’m not sure anyone is getting any value from them. What do you think?”

The typically vocal group went silent.

Then one by one, people began to list reasons we needed to keep the meetings. This led to a discussion on how to make them more productive. Then the group came to agreement on new ground rules for interacting: offer solutions when voicing a problem; time limits to discussions; no sidebar discussions.

It turned into one of the most fruitful meetings we’d had in a long time.

At the end Sami added one last thing. “I’d like everybody to have a chance to lead the meetings. We’ll rotate each week and the leader is responsible for gathering agenda items, circulating the agenda beforehand and enforcing the ground rules. Everyone agree?”

They did. Enthusiastically.

The whole thing was handled brilliantly, especially that last part. It started a complete turnaround in the productivity of the meetings that spilled over into overall effectiveness of the group.

Related: The secret to bringing influence in any situation

From a management perspective, the lesson of this story could be about enabling teamwork or leading change. From an influence perspective, it is an example of the power of a narrative to motivate and inspire in the workplace.

But is it storytelling?

Lead with a story

Sami’s approach to tackling this management challenge follows a simple storytelling structure, with a beginning, middle and end. Paul Smith, author of Lead with a Story, describes this structure for business narratives with the acronym CAR: context, action, result.

Let’s look at the “meeting about meetings” and see how it fits into this model.

telling a business storyCONTEXT

The context sets the stage for the narrative. It is the who, what, when, where of the story. It also identifies the protagonist and antagonist in a conflict. On one side we have Sami, with a desire to improve productivity. On the other side we have the disruptors with a desire to vent.

ACTION

This tells what happened when the protagonist and antagonist come into conflict. Sami opened with an element of surprise to break the thought patterns of the disruptors. They were drawn into a debate defending the merits of weekly meetings.

RESULT

At the meeting the action shifted from negative fault-finding to problem solving. In hindsight, we can see the lessons learned: putting the audience into the story, team involvement in problem solving, leading and motivating change.

Stories at work

We often limit our thinking about storytelling to brand stories, case studies and marketing content or presentations. At least I do. But business narratives have the same power to inspire, educate, entertain and engage as brand stories in our content marketing. They can boost your influence in the workplace.

How do you put stories to work for you at work?

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Common words that suck emotional power out of your content

blog writing with emotional words

You can’t bore someone into reading or sharing your content.

Every word has an emotion attached to it.

Every reader, regardless of profession or IQ, has an emotional reaction to your words. It is hardwired into the brain.

So when you are writing a blog post or other content for online marketing, your choice of words is important. Need convincing?

Legendary copywriter John Caples made a life study of persuasive writing. Once, he changed the word “repair” to “fix” in an ad and achieved a 20% increase in response. One word!

Related: A word reduction plan for lean writing

That illustrates an important rule of word choice for writers: When emotion meets intellect, emotion always wins. Analytical words activate the reader’s analytical brain instead of triggering an emotional response. Here is an example.

How would you respond to getting this email?

YOUR NAME HAS BEEN SELECTED BY COMPUTER TO PARTICIPATE IN A PRIZE-AWARD PROGRAM IN WHICH PRIZES ALREADY HAVE BEEN ALLOCATED. TO RECEIVE YOUR AWARD YOU ARE REQUIRED TO PHONE FOR AN APPOINTMENT BEFORE THE EXPIRATION DATE ABOVE.

It is loaded with intellectual words like “selected,” “allocated,” “receive,” and “required.” I think anybody with a pulse would be left cold by this message.

What if we replaced the intellectual words with emotional words? We might get something like this:

We have great news for you. You’re already a winner.

Here’s how you claim your award …

It is essentially the same information. But the words are far more likely to trigger a response.

Weeding the content garden

Like weeds in a garden, intellectual words can creep into your copy, choking its emotional impact. It is so unnecessary. When you are on the lookout for them, it is easy to shift word choice in favor of emotion. Here is a reference guide to get you started, courtesy of my copywriting hero Herschell Gordon Lewis.

content marketing emotion words

Boring or persuasive? You choose

Every good piece of copy has an emotional outpouring of words. But there is a big difference between writing with emotion and dumbing down your message. It comes down to understanding people.

People make judgments about you, your ideas, or your brand based on emotion. Then they justify their response with logic. It happens in that order.

Your challenge as a blogger is to choose words that arouse their senses and lead them to their logical conclusion. Intellectual words don’t do that. They make you sound smarter. They also make you sound boring.

What would you add to the intellectual/emotional word list?

 

Make readers devour your content with these curiosity hooks

create curiosity in blog content

How to hook your blog readers into reading to the end.

On the night of April 14, the ocean liner Californian has progressed to within fifteen hundred miles of her destination, Boston Harbor.

Midnight.

Second Officer Herbert Stone is due for watch on the bridge.

Reporting for duty, Stone finds his apprentice seaman glued to a pair of binoculars, staring toward the black horizon.

He, the apprentice, has sighted a steamer in the distance.

He can make out the ship’s masthead light, her red light, and a glare of white lights on her afterdeck.

Stone asks the apprentice to try for communication by means of the Californian’s Morse lamp.

A bright beacon signal is flashed.

No answer from the steamer.

“Will that be all, sir?”

Stone nods; the apprentice leaves to make record in the patent log.

Now Second Officer Stone is alone on the bridge.

Glancing idly over the water, a white flash catches his eye—a white flash of light in the direction of the distant steamer.

Stone scratches his head, picks up the binoculars. Four more white flashes, like skyrockets burst in the heavens.

Stone notifies the ship’s captain.

Over the voice pipe, the captain asks if the flashes appeared to be company signals.

Stone cannot say for sure.

The captain then requests further communication attempt through the Morse lamp.

By now Stone’s apprentice has returned to the bridge. The beacon signal is employed once more.

Still no answer from the steamer.

Lifting the binoculars to his eyes once more, Stone observes three more flashes in the continuing light show, but now his attention is drawn to the steamer’s cabin lights.

They seem to be disappearing, as though the steamer were sailing away.

At 1:40 a.m., Stone sees the eighth and last white flash in the night sky.

In one hour, all the steamer’s lights have vanished into the blackness.

It is not until 4:00 a.m. that anyone on board the liner Californian learns the rest of the story.

The curiosity hook

paul harvey, master storyteller

Paul Harvey

So begins The Light Show, one of hundreds of stories told by radio personality Paul Harvey. One of the hallmarks of his storytelling was the ability to build curiosity that made you pay attention until the last word.

Listeners would eagerly sit through the commercial break just to hear the rest of the story. Isn’t that the desire of every blogger and content marketer, to hold readers’ attention through to the last word of your content?

It is one of the great challenges in content marketing today, and cause for concern. Here is why.

Recently Slate magazine did an online readership study that quantifies the problem:

The antidote is to build curiosity into your copy to keep readers reading. I learned a copywriting trick that works wonders for this. I call it the curiosity hook. Never heard of it?

Let me explain.

A curiosity hook is a short sentence that signals something important or surprising is ahead. It is a transitional phrase that links two paragraphs either at the end of one, the beginning of the next, or as its own one-line paragraph.

There is a simple reason it works.

It introduces a question in the mind of the reader that can only be answered by reading on. Let me give you some examples:

  • And that’s not all.
  • There’s one more thing.
  • Then I made a discovery.
  • Let me explain.
  • You won’t believe what happened next.
  • Here’s why.
  • That’s when things got weird.
  • So read on.
  • But there’s another reason.
  • Now here comes the good part.
  • Then it got interesting.
  • The story doesn’t end there.
  • Here’s the twist.
  • It gets better.
  • But I didn’t stop there.
  • Then she came to a decision.
  • I couldn’t stand it any longer.
  • And then inspiration struck.

Each of these hooks creates curiosity by teasing the promise of new information. It pulls the reader into the next paragraph. The curiosity hook puts a question into their mind that needs closure: What? Why? How? Closure comes when they read on.

Done well, your reader can’t escape without reading to the end.

And now, the rest of the story

If you have read this far, you’re probably curious how the story ends. Here is what happened.

Neither the Captain nor the Second Officer aboard the Californian had interpreted the white skyrocket flashes as cause for alarm.

titanic storytelling

Drama just nine miles away.

It was a matter of coincidence that they had been seen in the first place. For earlier that night – the night of April 14 – the Californian had reversed engines and parked as a precautionary measure, halted in her course by an immense field of oceanic ice.

That unscheduled stop in the middle of the sea had provided the Californian a ringside seat to an unimaginable drama.

The distant steamer had intended those rocket flares as distress signals, and the Californian – only nine miles away – might have rushed to her aid.

Except for one thing. The steamer was sending other distress calls by radio. And the Californian was well within range of those messages.

But her radio operator was asleep.

The Californian’s fledgling radio operator – fresh from training school – was fast asleep in his cabin. And that night the ship’s Second Officer, from his vantage point on the bridge, unwittingly watched the sinking … of the Titanic.

As Paul Harvey famously said, now you know the rest of the story.

Now that your curiosity is satisfied, will you help satisfy mine? Let me know if you think curiosity hooks will help you engage your blog readers. Or, if you have others you’d add to the list. I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

If you enjoyed this, you might also like:

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What every blogger can learn from Frank Sinatra

How to be a first-rank wordsmith in the next 10 minutes

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