There’s something about excellent writing, something more than the words chosen and the sum of the parts.
It’s an intangible quality.
It’s the thing that makes writing difficult to teach.
It’s the authorial voice, it’s the power of storytelling.
Consider some of the most famous literary writers. Joseph Heller, Kurt Vonnegut, Margaret Atwood, Harper Lee – their writing speaks with a simplicity that belies their excellent grasp of language.
They know what they want to achieve with their writing. They hone their stories until their unique voices ring out.
Online writers should strive to be more like the literary greats, than emulate the worst practices of content mills.
“Brands and publishers must now, more than ever before, become masters of storytelling rather than simply creating advertisements.”
Finding Value in Online Content
It’s easy to think of online content as less valuable than more writerly works like novels, sonnets, and poems.
Of course, online writing frequently serves a marketing purpose.
But it also has to reach audiences. It has to inspire readers, and it should be of benefit too. In a purely utilitarian sense, most online content lacks artistic merit. I would argue though that we can change that perception.
Effective writing is useful. It adds value to audience members, and it stands out for its clarity. Good writing is something more than that. It reflects the author, it speaks with a specific voice, and helps to shape a brand, and show off its particular style of writing.
Using Content to Build Your Brand Story
Content builds a reputation, and it reflects old fashioned values like quality craftsmanship. As Jeff Bullas puts it:
“Before mass media, quality products and meaningful causes inspired the masses and spread via word of mouth – via media that was earned not bought.”
When you read Kurt Vonnegut you immediately recognise his style. Even songwriters like Bob Dylan are easily identifiable through their lyrical output.
Great writers are known for their voice. It’s heard in all of the content they create. And they earn their audience through consistency.
They have something to say. They provide inspiration.
It’s all about well crafted content that’s relevant to your audience. Content that makes readers want to know the person behind the voice.
Thoughtful Words, Carefully Chosen
You should fret over your content. It should consume you, and you should be overwhelmed by the desire to be better. There’s so much writing out there, and the internet has made it easier for it to be published and shared.
- What makes you different?
- What do you have to say that no one else has said?
Those questions should keep you up at night. They shouldn’t have an easy answer. You should struggle to answer them, and you should continuously revisit them.
Remember that you are a unique person, with an imagination, and a mind brimming with thoughts. You need to use your own voice, not emulate the way other people and brands speak.
There’s Only One Bob Dylan
In 1991, in an interview with Paul Zollo, Bob Dylan claimed that if he hadn’t written the songs, “somebody else would have done it.”
Even Bob Dylan acknowledges that his writing was only his because he got there first.
This perspective rings true for content marketers, too.
Everyone has the potential to make great things that transcend the everyday – you just have to get busy creating.'Be the first person to say it. Lay claim to your brand's voice.'Click To Tweet
That indefinable quality, that thing that separates function from art, didn’t happen overnight for Dylan.
He was a meticulous craftsman. He learned from his contemporaries, and he penned lyrics that did more than just carry a tune.
Dylan practiced, and he turned pop songwriting into an artform.
“…talking to somebody that ain’t there. That’s the best way. That’s the truest way. Then it just becomes a question of how heroic your speech is. To me, it’s something to strive after.”
Content writers should keep that thought in the forefront of their minds. Talk to your audience with authenticity, and aim to say something heroic, something that only you could say.
Finding Your Story
For most writers their voice comes from their real world experiences. This old writing adage holds more than a little water:
“Write about what you know.”
That same principle applies to brands. Use your niche, the things that you do that no one else does, and build your story from there. Your voice will come from that process.
Too many content writers forget that authenticity is key. They don’t strive for excellence, and they don’t add anything new to the mix.
And audiences suffer for it. Our collective knowledge base becomes watered down with the same information rewritten, reused, and repurposed.
There’s no imagination in that type of content. There’s certainly no art.
Jeff Bullas, speaking with refreshing honesty, states:
“Forget the complexity created by the proliferation of media or the frantic pursuit of the next silver bullet.
Stop. Because the equation is now once again incredibly simple.
Good wholesome products, good wholesome service experiences, and good wholesome stories are a currency on the rise again.”
Your Business has a Unique Voice
If every writer has a unique voice, then every business has one too (your tone of voice isn’t simply ‘professional’).
But we consider content to be a necessary evil, rather than the pinnacle of our marketing strategies. And we’re all going about it in the same way.
We do some online research, and then we write a piece to fulfil our obligations. It keeps Google happy, and (hopefully) keeps our audience engaged.
We could be doing so much more, we could be writing content that sings, sparkles, and reaches out to audiences.'Content should compel, enthral, and entrance its audience.'Click To Tweet
But how do you craft content that excels?
How do you find your unique voice?
You create stories that are memorable, ones that speak to the imaginations, and the emotions of your audience.
Consider this Lego advert from 1981. It’s a simple image, yet it tells an inspirational story. It’s a narrative of potential for kids and adults alike. The only limit is your imagination.
Finding Your Brand’s Voice
Lego’s voice is virtually subliminal. But it’s also uniquely theirs. You know that red brick belongs to Lego, it’s an iconic image, and your brand voice should have the same effect.
Readers should know it’s you talking with the same sort of immediacy. Think of your words as Lego bricks – be distinctive, and use them to build things that inspire your audience.
We don’t need more Hemingways, Fitzgeralds, or Faulkners.
We need more original voices, speaking with authenticity, telling their own stories.
“All brands, just like all people, have different stories to tell. Without those stories, products and brands are just that, but with stories, they become human, living and breathing.”
The Lego brick reminds audiences that the product is only a tool. Users are the creative ones. It’s a symbiotic relationship expertly captured in a succinct piece of content.
As Noah Berlatsky at The Atlantic said: “Writing is partly about individual expression. But it’s also about communication and community… Which is what’s so magical about language. It connects you to other people. You speak through them, and they speak through you…”
Your brand’s voice should reflect your audience, as well as your business. It should build relationships, and like the best writing, it should say things that everyone feels, but can’t find the words to say.'Your brand's voice should encourage a harmonious relationship between writer and reader.'Click To Tweet
Using Storytelling to Shape Your Brand
But finding your voice takes time. You have to craft articles to find out how you speak. It’s a process.
It’s something that shouldn’t be rushed. Your writing becomes your brand, so pick your words carefully.
To tell effective stories, you have to know the genre you’re writing within. Applying this to branding involves understanding your audience and what it expects from your content.
You need to define your conventions.
- Interviews – talk to your audience and ask them what they want.
- Focus Groups – test your writing on your audience.
- Competitor Analysis – see what other people are writing within your niche.
- Existing Content – consider the work you’ve already done. What works? What doesn’t?
- Rules of Engagement – What perspective do you write in (e.g. first person)? What type of language will you use? Again, consider your audience when making decisions.
All of these points are useful ones. Knowing your audience will help you to plan your content more effectively, and it will aid you in determining your tone of voice.
Then, when it comes to writing your content, you should use basic storytelling principles.
Narrative Theory: Using the Three Act Structure in Marketing
For the purposes of transparency it’s worth pointing out that I hold an MA in Professional Writing. I studied the nuts and bolts of storytelling theory, from the perspective used, to the genre chosen.
Needless to say, I’m a big believer in using storytelling in marketing.
There’s a simple structure at play in many narratives. It’s known as the three act structure. Here’s my crash course (I’m applying it specifically to content writing):
Act One: This serves to introduce the story. It introduces the equilibrium, the status quo.
Use this to introduce the subject of your article, and the context it exists within.
Inciting Incident: This is a disruption, it forces the protagonist on a journey.
Highlight your hook, the problem that your article sets out to solve. Compel your audience to keep reading.
Act Two: This is the protagonist’s testing period. He or she attempts to return to the peaceful state they were in before the inciting incident occurred.
Use this part of your article to show your audience you understand them. Change isn’t easy, but lay out your case. Be convincing, don’t let them return to the person they were before they started reading your content.
Rising Action: Things are going well, our hero is moving smoothly towards his or her goal. But then it all comes crashing down at the midpoint.
Inform your audience of some of the negatives, the naysayers, the dissenting voices. Give them a well balanced argument. Be as impartial as possible.
Turning Point (Dark Night of the Soul): This is an event that happens just before things get better. Our protagonist has battled through the second act, faced off with terrible events and losses, and now has to fight one last internal battle. It’s Jesus at Gethsemane.
This is the moment that your reader knows they’ve changed. Life can’t go back to the way it was. You’ve provided them with knowledge, and a well researched piece of writing. They can’t ignore it any longer.
Act Three: The resolution stage. This is the big battle, the moment where the protagonist fights the antagonist. It’s Luke Skywalker vs Darth Vader. It’s the final push before things can return to normal once more.
Your reader has survived the journey, they’ve fought their own perspective, and your compelling case has won out. If you’ve argued successfully you’ve now got an evangelist, someone who will go forth and multiply – ideally they’ll share your content.
There’s No Going Back
The trick of a good story is the fact that the hero (or reader) can’t return to normal. Their journey has changed them forever. They’re no longer the person they were at the start of the narrative.
Your online voice is there to be found. Just like the hero in a traditional three act story, you have to leave your comfort zone, confront your demons and your own self doubt, before arriving at the end reborn.
Go on your own journey. Write about it. Find heroic things to say. And let your content be the inciting incident in someone else’s story.
That’s the power of a gripping narrative – it changes people.
“That is why we crave stories like a drug – for it is only through story that we are able to bring our inner selves into line with the external world. In that process some kind of sense is made, and if we’re lucky, some kind of truth discovered.
Stories appear to be both as simple – and complex – as that.”