Years ago, when I started niche blogging, I used to keep my storytelling skills confined to the ‘creative writing' label and I used nothing but cold, objective, descriptive words in my first articles.
The mere thought of writing for a niche gave me shivers. It made me anxious. I didn't like that ice-cold sensation writing descriptive paragraphs gave me. The storyteller in me itched to take the lead and turn that boring piece of copy into joyful writing that would make my readers smile, laugh, frown and cry.
You know, move from lifeless to life-filled copy.
Things started to change for me when I finally gave the storyteller in me free rein and realized that YES, storytelling has a place in non-creative writing, too!
That's why I wrote this guide – to teach you 7 storytelling techniques that will suck your readers in and involve them not only at a cognitive level (they're reading your content to learn something new, right?) but also at ‘gut' level (because we humans are nothing without our emotions).
Nothing primes storytelling when it comes to connecting to other human beings wholly.
Read on, because I will tell you why.
The Power of Storytelling
Alex Limberg wrote an amazing post on storytelling at BoostBlogTraffic.com that kept me hooked 'till the last line, and guess what – to write his post about storytelling, Alex used… storytelling!
He told of the tale of Scheherazade from One Thousand and One Nights to create interest in the reader and managed wisely to keep that interest alive:
And every night, the king spared her life for just one more day.
But for how long could she continue this dangerous game?
You’ll have to wait to find out. But first, let’s take a look at the powerful trick Scheherazade employed.
Why a 30,000-Year-Old Trick Still Works Today
As long as humans have existed, we have been hardwired to satisfy one urge. (No, it’s not what you think.) I’m talking about storytelling.
Some 30,000 years ago, when our ancestors carved the thrilling tale of their last mammoth hunt into rock walls, their scraggly-haired friends must have consumed these stories eagerly.
That’s because the need for stories is rooted deeply inside our brains.
Alex then went on and on to explain how you can marry storytelling and blogging before he told the reader, in the last paragraphs of his post, how Scheherazade's story ended.
I'm kidding not – his post received 93 enthusiastic comments!
You see, life itself is about stories. Everything we learn, think and do is surrounded by a story – the story of our life that lead to that exact moment:
- You learned how to use your old sewing machine? There's the story of you attending that sewing course you thought would be so boring but that actually opened a bunch of new creative doors for you.
- You made a lot of money selling soup cooking ebooks? There's the story of how you developed an interest in soups over the years and the success you began to collect when people praised your creative recipes.
And as Alex says in his post, the Web is filled with stories – all you need is a search engine to find those (real or fictional) you will need for your posts – as well as people with interesting backgrounds you can interview to add a real, credible and relatable story to your post (readers love interview-based posts).
Could you just taste the power of storytelling?
Good. That said, on with the 7 storytelling techniques you are here for.
Storytelling technique #1: Start with an image
Depict a person. An object. A place. Use words that speak to the five senses and help the reader “see” the story you're about to tell.
A leading paragraph that creates a mental image lures the reader to go on, read more and follow your points better. No flowery language to distract the reader, but a scene that sucks him in and fills not just his mind, but his whole self.
Example (topic is ‘flowery fragrances'):
My nose tingled as I stepped into the grocery shop.
Scent of roses and gardenia enlightened my moods and I stopped to breath it in. Then I looked around the place, expecting to see the flowers, but I saw none.
The shop keeper looked at me and chuckled. “It's not real flowers, just this home fragrance from ABC Brand,” she said.
I held my breath in surprise. “What fragrance?”
Handy writing tips:
If the right image doesn't come to you, or you need more inspiration, think of movies, short stories and even TV ads. Watch and read some and take note, trying to use words that match the images.
Another technique I use often is to find an image using Compfight or Pixabay (sometimes, I just use a search engine's image tab or other free photo sources) and use it to help my senses to connect with my brain to come up with the right words, or I may just describe what I see using sensory words.
Storytelling technique #2: Show the human, not just the topic
Put human experience before the topic twist at hand if you want to hook the reader and keep them on page from start to finish.
When you tell a story, the focus shouldn't be on the topic you're trying to get the reader into – if you do that, the copy will turn out boring and descriptive, and readers will run away. Instead, tell them about the human in the story, use anecdotes, make the human shine through while dealing with the topic at hand.
Your topic is the tool and the environment, but the human is the protagonist. If you want readers to get an interest in what you're trying to say or to convince them to buy, help them find themselves in the human of your story – it will be easier for them to start to think about using the tool or topic just like your copy hero did.
Example (topic is ‘assessing and solving community issues'):
My blogging partner was not entirely convinced we could make the whole online community work. Too much drama, too little effort by the most open-minded members to bring real value to the boards.
But while I focused on learning new strategies and tricks to improve our web community, my partner didn't spare herself in the efforts to make the community work – she went through dozens of threads and posts to observe member behavior, she messaged members one by one, asking them questions and learning from them – directly – what they really wanted to see on our forums.
While I approached the problem from the most ‘technical' side, she went straight to face the real problem we had – not a platform problem, but a people problem.
This is exactly how she turned out community from a drama zone to a place for personal growth and collaboration: (…)
Handy writing tips:
Don't just describe the person's actions in your story, but place a major focus on their motivations and the ideas or business philosophy that led them to do what they did.
You want your readers to wear your story person's shoes, to think and feel what they feel until each action taken and each tip given in the post appears as a logical consequence to the reader – in other words, you want to create a connection at a cognitive level in addition to an emotional level.
Storytelling technique #3: Start with a video that tells a story…
…then proceed to connect points of the story with your topic
The video doesn't have to be yours, but it has to convey your point and introduce your story. It can be a music video, an intro video, a spot or movie excerpt (if you have the rights or the movie is in the public domain – you can consult Archive.org for this).
Take each important scene or message in the video and turn it into a subhead of your post — connect the story to your topic and the advice you give your readers.
For example, this post by Will Blunt, right after the intro section, connects a music video by the Beatles (“With A Little Help from My Friends”) and its message with traffic generation and blog post promotion advice for bloggers, and Will Blunt introduces it with a very intriguing paragraph:
Are you ready?
Before we dive into it: I want you to click play on this video and listen to the music by the Beatles as you read the post… It captures the essence of the promotion process.
Your video might tell a story or it might ‘storify' a message – like a TV ad or a music video – but the format doesn't matter; what matters is that the video itself gives push and then complements the topic tackled in your blog post.
Example (topic is ‘a blogger's uniqueness should shine through'):
Can your readers see you as a firework?
You may feel like a dark place, without a light of your own, because everyone else's light shuts down your every effort to sparkle.
But you are not destined to stay a dark object forever.
See what Katy Perry sings about it:
You are a firework, you are unique, so make the best of you shines through.
Let nobody dictate who you should be.
How can you turn your dark, timid, fearful blogger image to a lively, original, sparkling personality your readers love (and that really reflects you)?
Here are 6 tips for you: (…)
Handy writing tips:
You can either use a video-first approach or a message-first approach when you decide to use a video as a storytelling device in your blog post.
Will Blunt used the Beatles' music video with a message-first approach – the message in the video matches the message he conveys in his post and complements it, but the post stands alone even without the video.
The example I wrote above uses Katy Perry's video clip with a video-first approach – the video introduces the topic and gives an overview of the core message of the post, then the post itself builds upon the story told in the video.
The choice of the approach is yours and it depends on the types of hook your audience reacts more favorably to.
Storytelling technique #4: Be a personal blogger
Personal blogging appeals to readers because it speaks to emotions, it tells about life, it shows the human behind the copy
Readers love personal blogging because they can find themselves in the tales of your life, just like they can relate to the characters of a novel or a short story.
I talked about how to write like a personal blogger here at WHSR last year, but in this section I want to show you how I used personal storytelling to write a sponsored post on my Luana.me blog:
Example (topic is ‘nail files'):
I was 10 when a classmate told me I have nicely round nails.
I looked at my hands and observed my fingers yes, she could be right, they looked okay with the round shape of my digits.
“But I don’t want to wear polish,” I said with a pout.
“No need to use polish,” my classmate added, “just a good nail file to make them beautiful and cared for.”
I haven’t seen that classmate in years and I don’t even recall her name, but she was right – I didn’t need nail polish, just a good bunch of nail files I could use to shape my nails and keep them healthy and sound. It was great!
When I turned 14, one of my aunts bought me a manicure set that contained two aluminum nail files. They were shiny and beautiful, but they got rusty over the years and several washes done wrong, so I had to throw them away.
So now I got for either of the two remaining options:
- Plastic nail files (they cost a few cents at the Chinese store downtown)
- Files that are half plastic, half glass, or entirely glass
I like plastic nail files, but they tend to break easily. (…)
Glass nail files are totally another story.
This is my style. I recommend you practice and practice until you find your own personal style.
Handy writing tips:
It is very tempting to go on and on with your personal story without adding value for the reader. Avoid that, because it will push the reader away instead of dragging them in.
Remember that a niche reader comes to your blog for a specific purpose – to learn something new about their niche or industry, to survey different opinions about a certain topic, or to solve a problem they're facing right now.
Storytelling makes it easy for them to immerse themselves in the topic (see next technique #5) and keep the focus, as well as relate to your experience and connect at a more human level, but storytelling per-se is not what they're after – for that, they have novels and their favorite (real) personal blogs.
Keep personal storytelling and niche advice in balance.
Storytelling technique #5: Immerse the reader in the settings
Take your reader by hand and show them the landscape. Look at it together, so they will see what you are also seeing.
… I'm sure you just pictured that, did you? You were immersed in the settings, you saw the scene happen before the eyes of your imagination.
It's what Alex Turnbull from Groove did with his post titled “The Pricing Model That Increased Our Free Trial Signups by 358% (and Revenue by 25%)“. He started with a scene of him and his team around his kitchen table, discussing pricing strategies.
Please, open the post and read its intro – you will get sucked right in, as if you were sitting at that same table with them.
This is the power of storytelling: it catapults you right in the scene.
The setting in Alex Turnbull's post is physical, but your settings can also be emotional: for example, your reader may not have an immediate need for your email outreach guide, but they may be curious about it and see if it's really what they need, so you can tell a story to spark that curiosity.
About copy that connects with readers emotionally, Ms. Liz's post titled “How To Write Emotionally Charged Copy That Boosts Sales” is a good read.
Example (topic is ‘car repairs after a crash'):
Crash! Your car hits against that short brick wall you didn't notice.
Ugh! You are worried, scared something irreparable happened. You check yourself – all fine. Other people from the street come to see how you're faring, but really, you are okay.
It's your car that's not okay… at all! You will have to spend money on repairs now, and goodness, your next paycheck is not exactly tomorrow.
Maybe if you had money, you would hire a car repair service – and maybe you will – but you have to repair the most urgent parts yourself.
Does that sound familiar?
Been there, done that. Really. In this guide, everything I learned from that experience:
- How to repair headlights
- How to undo the most superficial bending
- How to fix a broken glass
Handy writing tips:
Use your imagination – can you see the scene happening before your eyes? Can you feel what the protagonist feels?
If you can't, your reader can't either.
Don't just write your scene and go on with your content, but read, reread and edit your story until you got it right (it's the hook of your post!).
Storytelling technique #6: Use an anecdote…
… then ask your readers questions about it before you give advice on your topic.
The anecdote may come from your life, your work, or another person's life. What counts is that you use it as your starting point to lead the reader into your content and give the right settings to understand your message.
Avoid pitfalls such as long descriptive parts and too much unnecessary details – you are using a story to convey a message, you're not writing a short story.
Example (topic is ‘how to get kids to eat vegetables' for a mommy blog):
It was always difficult to get my kids to eat fruit and vegetables. (…)
There was this one occasion where my daughter refused an entire meal because it was veggie-based. I wanted to rip my hair off! (…)
Did you experience this, too?
How do you get your kids to eat veggies?
How We Got Our Kids To Eat Vegetables
The solution for me came from my husband. Here is how it worked for us: (…)
Handy writing tips:
Make the transition to the second half of your post as easy as possible for the reader, using more than one question or two questions if you deem it necessary.
It's important that the reader responds to this first call-to-action before you go on to tackle your topic or give your advice. The benefit? They will show more interest in what you have prepared for them to read and act upon.
This storytelling technique works better if you add a second call-to-action at the end of your post, asking your readers to put your advice in practice and to share their stories, too, just like you did with your anecdote.
See the next point #7 about how to use readers' stories for your posts.
Storytelling technique #7. Share a reader's story…
… and answer questions in your post.
Make it a habit to ask your readers to share their stories at the end of each post, either in comments or via email.
Then, use their story to begin a new post and make sure to tackle all points needed to answer the reader's question or to solve their problem.
Provided that you have the reader's permission to share the story publicly on your blog, you can use it as a hook – and proof of authentic interest in interaction with your readers – to lead more readers into your content, that will include real problems (and answers to them) they face every day or need to get unstuck with.
Example (topic is ‘using the Web to study'):
In a comment to our last post, our reader Matthew Smith wrote:
As long as I stay focused on my coursework and don't wander around the Web to procrastinate, I'm good to go… or so I thought! But it's actually much, much harder to do in practice without discipline. What do you think? Should I try the Pomodoro technique or something similar?
Dear Matthew (and all students reading my blog), you can definitely try the Pomodoro technique to manage your research time on the Web, but let me say this:
You will do much better if you use Pomodoro together with a good deal of time planning.
For example, you can give yourself 20 minutes out of 30 to research for your History essay, then use the remaining 10 minutes to chill out a bit and enjoy a short chat with your friends on Facebook or watch a music video on YouTube.
Handy writing tips:
Be selective in the choice of reader stories and questions you use in your posts – readers will most likely ask many questions and happily share every personal anecdote that comes to their mind, but remember that your blog is not a forum and you should put your audience's needs first.
So ask yourself: does this reader story make a good anecdote to use in a post about this topic? Will the rest of my readership appreciate and learn from it?
In other words, don't forget other readers in the effort to meet the needs of a single reader.
What are even 7 techniques without the added value of first-person accounts of the power of storytelling?
It's why, for this post, I interviewed Matthew Gates of Confessions of the Professions and Silvia Gabbiati, medical assistant and ex-writer for Italian magazines, both big fans of the storytelling device in professional writing.
Matthew Gates of ConfessionsOfTheProfessions.com
Matthew Gates shared his views and experience with storytelling:
My website has been very successful because of storytellling.
Whether true or not, everyone likes a good story, but more importantly: people like stories they can relate to and laugh at.
People like to read stories where they feel like they are reading about themselves, because maybe they have gone through or are going through a certain situation. Capture that connection and you will have a reader who really likes what you write. All you need is one article that someone can relate to and it is likely they will be back if you are that type of storyteller. I have always been that type of storyteller: when I tell a story, I like people to relate to what I'm saying. Otherwise, the story is just boring to the audience who can't relate.
It would be like a rich business person politician, who was born into a wealthy family, has never really experienced the hardships of being broke or poor, trying to relay their life to a poor person. No poor person really cares about the struggles of someone who is rich and wealthy, especially if they were born into it. I try to tell stories like a comedian would. The whole reason for the success of many comedians is that they choose topics their audiences can relate to. Louis CK, whom I admire, is greatly known for doing this: he's in his mid-40s, divorced, 2 children, with a bunch of common daily problems and situations he faces, and if you watch his comedy, he has the entire audience laughing the entire time. He's not saying anything new and different. He's telling his audiences about his personal experiences, familiar, similar experiences and the same exact things his audiences think or go through in their own personal lives, and they all completely relate to what he is talking about, and that is a successful way of storytelling.
My website came about not only by my own experiences, but by my listening to others and what they went through at work, good or bad, and writing it down. Whether a customer came in and tipped them $50 or a co-worker tried stabbing them in the back or their boss was an asshole. Whatever the case may be, everyone has a story to tell. My motto: if you have ever worked a day in your life, you have a story to tell.
I capitalized on this motto and that is how www.confessionsoftheprofessions.com was born. I obviously don't know what everyone is going through or has gone through, so I opened up my blog to allow anyone to post. I consider “my website” the “people's website.” It's not really mine anymore, as I share it with thousands of contributors I am just the moderator making sure the article reads well, no spelling mistakes, and has a few nice photos to accompany the article. I schedule the publish date and it get sent off into the world wide web. By sharing my website with others and opening it up so anyone can contribute, it helps me continue publishing articles on a daily basis, as well as [encouraging] others to share their own articles with their social media networks, which in turns helps me drive traffic to my website. It is all a great mutual relationship for traffic sharing.
Over the years, the website has gone from just my mother and my girlfriend reading it to more than a few thousand visitors a day. I'm just happy people are finding my articles and enjoy the articles I'm putting out there. I hope that people get a lot from the articles and it helps them in their own personal life in some way.
Silvia Gabbiati, Medical Assistant and Ex-Writer
My old friend Silvia Gabbiati, medical assistant and educator at an elderly services center in Rome, Italy, agreed to an interview via Facebook chat about her past experience with storytelling while she was a writer for local newspapers like Notizie in Controluce between 2008 and 2011:
Luana: I know you use the storytelling technique in your articles. Why this choice and what results did it get you?
Silvia Gabbiati: The storytelling technique allowed me to create strong feelings and emotional appeal in readers: by reading a story we can identify ourselves in the values it offers and acquire new points of view. The reader feels involved in the credible narration of an experience, even better if it comes from the writer's life, so that sensations, memories, reflections and personal thoughts begin to find a way into the mind and heart of readers in a spontaneous way. Narratives always had a critical role for the development of human conscience. I believe this technique, if well performed, carries great potential, especially for its power to reveal the human face of the reality and situations described in the story and often perceived as aseptic and emotionally far from the reader.
Luana: Did you receive positive feedback from either your readers or your editor for using the storytelling technique?
Silvia Gabbiati: I did, but for the articles in their entirety, not specifically for the storytelling technique.
Luana: What kind of feedback did you receive?
Silvia Gabbiati: They liked my writing style and especially the humanity conveyed [in the stories].
Luana: What kind of approach did you use for storytelling?
Silvia Gabbiati: Sometimes I described imaginary situations, trying to shape the profile of the story protagonist as best as possible in order to make the process of identification [for the reader] more agile and powerful; other times I used situations I lived in first person but I had an alter-ego character live them [in the story].
Luana: What most important advice would you give to writers who want to use the storytelling technique?
Silvia Gabbiati: First of all, describe real situations that will spark people's interest. Nobody likes to read plain narrations without emotions nor passion in the writing! Then, describe the context in detail, especially the protagonist, so that the reader will grow familiar with them and will start to consider them a friend, someone to learn something from at the end of the reading. It's vital to pay attention to the emotional aspect.
Suggested read: The Brain Audit by Sean d'Souza
When I asked bloggers for storytelling tips to include in this post, a blogger friend told me about this book that helped him improve his writing and quadruple his rates successfully.
The first 34 pages of The Brain Audit are available for free in PDF format here. I have read them and I can tell you – D'Souza's method of using your audience's language to convey your message or offer (or to tell your story) works.
There is more in the book, but the takeaway is that the closer you come to your reader, the more your writing will build a connection and eventually convert.