5 Storytelling Techniques Content Marketers Can Learn from the Classics

Marissa Nymeyer Apr 17 2018

Lessons for content marketers from classic novels, two old books having a conversation

In my ninth grade English class, one of the very first things we read was Romeo and Juliet. While most of my friends whined about how hard it was to read and why the sentences had to be so long, I was mesmerized. The language, the characters, the setting — all of it. And it wasn’t just Shakespeare, I was captivated by other writers as well: Austen, Hugo, Bronte, Dickens, Hawthorne. Each one of these novelists had powerful, yet different storytelling styles that still completely arrest me with beautiful language and fascinating characters. So I started wondering: how much has that truly classic storytelling influenced my approach as a content writer, and what do classic novels teach us about content marketing in general?

If this all sounds a little squishy to the marketers and execs out there (and you didn’t tune out immediately when we got to Bronte), let’s talk about the psychology behind this quickly, and the opportunity. Studies have shown that our brains are hungry for stories: we crave them.

When we hear a story, the part of the brain that governs empathy and moral sensibilities light up. Perhaps not surprisingly then, brands that use their content to tell a compelling story either through words or images are typically the ones with a larger audience and a higher revenue.

Apple, National Geographic, AirBnb, and Nike are all brands that are crushing it when it comes to brand-driven storytelling. According to Forbes, each of these brands have created stories that engage, build community interaction, and elicit an emotional response. The result is a larger fan-base, customer-base, and at the business level a true competitive advantage.

Bringing it back: classic novelists are masters of creating stories that resonate deeply. This deliberate focus on creating a rich, engaging story is something we as marketers can use to improve blogs, articles, social media, and any other piece of content we produce. Take a look at five storytelling techniques you can use from classic novelists to help create a more engaging piece of content.

Jane Austen – Create relatable characters and stories

Based on the intro here, it’s probably no surprise that Jane Austen is my all-time favorite author. In fact, my most prized possession is Jane Austen’s collected works: one book that contains all seven of her novels in a beautiful, hardback cover (with gold-lined pages that give off an intoxicating smell). One of my favorite things about Austen is her ability to connect with an audience. She creates witty, smart, loyal, and independent characters who are realistic and relatable. Characters that even 200 years later readers see and can’t help but think – “that’s me!” Each character finds him/herself in dramatic (and sometimes silly) situations which Austen directs them through with clear, rational explanations and strong, gorgeous prose.

Great content should center on creating succinct, emotional, relatable stories, and characters when appropriate. Our language should bind readers with authors. If we can create personalized voices that recognize certain truths of the human experience, we’ll be able to relate to our audience. Each writer brings a different personality and voice to a brand’s story that can strike a chord.

Minnetonka Moccasins is a personal favorite example of creating this kind of relatable content. They’ve created a brand with a timeless appeal (just like Austen) and a story that is centered around giving customers quality shoes that are affordable, comfortable, and (now) popular. The Minnetonka brand story starts with a brief look at the company’s history, before delving into the brand’s belief and the secret to their success: their customers. The story continues with a short video describing how every shoe is made with the highest quality materials. User-generated content weaves throughout the story, informing the audience why customers love Minnetonka shoes. Minnetonka uses real stories from real people to convey their brand essence, which creates a stronger, more relatable brand story, and a believable bond between the company and its customers.

Victor Hugo – Inspire your audience to action

Victor Hugo once said:

“Every man who writes, writes a book; this book is himself. Whether he knows it or not, whether he wishes it or not, it is true. From every body of work, whatever it may be—wretched or illustrious, there emerges a persona—that of the writer.”

If there ever was an author who embodies this statement, it’s Victor Hugo.

His ultimate power lay in his literary personality, his ability to create beloved characters, and to inspire his audience to action. Hugo’s work is strongly associated with social liberty, as he incorporated this theme into many of his novels.

Take Les Miserables, for example (also, if you haven’t read this book, you need to). Throughout the entire story, Hugo openly and articulately shows disgust over the treatment of the poor and the incarcerated by developing flawed yet incredibly lovable characters. As one critic put it, the entire story captures the “struggles, heroism, and humanity of those condemned to marginality.” Hugo was inspired by the revolutionary spirit of his age, moved his readers to sympathy, and called them to action.

Hugo used many of his writings to remain politically active and much of what he produced helped to shape the course of French politics during the 1860s. He ultimately inspired opposition against the French empire or aristocracy and helped to reestablish a French Republic.

[Deep breath]. So, what do we take away as content writers and marketers doing possibly less sweeping work than Victor Hugo?

Content in all its forms is an opportunity to inspire. To create an impulse that requires action before it will fade. If you can create a sense of momentum, an aspirational vision of what’s possible, and tie that vision to your brand, you’re on the right track.

Hugo was a master at getting his audience to feel something—anger, misery, love, happiness, you name it—and inspiring them to join the fight. Not to say that content marketers should seek to incite revolution, but we can definitely take something from Hugo’s example. Creating a story filled with emotion, reinforced and catalyzed by a clear next step is critical to content and to marketing in general.

TOMS is one company, in particular, that embodies this. Most of their stories and subsequent CTAs are centered around how TOMS helps a person in need by providing them with clothing, shoes, or eyewear with every retail purchase. CTAs like ‘Learn How Shoes Help’, ‘Learn How Saving Sight Helps’, and ‘What We Give’ are all rich with emotion and can’t help but inform the customer why their purchase matters. They’re not just selling shoes—they’re changing lives. I’ll admit, I’ve been “coerced” into buying a pair of TOMS just for the feel-good feelings of knowing I gave a child in need a brand new pair of shoes.

Ernest Hemingway – Get to the point. But paint a picture.

Every, single word Hemingway wrote had a purpose—which is why he didn’t use very many. As an author, he was known for his concision, brevity, and clarity. He didn’t use flowery language or adjectives. He got straight to the point, but in a way that still told a remarkable story.

Not only was his writing succinct, but he had a talent for letting his readers find emotion and meaning through vivid description. Rather than “railroading” readers to an opinion about something, he gave them the rich detail they needed in order to arrive at the meaning of his stories.

The shortest novel Hemingway ever wrote was only six words: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Not once does this prose instruct or push a reader about how to feel. Rather, the language lets the reader naturally develop emotion.

Hemingway’s style is perfect for the stories we’re trying to create, as marketers. The content we produce should be so specific that it creates a natural response for the reader. Anything unnecessary or nonessential to the story we’re trying to tell should be removed. Further, our job is not to manipulate with our writing, but to hold out a natural path to a positive conclusion.

For illustration: Apple is great at the “show, not tell” technique. Think about an Apple ad. Is it full of technical jargon that goes on about how great the product is? Nope. You’ve got some techno music in the background, the product is shown from all angles (showing off a sleek, innovative design), and it ends with a quick slogan. That’s it. And it’s pretty damn effective, very Hemingway-esque: brevity and concision.

Mary Shelley – Weave your central theme through everything

If there’s an author who’s exceptional at creating a story within a story, it’s Mary Shelley. Frankenstein for instance rolls three different stories into one. Shelley’s complex narrative structure allows her to take readers further into the story. Which, in turn, makes them feel like they’re a part of her world.

Many of the most important moments in Frankenstein revolve around nature and romanticism, which Shelley deliberately weaves into the story. She shows these themes throughout the novel without using long descriptions or fluffy language. In short, she’s subtle yet deliberate about the underlying theme.

Similarly most of what we produce in content marketing should revolve around our brand’s story and the core themes and messages we need to convey. Our integration of these themes should never be heavy-handed, but deliberate, consistent, and natural.

Such was the case with Shelley’s writing. Even though her narrative structure was complex, it always focused on her central themes. This is exactly what great content should do: focus on a central thing, i.e., a brand or a brand pillar.

Look at AirBnb for a great example. While most hotel marketing is centered around comfortability as a tourist, AirBnb breaks away from that. Instead, AirBnb tells stories for a different type of traveler: one who wants to “feel like a local” and enjoy their destination as if they lived there. AirBnb’s major message is centered around how people can and should enjoy a different style of vacation. Instead of yet another spokesperson bragging about hotel amenities, AirBnb’s writers, actors, and narrators express how much better his/her adventure was because he/she was right in the middle of all the action. Similar to how Shelley used the creature’s point of view to convey the unfairness of his life, AirBnb uses real experiences and real people to show why their approach to travel is different—and awesome.

William Faulkner – Demonstrate empathy and understanding

William Faulkner was a novelist who broke all the rules when it came to storytelling. We wholeheartedly approve of more interesting writing at Portent, in case you’re curious.

Faulkner didn’t follow traditional rules of syntax, nor did he follow a chronological timeline. Instead, he approached his story in a more circular movement. Faulkner’s readers gradually become aware of events, facts, motivations, and emotions as the narrative progresses. He confuses readers until his prose eventually pulls them into the story. Using this structure allows readers to feel as though they’re the character(s), experiencing the novel’s events first-hand

Faulkner, like most crafty writers, wrote from a place of empathy.

As marketers, we should seek to create content from the same standpoint of writing sincerely and empathetically. Writing with empathy allows you to show your audience that you understand their struggles. And, also, that you have what they need to solve their problem(s). Communicating to your audience that you’re there for them (not to just make money) is one way you can create content that engages the audience, instead of just selling to them.

One brand that is excellent at creating empathetic content is Home Depot. They understand that the ultimate goal (for one segment) of their customers is to become master DIY-ers, but they understand each customer might need a little help getting there. The content Home Depot produces isn’t focused on exactly what they have in the store. Rather, Home Depot focuses on the end-goals they help customers achieve: building treehouses for children, or how to finish the bookshelf their partner’s been asking for. Home Depot gives customers plenty of encouragement with their content. Which, in turn, lets customers feel like the company is on their side.

Conclusion

While many might say that the techniques used by classic novelists don’t apply today, or that they’re far too idealistic for content marketing, they couldn’t be more wrong. Contemporary authors and content writers should laud their techniques. Writers can mimic Austen’s ability to create relatable characters in order to form an emotional connection with their audience. Hugo’s ability to sway the most stubborn hearts to feel compassion can inspire us to create stronger CTAs. Short, concise language like Hemingway’s can sharpen any social media post, blog headline, or traditional ad campaign. Emulating Shelley’s ability to weave overarching themes throughout our writing can help content writers subtly convey their brand message amidst a sea of similar and pushy content. And the empathy of Faulkner should be our guide in everything we produce for our audiences as we seek to add value to their work and their lives.

No matter what type of content you’re writing, it should offer a story. And that story should have relatable characters, beautiful writing, and a clear call to action. The classic novelists I know and love used all of these tactics for masterful storytelling. It’s now our turn, as content professionals, to make sure our craft is just as honest, human, and strong.

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