The most powerful technique? Whatever fits the context.

2006 September 27
by Cornelius

I just came across this interesting piece by Mark White about corporate blogs and storytelling. He cites an entry on Copyblogger in which author Brian Clark tells us a story – and receives mixed reactions from his readers.

The comments on Copyblogger illustrate why telling a story in the context of a corporate blog (or in marketing) has a number of caveats. Firstly, we associate certain types of texts (or genres) with their communicative purpose. In other words, we are used to novels having narrative qualities (a setting or frame, a central figure or narrator, use of past tense etc) while an op-ed column is expected to be suasive, an entry in an encyclopedia informative and so forth.

Now what would happen if I wrote a Wikipedia entry about myself and started with the words “Once upon a time, Cornelius Puschmann began writing a blog”? Would you regard this as a factual statement? Possibly not, because you might associate the introduction “once upon a time..” with fairy tales and a constitutive feature of fairy tales is that they don’t describe real events.

Secondly, making a point by telling a story only works if the reader is ready to dig through the story to get to the point. One person who responded to the entry on Copyblogger wrote:

I just got bored of reading it after second paragraph (”just get to the point already”). So much for “most powerful”.

He wants the author to “get to the point already” because he expects an argument, not a story, and his expectations are triggered by the fact that this is a blog about marketing and not The Lord of the Rings. Of course you can chide such comments as demonstrating a lack of imagination, but that would mean missing the point: we perceive different modes of writing as conductive to certain purposes. When the context and the mode don’t match, we often assume that we’re being conned or manipulated. Both novelists and phishers love imitating a certain form of writing in order to manipulate their audience, even though the former does it to entertain while the latter just wants your credit card number. Conversely, we could also conclude that the author is simply a bad writer, or we could be frustrated by him not telling us what his point is but us having to infer his point. Inferring can be a lot of fun, unless we suspect that the point is not terribly interesting to begin with and that the story is simply a device to distract us from that problem.

This doesn’t mean that telling a story is a bad technique, but simply that the context should make the story plausible. Otherwise a bunch of things associated with the genre you are imitating will get in the way of what you are trying to say (imagine a legal text written like a poem or your toaster’s instruction manual in the form of a diary).

The argument that people these days are just too jaded or impatient to listen to a good story is just plain nonsense. People these days are simply familiar with a huge variety of text types and have an expert knowledge of the contexts in which they usually appear. Telling a good story in the right situation can be an incredibly effective way of evoking curiosity. In the wrong situation it’s more likely to make me think that you have a hidden agenda… not an entirely outlandish idea when we’re talking about marketing, is it?

7 Comments
2006 September 27

>>This doesn’t mean that telling a story is a bad technique, but simply that the context should make the story plausible.

That’s exactly right. My story in that post was intentionally vague to make a point. I use context-specific stories in blog posts and sales copy all the time, and I stand by the assertion that they are the most effective method there is.

Hopefully you read the follow-up post to the one you cite… that post alone doesn’t make a lot of sense without it. :)

2006 September 27

And I find it interesting that you cite the comment made by a guy named “Bubba” and ignore the one made by Seth Godin.

Maybe you’ve got a story to tell as well, eh? :)

2006 September 27

Firstly, thanks for stopping by Brian! Let me respond to your comments one by one.

“My story in that post was intentionally vague to make a point. I use context-specific stories in blog posts and sales copy all the time, and I stand by the assertion that they are the most effective method there is.”

You know infinitely more about copywriting than me, and I am absolutely not disputing that “storyblogging” is an extremely effective method. I can think of a number of great instances of blog-narratives, such as Rose Levy Beranbaum’s ‘Real Baking with Rose’ (http://www.realbakingwithrose.com/) where the author often relates events from her personal life and connects them to certain recipes (this is an excellent example: http://www.realbakingwithrose.com/2006/08/a_recipe_for_peace.html). I also agree with your observation that “[f]rom a blogging standpoint, [...] the post was a success”. A discussion is nothing without some kind of dispute – if we all agree with each other there’s not a whole lot to debate.

My point is that overall, corporate blogs (can) serve a number of different purposes (PR, recruiting, expert discussions on tech stuff, executive strategies etc) and that telling a story works in certain contexts while it’s less suitable in others.

“And I find it interesting that you cite the comment made by a guy named “Bubba” and ignore the one made by Seth Godin.”

I didn’t cite Bubba to prove that your story was bad, nor do I even think that it was. I cited him because I found his reaction interesting. I’m aware of Seth Godin’s authority in marketing and I’m an avid reader of his blog, but Bubba’s “not getting” the story was more relevant to me in this context than the fully deserved praise you received from Seth. Why? Because a) there are lots of Bubbas out there and b) I don’t think their lack of appreciation for stories has anything to do with ignorance or stupidity.

“Maybe you’ve got a story to tell as well, eh? :)

Don’t we all? :-)

Thanks again, I very much appreciate your feedback!

2006 September 27

>>I don’t think their lack of appreciation for stories has anything to do with ignorance or stupidity.

You’re absolutely right. In fact, I guess I was speaking to Bubba in the follow-up post when I said this:

“To the extent some people didn’t get it, it’s my fault. Or more appropriately, it’s because I didn’t tell a story that would connect with everyone.”

Meaning,

1. It’s the storyteller’s responsibility for clarity and appropriateness, and yet…
2. Sometime’s it’s more powerful to tell a story only some people will get, as opposed to a mass market approach.

Corporate bloggers will have a hard time with that one, but they need to figure it out.

Regardless, you’ve got yourself a new reader. :)

2006 September 27

“Sometime’s it’s more powerful to tell a story only some people will get, as opposed to a mass market approach. Corporate bloggers will have a hard time with that one, but they need to figure it out.”

Very true. Interesting, I hadn’t really looked at it from that angle.

“Regardless, you’ve got yourself a new reader.”

Glad to hear it, so have you. :-)

2006 October 2

I agree that storytelling works based on the context. What I find interesting is that I often try to keep my posts short so as not to lose readers, and I occasionally get the request to expound on a certain point or topic. I would prefer to have readers asking for more than clicking out before they’re through.

2006 October 3

Personally, I have a tendency not to think too much about whether a particular post is too long. Among other things this is because I don’t just write for my readers, but also for myself. I use my blog as a mnemonic tool quite a lot – if I’ve blogged it that means I can retrieve it later. People are actually less put off by long post than conventional wisdom suggests.

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