How to tell better brand stories (that journalists love)
Master storyteller Melanie Deziel discusses what makes a great story and how you can spot opportunities around your brand.
It's 2022, and everything is different. Billionaires take Tuesdays off to frolic between Texas and Mars. Paper no longer exists, but if you misplace the charger to your novel, it's no problem to supplement it with the one for your cigarette. We don't speak, we TikTok.
But whether you're streaming to the Metaverse or publishing press release NFTs, one thing remains at the heart of all your communications, even now: storytelling.
Last week, we quizzed master storyteller Melanie Deziel on the subject, squeezing her beautiful brain and trying to distill it into an elixir of knowledge.
Melanie was the first editor of branded content at The New York Times, a talented journalist and international keynote speaker. She has literally written a bestseller on company comms, The Content Fuel Framework: How to Generate Unlimited Story Ideas. Companies like Viacom, Discovery Communications and the Oprah Winfrey Network hire her to uncover their best brand stories and deliver them with authenticity and pizazz.
Given all that humbling experience, we had to know –
- Where can we find original storytelling ideas?
- How do we make our pitches irresistible to journalists?
- And above all, how can we tell better stories?
The finer points of Melanie's interview are distilled below, and you're also very welcome to watch the full recording of our conversation over at PR Roundtable: How to turn your news into a story.
The blank page is the nemesis of storytelling. You start with nothing, and you must somehow craft that into a narrative that outlets are willing to publish, preferably with a backlink to your main site and plenty of keywords.
Only, you never really start with nothing.
There's always the world around you, and that world's full of stories. It's up to you to uncover the ones that add meaning to whatever it is you're trying to sell.
I was a journalist. The approach we have is that the world is happening all around us. There is so much going on, and it's our job to go out there and find those stories, not necessarily to come up with them.
It's not like you wake up and say, I'm going to write a story about a scandal today. The scandal happens and then you write about it. You can't really decide ahead of time, and that's something that's tough from a PR or marketing or planning perspective. But you know, understand that these stories are there, there are people on your team or in your organization who are doing extraordinary things, there are people on your team who have a background that's incredible that you can talk about, there are customers and clients that you helped who have experienced transformation as a result.
You just have to go out there and find those stories.
Look at your colleagues, connections, clients for your content. They are a well of knowledge and experience that you can use directly, by telling their story, or indirectly, by allowing the conversations you have with them to spark new angles for your story.
Engineers, designers, store managers – everyone has the spark of a story in them that you can draw out and spin into a colorful yarn.
And you will have to work to draw it out of them, because chances are, if it's something they do everyday they won't see it as being remarkable. Take for example, a chef who throws pizza dough. For her? Boring, pedestrian, data-entry-level baking activity. For us? An unimaginable feat of dexterity that we'd love to harness for ourselves.
Collecting these first-hand accounts are invaluable to your storytelling.
These are compelling stories that we can share. Those kinds of things really only come from being deeply connected to your organization or your clients, and having conversations.
Take another example. You're working for a travel company wanting to popularize a particular destination, a certain luxury escape. You can go the generic route – you can read up on the history, the weather, the reviews, the local scene. What you'll get is an average story that anyone with the ability to google could throw together.
But what if you spoke with the concierge that's worked there for the past 25 years? What if they knew the restaurants that aren't on OpenTable, the quiet haunts you can escape to in the evenings to hear local musicians strike up, and where the regulars like to dance well into the night?
The point being, there are hidden gems in all your connections, both external and within your organization. Take the time to find them.
To turn your news into a story that other people feel compelled to care about, you need to combine three elements.
What's happening in the world, society, industry that makes this story important right now?
Data can help here. Find something that you can point to and say, here's the situation right now, here's the trend, here's why we're doing what we're doing.
Including people in your story makes it instantly more relatable, so think about your news in that context. Think about how this affects people, whether that's the people in your audience or the people within the story.
Find people who can speak to that first point of relevancy. That could be customers, it could be a member of your team, it could be an industry expert. Use them to demonstrate why your topic is important, and why people want this.
The last one is that unique element. Journalists are always looking to find out what's different about this story compared to the hundreds of other pitches clogging their inbox.
And this is the toughest for us to answer, because many times we are announcing similar things weekly, monthly, quarterly. Don't let that lull you into mundanity. Ask, what's different? What's special? Why is this something worth talking about?
There's a couple of different things that we look for from a journalist side of things. The first one is newsworthiness. Why do people care? Is this relevant right now?
Ok, so you've pumped your contacts for life experience, you've got your notes and you know the rough information that you're going to base your story on. The problem is, their use case is incredibly niche; it simply does not apply to 99.99% of people. What are you going to do?
One thing you can do is to zoom out and generalize that story a little bit.
Instead of relating that exact experience, think about what that experience tells us about the world. How can learnings from one person's story serve as a helpful guide for others?
In this case, it can help to speak with multiple people on the same topic, since it will help you draw parallels between their stories and eke out a parable or cautionary tale from their combined experience.
Start with a smaller story and then tell a bigger story around it, and make sure that it's going to be broadly applicable to a bigger segment of your audience.
This also works well when you have to convey something very technical to a lay audience. If you can generalize those technicalities into a more tangible experience that people outside of that niche can relate to, you can broaden the understanding and appeal of your story.
"So while an individual consumer may not have preferences for how many decibels of noise cancellation a pair of headphones can deliver, they may understand the value of being able to have this call without hearing your dog barking outside," says Melanie. "They can understand why this feature is important that they can connect with, that they can relate to."
Which means that it's far more effective to pitch a handful of people at a time, having tailored your story specifically to them and their audience. You're never going to get the same results by concocting a story that tries to appeal to everyone (thereby wowing no one), or by sending one nuanced story to thousands of people.
Not every story needs to make national headlines.
Hammer out what you aim to achieve with your story, how those tie in with the wider company goals, and the tactics you will use to get there.
I'll give an example. The Convoy is sort of a B2B marketplace for small businesses. We did raise a round of funding and we put out a press release, but the goal wasn't to be in the New York Times or TechCrunch, we're not at that point just yet.
But we did get covered in a lot of local press who cares deeply about the fact that local entrepreneurs raised money from local investors. So there's an angle there that's special here, in this place.
There was also the fact that our founding team is fairly diverse. We have an African-American man, we have two Middle-Eastern men, and we also have me as a woman, who are a part of our founding team, and to publications who closely follow diversity in the startup space, that's an interesting story, even though we're not PayPal, we're not Uber.
While it's very possible that I'm the minority when I say that learning is cool, storytelling that educates your audience can be extremely effective. So long as you do it in a way that makes people go "ooh", and don't just bombard them with technical information or make them feel awkward about forgetting their high-school science lessons in their entirety.
The thing is, pretty much any topic is interesting if you dig into it with passion. Take the show How It's Made for an example. Who among us hasn't marathoned their way through a mini-documentary on the manufacture of hosiery, tennis balls and, of course, the common household plumbus?
By all rights, each one of those topics should be about as dry as the martini I'm planning to have later tonight (TGIF 🎉), but instead you're not only drawn into chain-watching these episodes, you also hold enthusiastic court on the subjects with your nearest and dearest. Why? Because as well as being entertained, you're getting a new layer of understanding into an experience that's already familiar to you.
If you can achieve the same connection between the familiar and the unknown with your story, then you will draw people in.
Mark Twain once observed, 'A lie can get halfway around the world before the truth can even get its boots on.' His observation rings true: Urban legends, conspiracy theories, and bogus news stories circulate effortlessly. Meanwhile, people with important ideas – entrepreneurs, teachers, politicians, and journalists – struggle to make them 'stick'.
There's only so much speculation you can do about whether or not a story will work without actually involving your audience – so why not go direct to the source? Float your idea by a couple of people who are actually in your audience. You'll be surprised at who's willing to help if you just ask.
"I'm a big fan of dropping things in smaller pieces and building up," says Melanie. "So maybe you share a tweet or a Twitter thread about the piece to see if there's interest. And then that evolves into a bigger piece of content."
For more on the subject, I'd recommend having a flick through 📖 Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.
Different people prefer to engage in content in different ways. But look at you juggling your paperback, Kindle and audiobook subscription – I don't need to tell you that. But very few people keep that in mind when they think about telling a story.
Instead of defaulting to a written format the next time you're crafting a story, think about how else you can engage and entertain your audience.
For example, let's say you've been tasked with helping launch a new camera. What goes into your press release?
You can talk about the difference in megapixels between your product and the leading competitor. You can speak with some of the people who engineered it and quote their vision. As a next step, you could show photographs taken with that camera side-by-side – great, it visually demonstrates your benefit and gives journalists something they can use.
Or maybe you can hand that camera to a techy Instagrammer, or to one who's obsessed with travel, and let them tell a story using your camera. You can film a bitesize movie where a girl captures candid shots of her family on holiday and presents her grandma with a print of one of those photos that's so big and high-resolution that her grandma will remember that weekend forever, and look back on it with crystal clarity despite her aging eyesight. Are the holidays coming up? Replace the beach with Christmas.
Keep your eyes open to the media formats and social platforms materializing around us everyday, and be curious in finding new ways to tell your story. A few formats to consider:
- Livestreams and webinars
- Immersive experiences in real-life or AR/VR
- Podcasts and audio clips
- Social platforms like TikTok, Pinterest, Instagram
- Illustrations, traditional drawings
- Interpretive dance, street theatre, flash mobs (I'm sure, with a bit of finesse, these would create a stir journalists and regular folk will be happy to shout about)
If we default to the same format all the time, we're missing opportunities to tell our stories and more compelling. Feed your imagination.
Riding on the shirttails of a breaking trend sounds like a surefire shortcut to coverage, but in reality? The resources required combined with reams of regulatory and company compliance make it incredibly difficult to pull off.
That doesn't mean you shouldn't do it – it just shouldn't be at the heart of your content and distribution strategy.
The best thing you can do to up your chances of being responsive to current events is to understand what resources you already have at your disposal, and to firmly define the boundaries of what you can and cannot mention so you can work within those parameters.
So many comms people – particularly recent graduates and browbeaten interns – write as though they're on a strict diet of the Financial Times and thesauruses. This is particularly true when the audience being addressed is other businesses.
The #1 mistake people make when addressing a B2B audience is being overly formal, prosaic and boring. But why on Earth should that be the case? It's always a human being that makes the decisions behind any industry (ok, perhaps barring law and finance). When you tell your story, speak to that person, not some faceless entity.
Ross Simmonds from Foundation says it all the time: there's no such thing as boring marketing, there's just boring marketers. You don't have to be boring.
You don't have to think that B2B is this limit, that 'I must be in this little box, I can only create white papers and I can only be on LinkedIn'. If you do that to yourself, you're putting limits on your own marketing on your own potential and your growth.
So by all means, be B2B. It's helpful to have that categorization for finding resources and products that are a fit for you, and finding your audience. But don't let it limit you. Don't think that because I'm B2B, I'm not allowed to be fun or funny or innovative or try new things or go on TikTok.
In Melanie's view, content ideas aren't a scarcity – they're a renewable resource. You just need to know how to tap into them. But learning how to do that? Yeah, it can be tricky. That's why Melanie wrought her expertise into a tactical guide for coming up with storytelling ideas around your brand, publishing it to bestseller success some two years ago.
The Content Fuel Framework gives you a flexible system for coming up with content ideas and helps you to recognize opportunities for storytelling in your day-to-day work. It teaches you a mindset that makes brainstorming ideas more intuitive, and shows you how to apply that approach to practical things – like your content calendar or your next press release.
There's not much value in repeating what someone else has already written, so I'd like to point you to an excerpt and review of the book's system on the subtly titled blog Without Bullshit; enjoy.
If you want to get in shape, you go to the gym. If you want to become a better storyteller, you need to consume, plan and create content.
Here are Melanie's top three tips to make you a better writer:
- Start with 15 minutes a week. Pencil time into your calendar where you can study content, even if that's just 15 minutes a week. Use that time to read, watch or listen to great content, read a book, take a course on Skillshare. Pay attention to how each story is told, what the narrative is, what draws you in.
- Take time to plan your content. "One of the things we would do is put time on the calendar, e.g. I'm going to work on a Twitter post for this 30 minute spread or this 15 minute spread," says Melanie. "That thread didn't happen when he was waiting in line for coffee."
- Commit. Arguably the hardest part of doing anything is consistency. You don't need to invest all your time into getting better – you just need to keep on doing it.
That's the biggest step. Regardless of what resources you choose, make that commitment, whether it's daily, weekly, whatever. I'm going to work on becoming a better storyteller, just like I want to get in shape, I'm going to go to the gym.
- The Content Fuel Framework by Melanie Deziel (naturally)
- Made to Stick by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
- Stories that Stick by Kendra Hall
- Everybody Writes by Ann Handley
- Content Marketing Institute – "A fantastic blog, lots of free resources. It covers things from more of a marketing perspective, but you will find a lot of tips for using different formats for storytelling mixed in there."
- Julian Shapiro's twitter threads – I love these, because they're always educational, extremely well thought out, and ask for nothing in return (he also has a great newsletter)
- How to Dominate A Boring Industry with Content Marketing by Ross Simmonds is a wonderful article for all you B2B babes out there
- Our newsletter, because we love subtle advertising.
Have other great recommendations? I'd love to add them to my reading list – let me know!
Published March 2022