It’s become voguish in Silicon Valley to use the word “storytelling” to describe marketing communication, written communication generally, and even communication full stop. Personally, I don’t love this trend: most communication doesn’t involve narrative, and indeed, most communication takes place outside of language. Storytelling has its place, but it’s not the full story.

If we want to talk about written communication in a clear, practical way, a bit of precision would help. Below are some of our favorite guides.

Effective business writing (in general)

Stephen Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century is a tidy synopsis of many other classic style manuals, with some neuroscientific explanations for why concision, clarity, transition, and good grammar are important.

In Quiet Leadership, David Rock also uses neuroscience to argue that effective, intentional communication is always specific, succinct, and “generous” (by which he means, filled with warm human feeling).

When I am creating or revising an organization’s core positioning and messaging, I often use the following copywriting filters: “clear, relevant, different, and better.”

Business writers can use these editing tools, and the ones below, to streamline their writing and, usually in the process, their thinking.

Effective marketing writing (in general)

All newbie marketers struggle with concision—finding the beating heart of their argument, killing their darlings, knowing that fewer words are the soul of wit and that redundancy is death.

The next challenge a marketer often faces is to ground each communication in a unique human interaction, either real or imagined. I’ll illustrate the importance of this with a brief anecdote. . . Several years ago, I decided to sing the showtune “On the Street Where You Live” from My Fair Lady in a group performance class. The song was a technical stretch for me at the time, and I was eager to do it justice, but in the end my performance was emotionally inert because I was focusing so much on vocal technique that I lost track of basic things like: Who am I? Where am I? What do I want? Who am I talking to? What do they want? How are their emotions and expectations changing while I sing? How far away from me are they, physically, and what does that distance (implicitly) communicate? Why am I singing in the first place? Singing is my own humility-gym for keeping me aware of these kinds of questions. Inattention to audience, environment, or context leads to writing that’s canned—that isn’t succinct, specific, or generous.

Once concision and intention are mastered, marketers face their next big challenge, which is authenticity. When communication is effective, when there’s a real communion, there are two parties involved: a Self and an Other (or what Martin Buber called an “I” and a “Thou”). When we brainlessly match the formal, aesthetic expectations for a “press release” or “brand tagline” or “promotional video,” we aren’t talking to an Other, we are talking to what Jacques Lacan called “the big Other.” Readers or viewers may appreciate that the communication is formally correct, but they won’t actually be moved or convinced. Mark Fisher explains:

“Here, Žižek’s elaboration of Lacan’s concept of the ‘big Other’ is crucial. The big Other is the collective fiction, the symbolic structure, presupposed by any social field. The big Other can never be encountered in itself; instead, we only ever confront its stand-ins. These representatives are by no means always leaders. In the example of the White Sea Canal above, for instance, it wasn’t Stalin himself who was the representative of the big Other so much as the Soviet and foreign writers who had to be persuaded of the glories of the project. One important dimension of the big Other is that it does not know everything. It is this constitutive ignorance of the big Other that allows public relations to function. Indeed, the big Other could be defined as the consumer of PR and propaganda, the virtual figure which is required to believe even when no individual can. To use one of Žižek’s examples: who was it, for instance, who didn’t know that Really Existing Socialism (RES) was shabby and corrupt? Not any of the people, who were all too aware of its shortcomings; nor any of the government administrators, who couldn’t but know. No, it was the big Other who was the one deemed not to know – who wasn’t allowed to know – the quotidian reality of RES.” (Capitalist Realism)

Slavishly following conventions leads to dull writing; that said, if we want to break, stretch, or ironically wink at existing conventions, we first need to know what they are and then demonstrate that awareness. In marketing, we refer to discrete physical, virtual, and social contexts for communication as “channels,” and organizations use different words, and use words differently, in each one. TikTok, SEM ads, billboards, and press releases are all “marketing channels.” Happily, the formal and informal expectations that go with each channel can often be found and learned quickly with a few hours of research. (Depending on your needs, Copyblogger, Codeless, and are all good places to start.)

One last, invaluable competency for marketers — which they can either bring as an innate talent or shine as a developed talent — is the ability to write using different voices. To be heard in today’s mediasphere, every organization and individual influencer must maintain a consistent content personality that supports a singular and memorable brand. Being a ventriloquist for different prose personalities is a learnable skill, but many marketing gurus don’t teach it, and they certainly don’t model it because their own marketing depends on the fierce maintenance of a singular voice. Seth Godin always sounds like Seth Godin; Venkat Rao always sounds like Venkat Rao. Attuned writers can put their own familiar, personal voice aside and diagnose what will serve for each unique organization. The Mailchimp content style guide is a perennial good example of what a complete voice and tone guideline document can look like. Organizations can use this template as a starting point for standardizing their own unique and uniquely effective voice.

Effective business writing (narratives)

And now it’s time to talk about stories.

Human brains love stories, and we will automatically look for stories whether they’re there or not and can often believe them whether they’re true or not.

All senior executives regardless of function or industry must learn how to persuade using narratives. For the C-suite, Art Kleiner’s keynote talk “Stories of management” contains excellent general advice. The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille likewise has good instruction for choosing narratives and frames that resonate with deep cultural archetypes.

For anyone looking for deeper insights and tools, two books I love that explain how the brain uses stories are Wired for Story by Lisa Cron and Working with Narrative in Emotion-Focused Therapy by Lynne E. Angus & Leslie S. Greenberg. The latter work explores a short list of everyday narrative distortions that are common side effects of trauma: (1) broken stories, (2) unstoried emotion, (3) empty stories, and (4) same-old stories. I use this framework often, if implicitly, in my coaching work and in my writing. Discovering what needs to be expressed and incorporating what’s “missing” into narrative is one way we heal from trauma and feel connected to life in all its fullness.

Stories can reveal and restore us to ourselves.

Ongoing skill development

Being a professional writer requires inspiration and discipline. The resources below demystify the process of creating a regimen and perfecting one’s craft, whether that involves fiction-writing, nonfiction, or something in between.

The Book He Wasn’t Supposed to Write, Thomas E. Ricks
Practical Tips on Writing a Book from 23 Brilliant Authors (hat tip to Steve Silberman)
The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, Vivian Gornick
From Where You Dream: The Process of Writing Fiction, Robert Olen Butler
What Writers Really Do When They Write, George Saunders
Know thyself… by writing your first novel, Richard Skinner
The Writer’s Tale, Russell T. Davies
Steering the Craft: A Twenty-First-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, Ursula Le Guin
The Motion of Light in Water, Samuel R. Delany
About Writing, Samuel R. Delany
The Jewel-Hinged Jaw, Samuel R. Delany

Musicality (in general)

And last, master storytellers savor the beauty, intricacy, and special possibilities of language. They push the limits. Painters like Monet pioneered visual Impressionism in part in reaction to the rise of photography: it was suddenly urgent to explore what painting could uniquely do. Exceptional writers do the same, but with words.

Two works that have made a particularly deep impression on me are Love’s Knowledge by Martha Nussbaum, which argues that the novel is a necessary art form for making moral arguments, and Stephen Booth’s Close Reading without Readings: Essays on Shakespeare and Others, which shows in detail how powerful storytellers rely on a constant gurgle of micro-expectations to enchant their audiences. Great comedians and composers do the same. Dan Siegel calls emotions “the music of the mind,” and expert writers can play those emotions like a piano.

As Sam R. Delany argues, writing that’s attuned to the inner music of emotion and thought can transform the reader, expand social discourses, merge with other discourses, and from there, change the world, materially and politically.

Some additional writers and writings I’ve enjoyed recently, for how they experiment with language and structure, are:

My 1980s and Other Essays, Wayne Koestenbaum
The 7th Function of Language, Laurent Binet
Embassytown, China Miéville
This Census-Taker, China Miéville
The Line of Beauty, Alan Hollinghurst
Annotations, John Keene

Kostenbaum writes:

“I’m trying to figure out sequence: how paragraphs connect; how generations overlap; how ideas bleed into one another. My subjects include the interdependence of fragments; the weight of incidents; subordination and insubordination; hierarchy; demonstration and denotation; shadow and palimpsest; argumentation and allusion; name-dropping and citation; causality and the aleatory; my old chestnut, overdetermination; fact and speculation; melodrama and sentimentality; time-wasting; performance and being-buried-alive; cop-out and aporia; agency and knifepoint; the beauty of detachment; misalignments; leaving projects dead and incomplete in their midst and not regretting the abandonment.” (My 1980s and Other Essays)

Happy reading and happy writing.

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