It’s become voguish in Silicon Valley to use the word “storytelling” to talk about marketing communication, written communication generally, and even just communication period.
I can roll with this to an extent, but for the most part I find this trend obfuscating and unhelpful: most communication is non-verbal, and most verbal and written communication does not involve narrative.
If we want to be good writers and communicate clearly, a bit of precision would help. The following resources can help, too.
Effective business writing (in general)
Great writing requires great editing.
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 how and why concision, clarity, transition, and grammar matter.
In Quiet Leadership, David Rock also uses neuroscience to argue that effective, intentional communication is always specific, succinct, and generous (meaning, filled with warm human feeling).
For positioning and messaging, I often use the following copywriting filters: “clear, relevant, different, better.”
Business writers can use each of these editing tools to streamline their writing, and usually in the process, their thinking.
Effective marketing writing (in general)
Marketing is communication, and all communication is contextual, co-created, and bi-directional. There are too many marketing best practices for me to summarize in this one post, but the happy news is that all those channel-specific content rules can be found and learned quickly with a few hours of Google searching. There are no secrets. (Depending on your needs, Copyblogger, Codeless, and SethGodin.com are all good places to start…)
Once they learn the basics, marketers can struggle early in their careers 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 general “effective business writing” resources above can help with that.
The next struggle a marketer often faces is to ground each communication in a unique real or imagined interaction. To illustrate with a personal anecdote: A few years ago, I decided to sing “On the Street Where You Live” in a master class. The song was a challenge for me, 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? Singing is my own personal humility-gym for keeping me aware of these kinds of questions, and it makes me a better writer. Inattention to “placement” questions leads to writing that’s canned, that isn’t succinct, specific, or generous.
The next struggle I often see marketers tackle is authenticity. Jacques Lacan coined the term “the big Other,” which I find useful here. 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 the big Other. Readers or viewers may discern and appreciate that the communication is “right” at some level, 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)
A final skill level I look for in marketers is the ability to write using different voices. To be heard in today’s mediasphere, every organization must maintain a consistent content personality that supports a singular and memorable brand. Being able to take on different prose personalities is a learnable skill, but many marketing gurus don’t teach it or even model it, because their own marketing depends on the fierce maintenance of a singular voice. Seth Godin always sounds like Seth Godin, for example, and Venkat Rao always sounds like Venkat Rao. Advanced writers can put their own preferred style aside and discern what will serve for each unique organization. In the meantime, the Mailchimp content style guide is a good example of what a complete voice and tone guideline document can look like.
Effective business writing (narratives)
And now let’s talk about stories. Storytelling is one form of communication, and 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.
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. Two fairly-recent 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.
Working with Narrative in particular contains a framework regarding (1) broken stories, (2) unstoried emotion, (3) empty stories, and (4) same-old stories that I use all the time 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 (in general)
Being a professional writer requires tremendous 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.
Musicality (in general)
Master storytellers savor the beauty, the intricacy, and the 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 made a particularly deep impression on me recently 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.
The best authors are invariably committed, hungry readers. Gorgeous writing from novelists like Zora Neale Hurston and Virginia Woolf always demands to be read. Some other writers and writings I’ve personally enjoyed recently, for how they play with and push language, are:
“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.