Do You Even Need a Style Guide? Not Necessarily

What’s the proper way to make an apple pie? Are they shredded, diced, or sliced apples? Do you make your own crust or buy pre-made crusts? Do you have a fancy lattice top or the Dutch apple crumble top?

And whose recipe do you follow? Is it the first one you Googled, or is it Memaw’s secret family recipe handed down from generation to generation?

Ask this question on Facebook, and you’ll have plenty of strong opinions from plenty of people, and about 12 back-and-forth arguments before someone is calling someone else a Nazi.

Style Guides Are Like Apple Pies

This is how people, especially writers, feel about their style guides.

Different style guide examples. It's hard to choose the right one.To them, their style guide is the One True Guide, their Bible about how issues and misunderstandings about language, punctuation, and even grammar are to be handled.

There are a few dozen style guides, including ones from the Associated Press, Chicago Manual of Style, American Psychological Association, Modern Language Association, Turabian, Council of Science Editors, and even The Elements of Style.

And you’ll find outspoken proponents of every one of them.

Each person will insist that their style guide is the right one and will argue with those heathens who don’t agree to worship The One True Guide.

Except there’s no One True Guide.

No one is able to lay claim that their guide is the definitive way to punctuate sentences, abbreviate states, or denote time (a.m./p.m. versus AM/PM).

(But you can have my Oxford comma when you pry it from my cold, stiff, and dead fingers, Associated Press!)

Each guide is assembled by learned editors who have heated discussions about each new entry and change in their guide.

They’ve discussed and debated new issues as they come up, they look at how language is being used and written in society, and they update the guides to reflect those changes when necessary.

In May 2012, the Associated Press said they would no longer object to using the word ‘hopefully’ at the beginning of a sentence, rather than making people say ‘I am hopeful’ or ‘It is hoped that.’

People went nuts. They howled in protest, they screamed and tore their garments, and the Internet burned for three days. People said they were going to die on this hill and they weren’t going to let any stupid Associated Press tell them how to use English when Mrs. Kugelschreiber had drummed this rule into them so many years ago. They were going to stick with the “right” way to do it, despite what these so-called experts said.

Ahh, innocent times.

Of course, the angry mob missed two important points:

  1. It was a made-up rule to begin, having been created in the 1960s. Before then, it was acceptable to start sentences with “hopefully.” Besides, there’s no rule about starting sentences with other floating sentence adverbs like “sadly,” “unfortunately,” and “surprisingly,” so this one was just something people latched onto without understanding why.
  2. The rule only applied to writers and editors who worked for the Associated Press. It had nothing to do with general language usage. People were free to start or not start sentences with “hopefully” to their heart’s content.

This is the important thing to remember about style guides: While these are prescriptive guides, they are by no means the official rules for The Way English Is Done. These guides are only for a particular job, field, or organization.

The Associated Press Stylebook tells writers about the rules they must follow when writing for the Associated Press, although many non-AP journalists use it. The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage is only meant for writers and editors at the New York Times. The APA Publication Manual from the American Psychological Association is written for academics in social sciences, like psychology, speech communication, linguistics, and sociology.

And if you’re not part of those organizations, you are not bound by those rules.

Which Style Guide Should I Use?

Bloggers and content marketers can argue about which style guide is the best, but there’s no right answer. I always recommend bloggers use the AP Stylebook, because it’s small, inexpensive, and addresses 95% of our issues.

I also like the AP Stylebook because many bloggers act as citizen journalists, which means we should follow the guide that most other journalists use.

However, there’s no real guide for bloggers to use. We’re free to pick and choose, but we do so voluntarily, not because there’s an official Way English Is Done.

Bottom line: As long as you spell words right and put them in the right order, the rest is up to you. The benefit of a style guide is that it helps you be consistent throughout your writing. It means you always know where to put punctuation, whether you’re going to follow the postal abbreviations for U.S. states, and how to capitalize headlines.

And whether you should use the Oxford Comma or if you’re a filthy, godless monster.

This means you can pick one you like the best and are most familiar with, or you can even create your own style guide. Just make sure you follow it consistently and apply it to all of your business writing — blog articles, web copy, brochures, emails, letters, and even internal communications.

Photo credit: FixedAndFrailing (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

A Simple Content Strategy for People Who Hate Content Strategy

There’s a great scene in John Cusack’s Better Off Dead where he gets skiing advice from Curtis Armstrong: “Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn.”

I can think of no better advice to give someone who wants to do content marketing, but hates content strategy: “Create content for your customers. If something unexpected comes up, deal with it.”

For one thing, too many people put a lot of stock into developing complex content strategy. They draw up battle plans and strategies that would make military planners weep with envy. They overanalyze, overplan, and create year-long calendars of what they want to say on a particular day at a particular hour when Venus is in Gemini.

It’s quite a sight to see a spreadsheet with 500 or more tweets scheduled over a 12 month period.

It’s heartbreaking to see someone’s look of emotional devastation when the entire calendar has to be deleted because of a fairly minor change to the business, their industry, or industry regulations.

(You could hear the screams two counties over.)

A content strategy shouldn't look like a military strategyOver at Contently.com, Joe Lauzakas wrote about the importance of content strategy in Ask a Content Strategist: My Boss Wants Me to Write Blog Posts Without a Strategy. What Do I Do?

He cites all kinds of important statistics like, “According to a 2017 Contently survey, 98 percent of marketers believe that “having and following a content marketing strategy is important for content marketing success.” and “Per CMI’s 2018 B2B Content Marketing Trends survey, 62 percent of content marketers who rated themselves as very successful or extremely successful have a documented content strategy.

And he’s not wrong. But those strategies don’t need battlefield maps and years-long spreadsheets. You should be able to articulate your strategy in less than 30 seconds or on a single piece of paper.

Here’s a quick and dirty content strategy that should see you through an entire year, never need revising, and cover nearly every contingency.

1. Pick 2–3 main benefits of your product.

Or 2–3 services you provide, or 2–3 verticals you serve. These are the three things you’re going to write about the most. In fiction writing terms, this is your A story, B story, and C story. That is, you’re going to write about your main point (A story) the most, second main point (B story) second most, and so on.

Think of a sitcom: the A story takes around 13 – 14 minutes of a 22-minute episode, the B story is going to get 4 – 6 minutes, and the C story is going to get the remainder.

Your content should get this same kind of attention. The thing you’re known for the most should get two-thirds of your attention, and so on.

And if you focus on the services or verticals, you should still write about the 2 – 3 main benefits you offer each service/vertical. For example, if your main clients are lawyers, mystery shoppers, and dachshund wranglers (a dachshund literally just walked by as I wrote this), then you need to talk about the 2 – 3 benefits that lawyers, mystery shoppers, and dachshund wranglers will get from your products. Now you’ve got anywhere from 6 – 9 running topics for blog articles.

Nearly everything you write about should stick to one of these three benefits. You can occasionally deviate from it, writing about company history, special awards, or notable events. But otherwise, everything needs to focus on your 2 – 3 regular topics.

2. Pick 3 or 4 THEMES for your content strategy.

These are the kinds of articles you’re going to write; they’re going to fit into one of these themes, but still focus on one of the categories mentioned above.

Let’s say you own an IT consulting firm, providing computer networking and troubleshooting to small businesses. You could pick a theme-based calendar as follows:

  • Week 1: Write a how-to article.
  • Week 2: Write a client case study.
  • Week 3: Write about computer security.
  • Week 4: Write about IT industry news.
  • Or if you’re a dachshund wrangler, your content calendar would look like this:

    • Week 1: Write a training article.
    • Week 2: Write a story about your own experiences and adventures (a personal case study).
    • Week 3: Write about dachshund health and diet.
    • Week 4: Write about the dachshund wrangling industry.

    Next, come up with a Twitter schedule to tweet about these four themes on a rotating basis. Or you’re going to skip the case studies, and tweet curated articles about topics 1, 3, and 4 once per day (Don’t forget to tweet and post updates about your own blogs too.)

    Just keep it loose and flexible. If you have some breaking industry news that has to publish in week 2, swap it out with the case study that month. And if you ever have a major emergency or important announcement (like a product launch), that supersedes everything. You don’t have to make up the missed days, just pick it up the next time it comes around.

    Or publish two articles that week. There are no rules to this!

    Don’t forget to connect to people who have IT or dachshund wrangling questions (item #4). Communicate with them like real people, and answer their questions. Don’t pepper them with an all-news format. That’s boring and people hate it.

    3. Commit to using all content

    Lauzakas’ article also said, “According to SiriusDecisions, 65 percent of all content that brands produce goes unused. There are a few big reasons for why: content is hard to find, unknown to users, irrelevant, and low quality.”

    First, I’m not going to say “produce high quality content” because that’s stupid advice. I shouldn’t have to tell you that. It’s like telling you to “drive safely” because I think you’re going to go careening all over the road. (You’re not, so the advice is pointless. You’re not going to intentionally produce shitty content, so telling you to write good stuff is pointless.)

    But I will say that it’s absolutely necessary that you commit to using any piece of content you produce. If you write an article, publish it. If you write a tweet, post it. If you produce a video, put it on YouTube. And then promote it.

    If you don’t use it because it wasn’t good enough, then that’s on you. That’s not a lack of a strategy, that’s because you’re not willing or able to, well, produce high-quality content.

    4. Create a basic human-centered social media promotion strategy

    This isn’t that hard either. As Jason Falls is fond of saying, “Share good shit.”

    These days, social media seems to be more about blasting out one-way marketing messages that don’t engage anyone. But you need to rethink that, since it’s clearly not working.

    Think about your TV viewing habits. Do you fast forward through all TV commercials? Of course! We all do! We hate ads. And that’s how people feel about your marketing blasts.

    Stop treating Twitter and other social channels like an advertising medium. Stop posting “hey, read this!” messages over and over. There are Twitter bots that do nothing but post article after article after article, sending over three dozen tweets in a single day that aren’t engaging or interesting. (And if it’s real people doing this, they should be ashamed of themselves.)

    Instead, communicate with people. Talk with them. Have conversations. Ask and answer questions. Share their posts. Treat people like people, not like advertising viewers. Then, when you do occasionally have something of your own to promote, they’re more likely to read it and share it themselves.

    Guidelines, Not Strategies

    To be honest, this is the kind of content marketing strategy I use for all my clients. We focus on a few recurring topics and themes, we use all blog posts that we write, and we promote everything. We even have a basic calendar that says “we’ll write X number of articles about this topic, and Y number about that topic.”

    Other than that, there’s no need to create a complex content strategy. Remember, if you can’t articulate your strategy in less than 30 seconds, or on a single page, it’s too complicated.

    Photo credit: Ipankonin (Wikimedia Commons, GNU Free Documentation License)

    Don’t Ignore Written Content Marketing for the Sake of Video

    Marketers everywhere have begun singing the praises of video so loudly, they sound like Oprah at Christmas.

    “You need a video! And you need a video! Everyone needs a video!”

    Sure, it’s the new and exciting way to share information. Everyone who’s got a mobile phone has the means for creating, distributing, and watching of all sorts of video content. I watch Netflix while I eat breakfast. My kids watch comedy videos throughout the day. And we’ve all used YouTube as a search engine to solve a problem — I changed out my air conditioning filter a few weeks ago, thanks to a South Korean video.

    Except video is not, and should not, be the final word when it comes to content marketing.

    The written word should still get most of our attention as content marketers. If you’re going to add video to your marketing efforts, then you need to increase your overall content marketing creation. Don’t replace written content with video content and hope for the same engagement rates.

    For one thing, gathering information by video is time consuming. If people want to do a lot of research about a major purchase, videos will help, but your customers still want written specs, performance details, and product information. And they want to be able to look details up quickly, rather than watch 87 minutes of video to find one specific detail again.

    (Think of it this way: if you want to know the horsepower of your car, are you going to Google it or watch a 10-minute product video and hope you catch it?)

    For another, video viewing is not going to replace reading. We’re not going to stop reading books in favor of watching someone read them to us on video. If that were the case, the audiobook revolution would have been massive, and brought about a faster end to bookstores.

    We’re also not going to stop reading news articles online in favor of videos of those same articles being read to us. And before you say “but TV news!” keep in mind that most individual news stories only get 20 – 30 seconds of airtime. And that there’s also a more thoroughly written version of each story on a news channel’s website.

    In other words. . .

    Video Will Never Replace the Written Word

    A shoulder-mounted RCA VHS video camera. Not suitable for video content marketing, no matter what happens!

    I used one of these in high school. We thought we were hot stuff then!

    So before you outfit your entire company with GoPros and YouTube accounts and flood the world with your video masterpieces, consider these four problems with video.

    1) Most of us do not do well speaking off the cuff in front of an audience. We stammer, stutter, and lose our train of thought when we’re having a normal conversation, let alone if we’re in front of an audience and are not 100 percent prepared. And there are a lot of videos where people just hit record and started talking.

    Don’t believe me? Pick a topic — how the original Star Wars trilogy is an allegory for today’s American political system — and record yourself talking about it for five solid minutes.

    “But that’s not how I’d do it!” you protest. “I’d prepare and practice and make sure I got everything down just right.”

    I know you will. Which means it will take 4 – 6 hours to produce a five-minute video. Now squeeze that time into your normal workday of meetings, writing TPS reports, and doing your actual work.

    Meanwhile, I wrote this blog post, including edits, in about 90 minutes. I could write four blog posts in 6 hours.

    2) A visual element is not always helpful. A lot of video content is just talking head videos of someone straight staring at their camera, usually on their laptop, and talking to us for three to five to ten minutes at a time.

    Why the hell are we watching this? What are you actually doing that’s so interesting that I need to stop everything I’m doing and stare at my phone to watch your mouth move?

    Are there graphics? No. Special effects? No. Is their kid going to run in and do something awesome? No. It’s just that person’s head, talking, for several minutes without doing anything else.

    This is an inefficient use of your viewers’ time. Your video can easily be replaced with an MP3 and nothing will change. There’s no actual visual value that requires the amount of focus we usually put into video viewing. This information could be shared in a podcast or a blog article instead, rather than us taking the time to watch you talk.

    I started listening to the audio tracks of TED talks for this very reason. When I realized the talks are usually nothing more than someone standing on a stage with a few slides, I found I could listen to them in the car during my commute. Nothing changed, the information wasn’t any different, and my life wasn’t better or worse for having done it.

    Here’s a good rule of thumb: if we can listen to your video without missing anything important, you didn’t need to make it a video. Consider making a podcast instead.

    Photo of F. W. Murnau, noted German film director.

    Photo of F. W. Murnau, noted German film director.

    3) A lot of videos have poor production values. Most mediocre video content is usually shot on a mobile phone, and it shows. The lighting is poor, or the lens is dirty, or the person forgets and holds the camera vertically, so we all have to turn our heads 90 degrees just to see what’s going on.

    And the sound is all tinny, like the speaker is in a giant coffee can, or sitting in the bathroom 20 feet from the microphone.

    If you want to make good — and I mean good videos, not just “barely acceptable” ones — you need to invest in a good DSLR camera, a decent lavaliere/lapel microphone, and a tripod. And you need to get very good at using them. That means hours of practice, learning how to use the equipment properly.

    Sure, you can make an okay cell phone video, but if that’s your company’s video marketing strategy, just shut the business down now and send everyone home. Otherwise, you need to hire a dedicated staffer whose sole job is to make videos, or you need to outsource your video production work to professional video marketers who know how to do this kind of thing quickly and efficiently. (For one thing, they can produce your 5-minute video in an hour or two.)

    4) Short videos are inefficient. This is the biggie: The average person speaks at 100 – 150 words per minute, but the average adult reading speed is 300 wpm. (It’s also 450 wpm for the average college student, and 575 for high level executives).

    That means a 300 word video will take 2 – 3 minutes to watch, but your average customer can read that same 300 word article in 30 – 60 seconds. Meanwhile, your college student will read it in 45 seconds, and your executive will read it in nearly 30.

    This article clocks in at roughly 1600 words, which should take approximately 5 – 6 minutes for the average person to read (3+ minutes for our average college student, slightly less than 3 for our executive). But if I read it to you in a video, you’ll have to watch it for 10 – 16 minutes.

    Now, imagine reading 12 1000-word articles in your favorite business magazine versus watching 12 videos of the same word count. That’s 24 – 48 minutes of reading versus 120 minutes of viewing.

    Videos are great if you can add strong visual elements to them, like Moz’s Whiteboard Friday videos. There, Moz president Rand Fishkin lays out the latest research and developments in search engine optimization, using a whiteboard to illustrate his point.

    But without the whiteboard, he’s just another Wil-Wheaton-with-a-handlebar-mustache lookalike talking to a video camera, and the information is much less enjoyable to watch or easy to absorb.

    Bottom line: I don’t want to watch someone talk to me for 5 minutes when I can read that same block of text in less than 2 minutes. Combine that with bad production values, poor sound, and lots of hemming and hawing, and you can understand why “Just flip on your phone’s camera and start talking” is bad advice.

    By all means, use video in your content marketing. It’s important, it’s helpful, and it’s the wave of the future. But just for God’s sake, do it right! Get proper equipment, learn how to use it, and write scripts of your talk beforehand. Practice and prepare. And if you need to, join a Toastmaster’s club and improve your public speaking.

    Just don’t half-ass your video content because someone told you it was as easy as putting your phone in selfie mode and talking into it.

    When it’s done properly, video content is a beautiful sight to behold: explainer videos, demonstration videos like Will It Blend, or even entertainment videos, like JW Marriott’s amazing “The Two Bellmen” series. Even videos of you giving a talk at a conference are great uses of video.

    But don’t expect video content marketing to replace written content marketing anytime soon. Don’t fire your copywriters and replace them with GoPros and Quentin Tarantino wannabes.

    Video will expand over the coming years, and we’ll be able to make it look better more easily and for less money, but don’t stop focusing on improving your writing skills or your written content.

    Photo credit: Darian Hildebrand (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)
    Photo #2 credit: Subject: Friedrich William Murnau (Photographer unknown. This photograph is in the public domain in the United States and Russia.)

    Understanding Freytag’s Pyramid for Content Marketing

    Fiction writers and playwrights use storytelling structures to build their story arcs. As someone who has feet planted in both the fiction writing world and the content marketing world, I try to bring these two worlds together. So for the next few months, I’m going to examine the different storytelling structures and determine how they can be used in a content marketing setting.

    Among storytelling structures, Freytag’s Pyramid is one of the most common and easiest to understand. If you took any literature classes in school, you may have even heard of this one.

    Based on the work of German playwright Gustav Freytag, Freytag’s Pyramid is applied to a typical 5-act play. (Sort of the Romans’ “new and improved” followup to Aristotle’s original 3-act story.)
    Freytag's Pyramid
    The idea, said Gustav, is the traditional 5-act structure can be broken down like this:

    • Exposition: Important background information is laid out: characters, setting, previous events. It can be conveyed through dialogue, flashbacks, and narrative exposition. In Macbeth, the titular protagonist and his friends are visited by the Three Witches, who prophesy that Macbeth shall be king, and Banquo shall father a line of kings.
    • Rising action: A series of events that build to the climax. This is where the instigating event happens, which drives the protagonist to pursue his or her course of action. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth kill the king, frame the servants, murder the guards, and drive off King Duncan’s sons, Malcolm and Donalbain, all in their mad pursuit of power.
    • Climax: Not necessarily the final battle, but this is the point on which the play/story pivots. This is the turning point that changes the protagonist’s fate. If the play is a comedy, things were going badly for the protagonist, but now they turn around. If it’s a tragedy, then it’s the reverse. In Macbeth — a tragedy if there ever was one — things were going swimmingly for Macbeth: he and his wife were killing people willy-nilly, becoming the King and Queen of Scotland until, in Act III, Macbeth had Banquo murdered, and Banquo’s ghost showed up and went all Tell-Tale Heart on Macbeth. (You can see a great animated video of The Tell-Tale Heart here.)
    • Falling action: In a tragedy, the conflict between the protagonist and antagonist increases and this becomes the focus of the play. In a comedy, the protagonist wins, in a tragedy, they lose. In Macbeth, things start going downhill for our king. He feels uneasy and starts to think maybe he shouldn’t have been such a murdering bastard after all. But, in for a penny, in for a pound; after Macduff flees, Macbeth orders his castle seized and his household murdered, including Mrs. Macduff and Macduff Junior.
    • Dénouement: Pronounced DAY-noo-mohn (from the French dénouer, or “to untie”), this is the resolution of the story. Conflicts are resolved, there’s a release of tension, and everything goes back to normal/a new normal is established. In a comedy, the plan comes together, the hero gets the girl/guy, and everyone is happy. In the tragedy, the protagonist often dies, and everyone says “Whew! I’m glad that’s over!” But, there’s always some glimpse of the new order or a new hope. For Macbeth, things went increasingly poorly for him. His wife yelled at the dog (“Out, out, damn Spot!”) and committed suicide, and Macbeth was beheaded by Macduff. Malcolm, son of King Duncan, is crowned king, and he promises to be less killy than the last guy.
      1. See how it all fits together? Nearly all of Shakespeare’s plays fit within this structure, although it’s important to note that stories will fit into more than one storytelling structure. There’s no right or wrong one.

        For example, The Hobbit is often considered a Hero’s Journey story, it can also be mapped out in a five act structure:

        1. Bilbo meets Gandalf and the dwarves.
        2. They have adventures on the way to the Lonely Mountain.
        3. They fight Smaug; Smaug dies. But this is not the end of the story!
        4. The Battle of the Five Armies, and the eagles save the day again.
        5. Relationships are mended, Thorin is buried, Bilbo returns home.

        (And if you start hollering about spoilers, the book is 80 years old. You should have read it by now.)

        It’s important to note that Freytag’s Pyamid is not ideally suited for modern stories, which can have 8 acts or even just a strung-together series of scenes. Can you imagine how terrible Avengers 2 would be if the Avengers defeated Ultron at the 1-hour mark? Then we’ve got 1:22 of the Avengers rebuilding stuff and talking about their feelings and shit. Plus, most modern stories have a few climactic scenes, like any Marvel movie. (That structure is called The Fichtean Curve, and I’ll cover it in a week or so.)

        However, Herr Freytag’s construct is a little more forgiving in a content marketing setting, because it doesn’t always have to focus on two characters, like the Hero’s Journey. There, you’re either the Hero or the Mentor.

        Freytag’s Pyramid still follows the exploits of a protagonist and an antagonist, but there are a couple of important differences. First of all, victory is not always guaranteed. Second, we can learn from these failures and use them as a cautionary tale. Third, we can learn about any follow-up and fallout from the climactic pivot point.

        In my next post, I’ll discuss how you can actually use Freytag’s Pyramid for content marketing.

        Photo credit: BrokenSegue (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    How to Use the Hero’s Journey in Content Marketing

    Fiction writers and playwrights use storytelling structures to build their story arcs. As someone who has feet planted in both the fiction writing world and the content marketing world, I try to bring these two worlds together. So for the next few months, I’m going to examine the different storytelling structures and determine how they can be used in a content marketing setting.

    Years ago, one of my first clients was a small mystery shopping agency. There were only four people on staff (one was part-time), and they had roughly $750,000 in sales per year. They’d been around for a few years, but it was a hand-to-mouth existence, and they were an average size company for their industry.

    They needed help with blogging and social media, so we set to work. Their top goal was to rank high on Google for a few key industry search terms.

    We started blogging on a half-time basis, publishing four articles per month and hitting those keywords hard. Within six months, they were generating enough leads that they tripled their sales (and grew appropriately), so we began publishing eight posts per month.

    We taught the president how to do social media, helped her become a thought leader in her industry, and she was even asked to join the board of directors of her national trade association. She was sought out because of her expertise, and she was landing large clients. While we may have helped her generate the leads, she was traveling around the country, landing large corporate clients.

    We increased their search rank even further, generated more leads, and they tripled in sales again. Then they landed a 7-figure contract with a national brand. And then tripled their sales one more time, growing to a staff of 27 people, all in a matter of three years.

    That story? That’s a basic, pared down example of the Hero’s Journey, a storytelling structure used primarily in novels and movies.

    In the Hero’s Journey, a young person is plucked out of their ordinary existence, challenged by an evil force, is mentored by a wise figure, and learns to triumph over their foe. (That’s simplifying it a lot. If you want to learn more, read last week’s article on the subject.)

    In this story, my client is the Hero, we are the wise mentor, and we helped her get the skills needed to overcome her foe, Stagnation.

    Can the Hero’s Journey Work in Content Marketing?

    The Hero's Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli's Monomyth mobile application.

    The Hero’s Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli’s Monomyth mobile application.

    You’ve heard over and over that content marketing is just storytelling. The Hero’s Journey is just that: a storytelling structure. And while there are many ways to use the Hero’s Journey in novel writing and movie making, there are only a limited number of ways to tell this particular story, and they all usually involve the business leader, or sometimes the mentor.

    Luke is plucked off the moisture farm on Tatooine and defeats the Empire. Harry is plucked from under the stairs and defeats Voldemort. Diana is plucked from beautiful, sunny Themyscira, defeats Ares, and can never return home.

    A company owner turns her small company of 3.5 people to 27 people. A cubicle jockey goes on a personal fitness quest with a trainer, loses 100 pounds in a year, and runs a marathon. A young woman moves away from home to go to college, learns new skills, finds inner strength, and graduates at the top of her class.

    Of course, as popular as the Hero’s Journey is, there are only a couple ways we can use it in a business setting, and most of them involve the case study.

    Think about your basic case study:

    Company A had a problem. They were losing money because of [outdated processes/lack of innovation/low morale/pirates]. So Consultant X helped Company A identify their problem through [interviews/research/data analysis/necromancy]. She identified three problem areas, and recommended that Company A take action. Within the first 12 months, they [revamped their processes/held team building retreats/restructured the organization/killed the evil wizard], and their profitability increased by 60 percent.

    Even in a business setting, it still fits the Hero’s Journey:

    1. Call to Adventure:: The business recognizes the problem and takes steps to fix it.
    2. Meeting the Mentor: The consultant arrives and identifies the problem.
    3. The Ordeal: The business uses what the mentor has taught, and fights for its life. The company faces its enemies: stagnation, low morale, stiff competition, and so on.
    4. Resurrection: Victory! Although it’s a short time in a case study, this can take months and years. But it means the company has repaired itself and is on its way to recovery and getting back to normal.

    But using the Hero’s Journey in this way means you can only have two viewpoints, the Hero’s or the Mentor’s. The business executive’s or the consultant’s.

    Part of the reason is because everyone is the hero of their own story. Imagine your life as a movie: is it about you or a complete stranger? Are you the protagonist, trying to do good in the world? Or are you the wise mentor, providing wisdom to others so they can do good in the world?

    Even stories about inventions are often Hero’s Journey stories.

    The Hero’s Journey Doesn’t Always Work in Content Marketing

    As you probably figured out, the Hero’s Journey is actually not a great story structure for content marketing, because it’s limited in its viewpoints — the Hero or the Mentor. Think of how boring a story would be if it were told from the POV of the plucky young sidekick. And how boring would a case study be if it were told from the POV of, say, their accountant.

    “For months, I wasn’t very busy. Then some guy came to the office, talked to them for a while, and my days got busier. The end.”

    However, when you’re writing these case studies, using the Hero’s Journey framework can make your story exciting, interesting, and will keep people reading all the way to the end.

    Photo credit: Michael Brizeli (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    Understand the Hero’s Journey for Content Marketing

    Fiction writers and playwrights use storytelling structures to build their story arcs. As someone who has feet planted in both the fiction writing world and the content marketing world, I try to bring these two worlds together. So for the next few months, I’m going to examine the different storytelling structures and determine how they can be used in a content marketing setting.

    Let me tell you a story about a young man who is forced to live with relatives, because his father is an evil bastard bent on conquest and villainy. The young man was spirited away as a baby, and raised in secret. When he comes of age, the young man meets a mentor who helps him grow, gain new skills, and ultimately cause the downfall of the father, who frankly, had it coming.

    What story am I talking about?

    Could be Star Wars. That description fits Luke Skywalker to a T.

    Could be Harry Potter. Take out the father references, and we’re looking at the exact same scenario. Also, there’s no blue milk.

    Could be Andre-Louis Moreau from Scaramouche, the French swashbuckling story in which a young man joins a theater troupe and learns the art of fencing.

    It could be the plot of Fool, Christopher Moore’s humor novel, about Pocket the fool from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

    It could even be the story of Dodgeball. Peter La Fleur leaves his world as a gym-owning slacker, and gets thrust into a new world of Dodgeball. He meets a mentor who helps him to defeat his greatest enemy, and wins $5 million and Ben Stiller’s wife.

    Movie makers and fiction authors call this storytelling structure The Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell first called it the Monomyth in his book, The Hero With A Thousand Faces.

    The Hero's Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli's Monomyth mobile application.

    The Hero’s Journey, adapted from Michael Brizeli’s Monomyth mobile application.

    The Hero’s Journey usually takes 12 stages, and entire books can be written about it. I’ll try to do it in less than 1,000 words.

    (Also, I’m using the word “Hero” and not “Hero/Heroine” intentionally. In the real world, it now refers to both men and women, while “heroine” is normally used in works of fiction. We’ve stopped using actress, comedienne, and manageress, and I think heroine is going that way as well.)

    1. Ordinary World. This is the Hero’s life before the story begins. They live on a farm, they live in a Hobbit hole, they’re a computer analyst. This makes us realize the Hero is like us.
    2. Call to Adventure. This is where the Hero’s life changes and they’re needed elsewhere. The secret message from Princess Leia, Harry’s letter from Hogwarts, Mulan’s father being drafted to fight the Huns compels them to move on.
    3. Refusal of the Call. The Hero may be eager to accept the quest, but they have fears they need to overcome. Luke was reluctant to leave until the Empire murdered his aunt and uncle. Mulan worried that she couldn’t pass as a man. Harry said, “But, Hagrid, I—I’m not a wizard!”
    4. Meeting the Mentor. Luke met Obi-Wan Kenobi, Harry met Dumbledore, Mulan met Li Shang. They trained, received advice, and got a boost to their self-confidence. The Mentor made the Hero feel like they could handle the task before them.
    5. Cross the Threshold. The adventure begins! The Hero goes willingly or is thrust into battle, but they leave the Ordinary World and cross into their new one. Diana Prince leaves the beautiful sunny shores of Themyscira. Harry literally runs through the 9 3/4 platform wall.
    6. Tests, Allies, Enemies. Our Hero is challenged in a number of different ways from a number of different sides. It’s not the final battle, but it shows him or her who’s trustworthy, reliable, and helpful, and who’s an enemy. This is where the Hero’s skills or powers are tested, and we learn how they’ll react when in a stressful situation. Diana Prince fighting the Germans in London or Mulan’s training montage.
    7. Approach to the Inmost Cave. George Lucas may have been a little too on the nose with this in Empire Strikes Back. During his training, Luke had a vision and went into an actual cave to fight Darth Vader. This is often an inner conflict the Hero has yet to face, and some of the original doubts may resurface.
    8. Ordeal. This is the most dangerous test our Hero must survive, whether physical or internal. Everything the Hero has learned is put to the test. Mulan fires the rocket that destroys the Hun army. Luke and Han blast the TIE fighters after they escape the Death Star. Wonder Woman fights Ludendorff at the German base. But this could even be a sort of death (or near death) for the Hero, and they are reborn stronger and with more power. The mentor may die here too. Luke lost Obi Wan, Diana lost Steve Trevor, and Peter La Fleur lost Patches O’Houlihan to half a ton of Irony.
    9. Reward (Seizing the Sword). After defeating the enemy and overcoming their greatest challenge, they receive a reward. Sometimes it comes in the form of an object, new knowledge, or even reconciliation with an ally. However the Hero has unfinished business to attend to before the story is actually over.
    10. The Road Back. The Hero is ready to go back home, back to the Ordinary World, only he or she is not quite finished. Luke and his friends escaped, but the Death Star is still out there. Mulan destroyed the Huns, but Shan Yu still lives. Diana Prince kills Ludendorff, but Ares was still alive.
    11. Resurrection. This is the final battle. The Boss Battle. The most dangerous, fiercest fight of all. And the Hero learns this isn’t their fight, they’re fighting for something bigger than themselves. Mulan has to save China, Luke has to save the Rebellion, and Peter has to save his crappy gym that smells kind of funny. In the end, they triumph, destroy the enemy, and are reborn. (Remember when Neo defeated the Agents at the end of The Matrix and got all better? Like that.)
    12. Return with the Elixir. This is often the Epilogue. The Hero returns to their Ordinary World (or some semblance of it). They have grown, learned many things, faced many dangers, and looks forward to getting back to the old life. Older, wiser, even a little sadder, but they’re happy to have done it. Like when Frodo and Sam returned to the Shire (read the book; the movie didn’t do this justice). Or when Mulan returned home. Or Dumbledore screwed Slytherin out of the House Cup and gave it to Gryffindor.

    It’s important to remember that movies are not divided up into 12 equal segments that spend the same amount of time on each stage. Some stages are rushed through, others are simply skipped. For example, Harry’s statement to Hagrid, “But I’m not a wizard” was his one and only Refusal of the Call. He didn’t spend 15 minutes wrestling with the decision before continuing on. So if your content marketing stories don’t have all 12 steps, don’t worry about it.

    In my next article, since this one broke 1,100 words, we’ll talk about how to use the Hero’s Journey in content marketing. It can serve as a structure to help guide customers to a buying decision.

    Photo credit: Michael Brizeli (Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

    Using MacGuffins In Your Content Marketing

    Despite what it sounds like, a MacGuffin is not a golf term. It’s a writing term used in movies, TV shows, and books.

    A MacGuffin is a plot device used to motivate the protagonist to action. It’s something the protagonist pursues or protects, but there’s no real explanation of why it’s important. In fact, the object itself isn’t even important to the plot. It’s just the thing the protagonist and antagonist fight over, one of them trying to take it, the other trying to save it.

    It could be a sandwich for all we care. All we know is that the good guy and bad guy are going to beat the crap out of each other trying to get it.

    The MacGuffin usually follows one of two themes:

    Protagonist: I have the thing.
    Antagonist: I want the thing.

    or

    Antagonist: I’m going to steal the thing.
    Protagonist: I have to save the thing.

    The most common types of MacGuffins are objects or sometimes a person. Other times, they’re more abstract concepts, like love or survival. TVTropes.com has a great list of MacGuffin sub-tropes, like the Clingy MacGuffin, the Hostage MacGuffin, or the Egg MacGuffin.

    The One Ring is a perfect MacGuffin

    One MacGuffin to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.

    Some famous MacGuffins are things like the plans for the Death Star, the Ark of the Covenant, or the One Ring. Even Private Ryan in Saving Private Ryan and the baby from Ice Age are MacGuffins. In all cases, the MacGuffin was important to the characters, but it didn’t matter as much to us. We care more about the pursuit of the thing, but not the thing itself.

    Most importantly, says TV Tropes, do not confuse a MacGuffin for a plot device. The Death Star plans was not the plot of Star Wars, and the thing inside Marsellus Wallace’s briefcase was not the plot of Pulp Fiction. The plot was about people trying to get/save/deliver the plans and the what-was-undoubtedly-a-human-soul.

    How Do MacGuffins Figure in to Content Marketing

    In content marketing, the MacGuffin is usually the product you create or the service you offer. But you’re not going to talk about your product or service, because that’s boring.

    How boring would Star Wars be if they spent several minutes on the construction timeline of the Death Star, its propulsion system and fuel consumption ratings, or the magnetic tape the plans were on? (Seriously? You have faster-than-light travel, but you store information on cassette tapes?)

    That’s how people feel about your product. They don’t want to know about the materials it was made with, or the manufacturing process behind it. They want to know what your product will do for them.

    Will it make them work better or faster? Can it help them make more money? Will it make them attractive to men or women? Will it prevent heart disease or male pattern baldness?

    This is the old “features versus benefits” marketing discussion we’ve all heard. Don’t tell us what it does, tell us what it does for us.

    In short, your product is the MacGuffin. It drives your content marketing story forward, but it’s not the thing you talk about.

    What’s Your Content Marketing MacGuffin?

    If you’re a marketing automation company, the MacGuffin is your software. If you’re a barbecue grill maker, it’s your grills. And if you’re a luggage company, the MacGuffin is your bags.

    Which means your readers want to know more about travel. . . with your bags. They want to know about cooking outside. . . with your grill. And they want to know how they can get more leads. . . with your software. But they don’t want you to talk about your bags, grill, or software.

    Just like the movies, we don’t actually care about the thing, we care about the pursuit of the thing, the relationships that form around it, and how the thing will change our lives. But the MacGuffin will always remain there as a silent part of everything you do.

    The marketing automation company will write about “how white papers generate more leads” and “five best email newsletter headlines.” The assumption is the readers will track all the information on your software, but your articles shouldn’t discuss the software. It’s just implied.

    Similarly, our grill manufacturer should talk about things like “gas versus charcoal grills” and “preventing grease fires,” but they should also share articles on new summer recipes and how to use a motorized rotisserie. Again, the grill is important — “I want to use the thing” — but we’re not focused on BTUs or the gauge thickness of the lid.

    And the luggage company should write about vacation travel, packing tips, and the activities that necessitate carrying a suitcase. But they shouldn’t focus on the construction of the suitcase, its materials, or the manufacturing process.

    In some cases, the MacGuffin is going to be a little more abstract (wealth management, plumbing), or it might be a particular person (a lawyer, a realtor, or an orthodontist). And in some cases, there’s no real MacGuffin at all. Not every movie has a MacGuffin, and not every company is going to be able to use one either.

    But if you can identify yours, use it to drive your content marketing story forward, even if you never actually discuss the MacGuffin directly. It will always be there, always present. And in the end, it will become the most important thing of all.

    Photo credit: Jorge Arimany (Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons 3.0)