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)

Four Hacks to Writing Faster

The first time I was ever hired to write a press release, I charged $100 for an hour’s work.

The problem was, it only took me 20 minutes to write the thing.

I felt so guilty that I just sat and stared at my computer for the next 40 minutes, looking for errors, changing a word here and there, but mostly just making sure I worked the entire hour.

I finally realized — with five minutes remaining — that the client hadn’t hired me to work for an hour. They hired me because I had the ability to produce a press release in an hour or less.

I just never told them it took me 20 minutes.

It turns out, that’s pretty fast. I know people who take a few hours to write a press release. It takes them a few hours to write anything, in fact. They dread writing, they dread the blank page or the empty screen, and they don’t know how to fill it up.
A stopwatch is not necessarily going to help you write faster. Don't time yourself for a writing hack.
Copywriter extraordinaire Henneke Duistermaat recently wrote about 12 productivity hacks to help you write faster, which can help the non-writer and beginning writer snap out of the “I can’t do it!” funk and actually get some words down on the page.

(She also created a really cool sketch for her article, and I’m totally jealous.)

With tips like “write when groggy” and “slow down,” Henneke’s advice can help even the most resistant non-writers into passable scribblers.

But there are a few other writer-y things professional writers do so we can write much faster than non-writers. And if you want to speed up your writing time, here are four tips for writing faster for you to try.

1. Always put ideas in a notebook

If you don’t have one, get yourself a nice little notebook. Either a Moleskine or Field Notes. Something durable and simple, and small enough to fit into a pocket or purse.

Don’t get one of those gorgeous leather-bound things that looks like it came from Elvish Hobby Lobby. You’ll be too afraid to write in it, and it will be too clunky to carry around.

If you have an idea that pops into your head, write it down. It gets the idea out of your head so a new one can take its place. Otherwise, it will keep rattling around up there, and you’ll keep churning it around in your brain.

Don’t put it in your phone though. You need to go through the physical act of writing, because it helps us remember things better, which is going to help us with writer hack number 2.

Next, come up with three main points — write out full sentences — that you think would best explain this topic. If you can come up with more, write them down too. But make sure you have at least three.

2. Ponder your ideas

Okay, I stole this one. Henneke says to “take advantage of percolation.”

When you aren’t writing, your brain still continues thinking about your content. It’s called the diffuse mode of thinking—when you let your mind wander freely.

But I want you to do more than just letting your mind wander freely. You’re going to focus on this idea, you’re going to imagine yourself in different scenarios, and you’re going to work it and work it, like a baker kneading her dough.

Any time you can find time to concentrate, I want you to imagine and visualize the subject of your article/blog post/white paper/story. This percolation is actually where you’re going to do the real writing, creating and fleshing out your ideas. The act of putting it down on the computer is just typing; for now, you’re going to write in your head.

Whenever you’re going to drive somewhere, ride the train home, go for a run, putter around in the garage, or do yoga, look at your idea before you start. Open up your notebook, study your great idea and main points, and then ponder them as you’re running, driving, puttering, yoga-ing.

Really mull it over and grind it between your teeth. Use this non-computer time to come up with different thoughts, ideas, phrasing, and so on. As those ideas start to develop, that should lead you into hack number three.

3. Imagine yourself giving this as a talk

Picture yourself giving a talk on this subject to a roomful of people. (If it helps, imagine they’re adoring fans hanging on your every word.) What would you say? How would you explain this? You want to explain the subject logically, so it flows in a natural, easy-to-understand way. Think about a couple of stories you could add in there, and even a few jokes.

Do this visualization whenever you’ve got the time — driving, commuting, walking, in the shower, before you go to bed, and so on. This is more of Henneke’s percolating and it’s where your best writing is going to happen.

Finally, you’re ready for the last hack.

4. Write an email to your mom.

I always like to say, “If you’re writing about something difficult, put it an email to your mom.”

Seriously. Start out with, “Dear Mom, let me tell you something I learned today.”

Now, our moms love us, but they don’t quite get what they do. For the longest time, my mom knew I “sold things on the Internet,” but that’s about as far as she got. (And she was a financial aid consultant with PeopleSoft for a lot of years!)

So we have to explain things in language that our moms understand, and in a tone we would normally talk to our moms in. In other words, keep it simple AND CONVERSATIONAL, but don’t talk down to her.

(You remember what happened the last time you talked down to your mom, right?)

When you’re done explaining the topic to your mom, go back and delete that first line, “Dear Mom, let me tell you . . .” And there’s your blog post.

Do it this way, because it’s easier to write emails to the people we love and who love us. (Unless we’re writing about our relationships with those people. That’s hard. Save that for the holidays when the nieces and nephews won’t shut up, and everyone’s frustrated and half-drunk.)

In the end, the best way to start writing faster is to practice, practice, practice. Read a lot about your subject (books, not blog posts), and talk to people about the subject. Even the act of explaining your ideas will help you write them better, because you have to organize your thoughts just to explain them.

Photo credit: William Warby (Flickr, Creative Commons 2.0)

What Are You Best At?

I was at a networking luncheon recently where a sales trainer was giving a talk about how companies often race to the bottom when it comes to their pricing.

“Over 51 percent of customers say they buy on price first,” he said. “So what do salespeople do? They lower their price to grab the sale.” That means more than half your potential customers are not interested in whether you’re the best person for the job, they want you to be the cheapest.

“The problem,” a promotional products salesperson said to me later, “is that those clients will turn around and dump you for a dime.” She told me about a nonprofit she had been working with for five years, and she recently lost them in a carousel of marketing coordinators and the old “you have to get three proposals” shuffle.

Never mind she had given them decent pricing for the past five years. Never mind that she had bent over backward to meet frantic deadlines (thanks to their own bad planning), or made deliveries herself to ensure they had what they needed just in time for some event or other.

There was a new marketing coordinator she didn’t have a relationship with, and she was gone. (My friend is determined to win them back though, without compromising on price.)

That got me to thinking about how I do what I do, and why I charge what I charge. I started thinking about what I’m “best at.” Which of my skills are more defined and developed than any of my others. And which of those skills I can offer to potential clients as a premium and not a “me too” service.

For those of us in the service business, especially freelancers, the one thing we have to offer is our “Best At,” that thing we do better than anyone else.

If you can identify your Best At skills, you can work with the right clients all day, and never have to scrape bone for those price-focused clients. But if you focus on price because you can only offer the same general service as everyone else, you’re going to have a tough time finding lasting success and loyalty.

Freelancers, What’s Your ‘Best At’ Skill?

Paul D'Andrea shooting on location. One of the freelancers who has found his Best At skill.

Paul D’Andrea shooting on location.

For some freelancers, their Best At skill is photography, but not just photography. Their forte is art photography, or sports photography, or business headshots. For others, their Best At skill is accounting, but not just regular accounting. They specialize in small business accounting, or forensic accounting, or fast food franchise accounting.

If you can figure out what you’re Best At, you can define your niche. It’s not just your passion or that thing that speaker said at that seminar. It’s the thing that you can do better than anybody else, even if it’s just a tiny small difference from everyone else in your field. It’s the thing you practice and focus on, over and over, until you can do it in your sleep.

I’ve got a photographer friend whose top skill is shooting business headshots. He’s great at other photography, but very few people shoot business headshots as well as he does. As a result, he’s able to get work from area corporations and charge his professional rate. No one is trying to get him to drop his price in exchange for exposure. No one is telling him, “I have a digital camera that’s just as good.” No one is trying to nickel and dime him, asking for discounts in exchange for less work.

He has planted his flag on Headshot Hill and people are willing to pay his rate, because they know he’s the king of that hill.

Another friend specializes in long-form video with lots of visual effects. He’s hired by larger companies with larger budgets to produce long videos that tell their brand story. The companies that want someone to interview talking heads with an iPhone can’t afford him; the companies that can afford him want something more than talking heads and iMovie special effects. He’s planted his flag on his own hill, and people are willing to pay what he asks for, because he’s the king of that hill.

The Other 49%

Earlier, I mentioned that 51% of customers are focused on price first. That means a majority of your potential customers will throw you over just because they found a competitor that will do it for 5% less than you.

You don’t want these customers. Sure, they’re nice, because they’re a source of revenue, and we always need revenue. And if you need the work to feed your family, you should take every cheap client you can until you can find better ones.

But I’ve found that the price-driven customers will eke every little crumb out of your relationship, bleed you dry with feature creep, delayed payments, and demand the most attention while being the smallest portion of your revenue.

So don’t get attached to them, and never, ever try to build a business on being the lowest-priced vendor they’ve got. That just speeds you along the road to failure.

Instead, focus on the other 49% that care about craftsmanship and quality. Focus on the 49% that knows your work is going to be seen by the public, run their company, or make their lives easier.

If you’re an accountant, it’s your work that’s going to keep them out of trouble with the IRS and out of jail.

If you’re a digital marketer, it’s your work that’s going to drive their marketplace exposure and generate their revenue.

If you’re an IT professional, it’s your work that’s going to keep their network running and safe from cyber attacks.

These are jobs that should not be left to the lowest-priced provider. These are the people whose work can make or break a company. If clients buy these services on price, they’re going to get burned badly with damages and recovery costs that run 10 times as much money as they saved.

A couple months ago, a prospective client asked me to justify my pricing, given that some freelancers would write blog articles for only $5. So I shared my 20 year background, detailed my list of publications and the books I’ve co-authored, and explained my various specialties. I also pointed out that the $5 writers typically did not have a mastery of English, probably plagiarized or re-spun a lot of their work, and that she would spend so much time editing and rewriting their work, it would eat up all the money she had saved by buying the cheapest option.

And I stood firm on my price.

Of course, I never heard from her again, which was fine with me. I knew she would never be satisfied with my price unless I charged $4 per article. That’s the kind of customer I don’t need, and the kind I’ll never work for.

That’s because I know my Best At skill, and I work to get better at it every day. I read, I study, and I practice. I hone my Best At skills the same way a professional athlete works to keep in top shape for their job.

I don’t just want to be the best I can be, I want to be one of the best in my industry. That way, when someone comes to me and asks me to lower my price to be more in line with what less experienced writers are charging, I can say no.

Because I don’t want to be driven by price and spend my day chasing down client after client whose only concern is whether my writing is the cheapest they could find, with no concern of quality.

Photo credit: Erik Deckers

Conflict Sells Solutions: How to Use Plot in Content Marketing

When we hear the word conflict, many people think that means arguing and shouting, disagreement and fighting. We’re taught that conflict is bad, and that we should avoid it.

But every good story has conflict, even if no one raises their voice in the entire book.

Conflict isn’t inherently bad. In fact, it’s how we get things done. Entrepreneurs often create solutions to a problem because they’re in conflict with the status quo. They see a problem, they develop a solution to eliminate it. Or someone says they’re not allowed to develop a solution at work, so they quit and create their own solution.

Conflict creates opportunities. Every entrepreneur’s story is centered around conflict, and my favorite business stories are ones of disruption, where The Establishment tells the plucky young entrepreneur, “you can’t do that.” The plucky young entrepreneur ignores The Establishment, builds an establishment-shattering solution, makes a lot of money, and we get an exciting story out of it.

David Schmittou in Beef & Boards' production of "The Drowsy Chaperone" This is where plot and storytelling really inform content marketing.

Let me tell you a story!

In storytelling, conflict drives the story forward. Without conflict, you’ve just got two people sitting around, talking about nothing. Even Seinfeld, the show about nothing, had plenty of conflict in it. How else do you create an entire episode around whether soup is a meal?

What is Conflict in Storytelling?

Kurt Vonnegut said about writing stories, “Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

He meant that stories are born out of desire. Someone wants something, and the rest of the story is spent trying to get it. If you want a glass of water, you can get off the couch and get it. But there’s no real story in that.

The real story happens when something won’t let our character get the water. It could be simple, it could be complex, but our main character can’t get that thing he or she wants.

  • He just doesn’t want to.
  • The game’s on, the score is tied with 30 seconds remaining.
  • He weighs 900 pounds and hasn’t gotten off the couch since 2014.
  • She wants to go, but she’s been tied up by a villain in a top hat and curly mustache.
  • There are ninjas in the kitchen, protecting the sink.
  • The floor is hot lava.
  • Zombies.

Noted scifi author and screenwriter Leigh Brackett (“The Big Sleep,” “The Long Goodbye” and “The Empire Strikes Back”) called this plot. She said:

Plot is people. Human emotions and desires founded on the realities of life, working at cross purposes, getting hotter and fiercer as they strike against each other until finally there’s an explosion — that’s Plot.

In other words, you want a glass of water, but someone else wants to prevent you from getting it.

In my article on MacGuffins, the glass of water has become the MacGuffin. Remember, MacGuffin stories usually fall under either the “I have the thing/I’m going to take the thing” or “I’m going to steal the thing/I have to save the thing” construct.

Those dueling purposes is where Plot comes from. The good guy has something the bad guy wants, and they’re working at cross purposes. Those two irons will strike against each other, until KA-BLAM, we have an exciting ending to our story.

How Does Conflict Help Content Marketing?

In content marketing, you’re the protagonist, the problem is the antagonist. You’re the hero, the problem is the villain.

You want something (higher profits, more leads, lower turnover, lower downtime, fewer defects), but the villain is preventing you from achieving your goals.

Therein lies the plot. You want the thing, the villain wants to take the thing.

You want higher profits, the villain causes higher costs.

You want more leads, the villain breaks your website or creates crappy content.

You want fewer defects, the villain causes your machine to break down.

And the plot is those two irons striking together.

But it’s not enough for the irons to strike together. Something has to happen, there has to be a resolution to the problem.

Enter the mentor. (We’ll talk about the mentor another time, in an upcoming article on the Hero’s Journey.)

The mentor is the person who teaches the hero about the solution. The hero applies the solution to the problem, and wins the day. He or she slays the villain and ends the problem. There is much rejoicing, and prosperity spreads throughout the land.

This is why we have case studies, and why a well-written case study can do things that no brochure, special report, or white paper can ever do. For those of you who aren’t tossing the term “storytelling” around willy-nilly yet, case studies are your moment to shine.

Kelly was thirsty, she was parched. Her lips were dry and cracked because she was so thirsty. A tumbleweed tumbled in front of her cubicle. She desperately wanted a glass of water, and would have given anything to get it.

The problem was, the office kitchen had. . . KITCHEN NINJAS who had been blocking the kitchen water cooler for three days. People tried bringing water from home, but it was never enough. They tried moving the cooler, but Steve from Accounting was nearly run through. Things looked bleak.

Until Kelly ordered a bottle of Ninja-B-Gon! Ninja Spray from Whamco!

Just a few sprays from her bottle of Ninja-B-Gon! sent those ninjas packing! Now, everyone in the office can get water, and office morale has improved. Productivity is up by 30%, and sales have risen by 230% as well! And once Kelly was able to quench her Sahara-ish thirst, she was promoted to department manager!

Samurai vs Banana

He must really hate that banana!

This is the classic storyline that nearly all movies and stories follow. Anne wants something, Bob doesn’t want her to have it. Carl helps Anne find a magical object/enchanted sword/learn the power was within her all along. Anne vanquishes Bob, and gets that thing she wanted.

And it’s the same formula that good case studies follow. But in this case, there are no magical objects or enchanted swords. There are solutions or products that eliminate the problem, restore peace, and improve profits.

(Consultants, in these stories, you are the mentor. Your client is the hero. Your job is to create heroes, so write your case studies in a way that says “I can help you become the hero in your company.”)

Sometimes You Can Only Hint at Conflict

Of course, not everything you write is going to be/have a story. Sometimes you just have to engage in marketing speak, and remind readers of their own conflicts. Get them to imagine the problem, and think about the situations they’re often facing. Get them to think about the plot.

“Manufacturers often have to deal with high absenteeism during the holidays or special events, like the Super Bowl. What if you could reduce post-holiday absenteeism?”

or

“In a manufacturing operation, even a 2% spoilage rate can equal a 10% loss in profits; the industry average currently hovers around 3.5%. So what would a software system that prevented spoilage look like for your company?”

In those cases, we’re not telling a story so much as we’re reminding people of their stories. It’s a recap of a past conflict (or even a reminder of an ongoing conflict). The story doesn’t have to be told, because they’re living it. But with the right message, you can present yourself or your product/service as the solution to the problem, and get them to write your story in their head.

The foundation of all stories is Leigh Brackett’s plot: human desires, working at cross purposes, striking against each other, until there’s an explosion. If you can incorporate that idea into your case studies and your marketing copy, you will have mastered one of the most basic tenets of storytelling as content marketing.

Photo credit: David Schmittou in Beef & Board’s ‘The Drowsy Chaperone’ (Used with permission)
733215 (Pixabay, CC0/Public Domain)

Good Writers Read Good Books

Whenever I attend a networking event, I like to ask questions usually not asked at one of these things.

What’s your favorite sports team? Who was your idol growing up? What’s the last book you read?

I can always spot the sales alpha dogs in any networking crowd. When I ask about the last book they read, or their favorite book, it’s always the same thing.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie,” someone will say.

“Zig Ziglar’s Born To Win,'” says another.

The Art of War,” says a guy with slicked-back hair and a power tie.

How to Crush Your Enemies, See Them Driven Before You, and Hear the Lamentations of the Women,” says an unusually-muscled guy with a funny accent.

And I can spot the content marketers too.

“Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes!” someone will say.

The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing,” says another.

“I don’t read books, I only read Copyblogger,” says a third.

My bookshelf at home. I've whittled my books down to favorite authors and books by friends.

My home bookshelf. I’ve had to limit my books to favorite authors and books by friends.

But the writers — the good writers — will tell me about the books they love. The books they read over and over again, not because it will help them get ahead in life, but because it stirs something within them.

Those are the writers who are more concerned with their craft than with their content. Those are the writers who will produce some of the most interesting work, regardless of their employer. (What’s sad is their employer has no idea how lucky they are to have this wordsmith in their corner, and will wonder why the sales funnel got a little emptier after they left.)

Content marketers, as writers you should understand and build your craft as much as, if not more than, you understand your product, or understanding big data, SEO, the right number of items in a listicle, or A/B testing.

Good writers are good content marketers, but the reverse is not true. It doesn’t matter if you’re the leading expert in your particular industry, if you can’t make people want to learn more about it, you’ve failed.

If you can’t make people care about your product, they won’t buy it. If you can’t stir basic human emotions, they won’t care. And if you can’t move people to read your next blog article, or even your next paragraph, it doesn’t matter how much you know.

You will have failed as a marketer and as a writer.

The best thing you can do is focus on improving your writing skills.

That all starts with reading.

Stop Reading Business Books

Content marketers — at least the writers — need to stop reading business books and content marketing blogs. They’re no good for you. At best, you don’t learn anything new. At worst, they teach you bad habits.

As British mystery writer P. D. James said, “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

Read for pleasure instead. Read outside the nonfiction business genre. Read books from your favorite writers. Read mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, or literary fiction. Read history, biographies, creative nonfiction, or collections of old newspaper columns.

But. Don’t. Read. Business books.

This is input. This is how you become a better writer. You read the writers who are better than you, and you skip the writers who aren’t.

That means business books. As a business book author and reader, I can tell you there are plenty of business books that will never be accused of being “well written.” They’ll teach you plenty about the subject, but they won’t teach you about the craft of writing. Sure, you need to study the science of content marketing, but that should be a small portion of your total reading, not the majority of it.

So you study the best creative writers who are considered masters of the craft, and practice some of the techniques you see them doing.

This is why professional football players watch game film, not only of their opponents, but of players who came before them.

This is why actors watch old movies by the stars and directors from 50, 60, 70 years ago.

It’s why musicians not only listen to their idols, but their idols’ idols, and even their idols’ idols’ idols.

And this is why good writers constantly read the masters of the craft. This is why several writers have must read books and authors they recommend to everyone.

My friend, Cathy Day, a creative writing professor at Ball State University, and author of The Circus In Winter told me once,

Reading a lot teaches you what good sentences sound like, feel like, look like. If you don’t know what good sentences are, you will not be successful as a writer of words.

Stephen King, who is not a friend of mine, said something similar: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

What’s In Your Bookshelf?

There are only so many effective headlines you can write, so reading the 87th article on “Five Effective Headlines You Need To Use RIGHT NOW” is a waste of time.

There are only so many ways of creating buyer personas that yet another “How to Build Your Buyer Personas” isn’t going to make a difference.

Erik Deckers and Jay Baer at Blog Indiana 2012

Jay Baer and me. This dude’s a rockstar no matter what.

And when you really get down to it, Jay Baer is channeling Harvey Mackay who’s channeling Zig Ziglar who’s channeling Dale Carnegie. There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to business books and content marketing blogs. (Although I love Jay Baer’s bravery when it comes to wearing those sport coats! And he’s one of the few good business writers I admire.)

But there’s a whole world of books out there that have nothing to do with business, nothing to do with marketing, and will make you a better writer than any business book ever will.

Read Ernest Hemingway’s short stories to learn how to write with punch, using a simple vocabulary.

Read Roger Angell’s Once More Around the Ballpark to learn how to make people passionate about the thing you love.

Read Agatha Christie And Then There Were None to learn how to hook people at the start of a story, and keep them until the very end.

Identify three of your favorite authors, or at least authors you’ve heard good things about, and read one of their books. Identify passages, sentences, and techniques that move you and make you go “I wish I could do that.” Write them down in a notebook, and then practice doing them in your everyday writing — emails, blog articles, notes to friends, special reports, everything.

Once you finished those three books, read three more books. And then three more. And then three more.

When you run out of an author’s work, find a new author. When you run out of authors, ask a bookstore employee or librarian for recommendations. Or join Goodreads and ask your friends about the books they love.

Content marketing is facing an avalanche of mediocre content in the coming years, and the only way you’re going to stand out is if you can be better than the avalanche. That means being better at your craft, not producing more and more mediocre content.

It means reading more stuff by great writers and less by average writers. It means realizing you’re better off reading another mystery novel than yet another article that promises “Five Content Marketing Secrets.”

It means focusing on your craft and becoming a master of language and stories. And it all starts by reading the work of the artists who came before you.

Do Content Marketers Need to Know Their Flesch-Kincaid Score?

Straightforward exposition entices additional positive behavior. (That’s terrible.)

Simple writing converts better. (Pretty good.)

Short words sell good. (Too much, too much! Pull back!)

Content marketers, if you want your sales copy to generate more leads, it needs to be simple. It has to be good, it has to be interesting, and most of all, it has to be simple.

I would also argue it needs to be interesting, but that’s for a different article. Plus, there’s no software that can really measure that, although Google’s Time On Site and bounce rate stats may be a step in that direction.

As Neil Patel wrote on the Content Marketing Institute,

When users don’t like your content, Google doesn’t either. It works like this. A user accesses your website and decides (in a few seconds) whether she likes it. If she doesn’t like it, she bounces. Google records this information – short visit, then departure – for future reference.

Another user does the same thing – quick visit; then bounce. Another user does the same thing. And another.

Google gets the idea. Your website isn’t satisfying users. They aren’t engaging with it.

Google decides that your website doesn’t need to be ranking as high, and you start to slip in the Search Engine Result Pages.

So if you want your content to be accessible, it needs to be easy to read. If it’s easier to read, people are more likely to stick around for more than a few seconds.

There are plenty of other factors to consider — page layout, use of sub-heads, use of white space — but the number one factor for a readable, accessible page is the simplicity of the language.

Content Marketers, Know Thy Flesch-Kincaid Score

If you want to know whether your writing is simple or not, you need to know your Flesh-Kincaid score. Specifically, your Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level Formula.

This is the score that represents the readability of a piece of text at a U.S. grade level, so it’s easier for teachers and parents to know how hard or easy something is to read. It basically matches up to the grade reading level required to understand the text. If you get a Flesch-Kincaid score of 8, your reader needs to be at an 8th grade reading level to understand it.

Hunter S. Thompson, Miami Bookfair International, 1988I checked out a few different writing samples to compare their Flesch-Kincaid Grade Levels.

Most mainstream newspapers are written at a 6th grade reading level, USA today notwithstanding. Other USA Today stories I checked ran between 10th and 13th grade, thanks to complex and long sentence structures, not overly complex words. That suggests problems with editing, not word choice. And I’ve found that most business writing clocks in at a 7th and 8th grade reading level

It’s not that our readers are stupid, or only have an 8th grade reading level, it’s that people don’t want to put a lot of mental bandwidth into deciphering more complex and convoluted articles. They don’t want to slog through a complex, jargon-filled multi-syllabic narrative. They want to read something easy.

And if your content is easy to read, they’re going to read it. If it’s not, they won’t.

How to Measure Your Flesch-Kincaid Score

There are a few ways you can measure your Flesch-Kincaid score. Microsoft Word users have that functionality built right in, so it’s easy to find. (Check the Show readability statistics box in your Spelling and Grammar preferences.)

For Apple users, use the Hemingway app, which you can use to identify not only your grade level, but the number of adverbs, uses of passive voice, and sentences that are hard to read and very hard to read (like this one). You can use the Hemingway app on their website, but I bought the $19.99 version on the Apple store. (It’s available for Windows as well.)

The problem with the Hemingway app is that they don’t give you decimalized grade levels though. If you want that extra accuracy, you can use the Readability Test Tool by WebPageFX. That’s the tool I used to get the scores above. My other complaint about the Hemingway app is that it doesn’t ignore html text; the Readability Test Tool does.

Content marketers, if you want your readers to stick around and read your work, it needs to be easy. Try to keep it at a 7th grade reading level or lower. That means concise words, succinct sentences, and compressed paragraphs. (That’s terrible.)

Sorry, I mean short words, short sentences, and short paragraphs. (Ah, much better.)

Photo credit: Wikipedia.org