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)

Does Your Content Marketing Drive Your Story Forward

In creative writing, fiction and nonfiction, writers are told that that every detail, every word, needs to drive the story forward. If it doesn’t add to the story or move it along in some way, drop it.

For example, Nell may love her grandmother’s quilt, and the author may take 100 words to tell how Grandma sewed it for her when Nell was two years old and yada yada yada. But if this information doesn’t do anything else for the story later — Nell gives it to her daughter, she uses it to put out a fire, her husband spills beer on it — then the description needs to go.

Ernest Hemingway would have been great at content marketing!

Sometimes it’s what you leave OUT that drives a story, as this guy knew.

Even talking about it seven chapters later, mentioning that Nell huddles under it whenever she feels sad is a good reason to keep it in. But if the reader never sees that quilt again, it’s not doing anything for the story, and it has to go.

Does Your Content Marketing Drive Your Story?

Your content marketing campaign — your entire marketing campaign for that matter — needs to follow the same philosophy. Your individual pieces of marketing collateral need to drive your story forward.

Are you focused on getting Facebook Likes? Given that 1) Likes don’t necessarily mean sales, and 2) Facebook is pulling the bait-and-switch on marketers anyway, focusing any kind of resources and energy on Facebook in general definitely doesn’t move your story forward. But if you’re focusing specifically more on Likes and less on having Likable content, then you’re not driving your story forward.

Are you having real conversations with customers on Twitter? That does drive your story forward, because you’re telling it 140 characters at a time. You’re also encouraging more people to interact with your story. More readers means the potential for more questions, which leads to more answers, which equals more content.

Are you writing blog posts, white papers, and other content? These are the individual chapters and scenes of your company’s story, because this is where you get to tell your story over and over. Jackie Bledsoe uses his blog to tell his story about being a husband and father. Doug Karr uses the Marketing Tech Blog to tell his story about digital marketing. I use blog posts about writing, language, and content marketing to tell our company’s story.

You need to question every aspect of your marketing campaign, and whether they’re actually driving your story forward, or weighing it down in unnecessary details and worthless adjectives and adverbs. Talk to your marketing team and to your customers. See what’s driving your story, and what’s just a waste of time and resources. Focus your attention on what’s good, delete what’s bad, and ramp up your efforts.

Three Unrelated Skills to Make You a Better Writer

Every writer gets the same advice when they’re starting out — write every day, read a lot, practice writing exercises — but that can only get you so far. There are other skills to develop.

It’s like a baseball player who only practices hitting and catching. Yes, those are important skills that he needs to practice over and over. But there are other skills he can practice that will also improve his playing ability: lifting weights, sprint workouts, and even off-season work like chopping wood and playing basketball, will improve his ability to swing a bat.

Erik Deckers speaking in public

Doing this taught me to be a better writer.

For writers, there are related skills they can develop, through other activities that exercise their writing muscles, but don’t actually have them writing the same same stuff over and over. These other activities can improve your communication skills, which will ultimately improve your writing.

Twitter

I always thought I was good at concise writing, until I fell in love with Twitter. After using it for a year, and learning how to fit a single thought into 140 characters, I realized I was doing that in my regular writing. When I went back and compared my work to the previous year, I could see how everything was tighter, and how I expressed ideas more fully with fewer, better words.

Twitter has especially helped my humor writing, because I’ve learned how to set up a joke and deliver the punchline in a single tweet. This has had a huge impact on my humor column writing, because I’ve been able to squeeze more jokes into the same number of column inches.

To learn how to tweet effectively:

  • Distill your thoughts into the most expressive nouns and verbs.
  • Cut the adverbs.
  • Use adjectives sparingly.
  • Avoid first person references. Instead of saying “I had lunch at @BoogieBurger,” say “Had lunch at @BoogieBurger” or even “Ate at @BoogieBurger.”

(This last one is more of a space saver, but it also teaches you how to write with greater punch.)

Want to make it a real challenge? Avoid abbreviations if possible, and never, ever use text speak. Then, make your thoughts fit into the required space. That’s the best training you can ever do for yourself.

Public Speaking

If you speak in public, you already know how to deliver information clearly and directly, making it easy for your audience to understand and be interested in it. If you’ve been doing it for a while, you’ve already got a speaking style. (And if you don’t, find your local Toastmasters club, and learn to speak in public.)

As you develop that speaking style, try to tailor your writing style to match it. As you’re reading, imagine yourself delivering the material to your audience. If you speak with strong declarative statements, write them. If you’re funny in person, be funny on paper. If you’re calming to your audience, be calming to your reader. Basically, your spoken word choice and delivery should affect your written word choice and style. And as more people hear you speak, the more they’ll hear your voice when they read your work. Match the one to the other in tone, word choice, and even rhythm.

Storytelling

I don’t mean become the kind of storytellers you see at festivals or hear on The Moth, although that helps. Rather, focus on telling stories to friends over dinner. The story should have a beginning, middle, and end. It should create suspense, and have an interesting payoff at the end.

If you can easily tell those kinds of stories out loud, you’ll learn how to tell those stories on paper. Any story or blog post you write should have a beginning, a middle, and an end. It needs to have an interesting payoff. (Of course, with blogging and journalism, the payoff comes at the beginning, so you’ll need to learn how to deliver the punchline first, and turn the setup into its own a-ha! moment.)

As you’re writing your articles, write it as if you were going to deliver it in public, but as a five-minute story. If you can shift the storytelling architecture to your writing, that makes your work easier to follow. You learn how to keep people involved from a post or article from beginning to end.

These are the three skills I have worked on over the last several years, and they have made a big difference in what, how, and how well I write. And I’m always looking for the next new challenge or skill to master to make it even better.

How about you? What challenges are you taking on yourself to become a better writer?

Promote Your Book with Video and Social Media Marketing

I was talking to another writer this past weekend, and he told me he was writing a book with a very famous NASCAR driver, but that they had only just started.

“It’s really just him telling a bunch of stories,” said the writer. “And man, can he tell stories.”

A book like this is perfect for video promotion and social media marketing, before it’s even published. In many cases, a book is available for pre-ordering, especially on Amazon. Here’s one idea you can use to promote the book using your subject and his great stories:

    Set up a blog with the domain name of the driver and book, like “www.RickyBobbyBook.com.”

  1. Get a Flip video camera and record all of your interview sessions.
  2. Edit the different stories into separate video clips.
  3. Post the stories, one per week, on the blog. Include the call to action, “You can read more stories like this in the upcoming book. Pre-order it on Amazon.com now” with a link to the order page.