How to Use Storytelling on Your Social Media Campaigns to Increase Your Engagement

Every so often, I will feature guest posts from writers who actually have important and interesting things to say. Patrick Bailey is a professional freelance writer, working mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He wanted to write about storytelling and social media, so I let him take a crack at it. At 1500+ words, I think he knocked it out of the park.

Patrick Bailey, a writer who specializes in mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He wrote this piece on storytelling in social media.Even before civilization came to be and nothing was in print, humans were hard-wired to listen and tell stories. Stories became the backbone of many ancient cultures because they were passed on from generation to generation through verbal means. Traditions were built through sharing stories. Stories were written as books, and they became the time-enduring classics.

Now, we have the capacity to share and record stories in the digital world. With the use of the Internet, blogging became an avenue for ordinary people to share their stories whether it was something personal or related to their business. After blogging, social media became a tool for people to share the mini-stories of their lives.

That is just one side of the coin — in fact, there are many facets of storytelling that shows how much power it holds to influence others. In marketing, storytelling plays a big role in capturing the minds and hearts of readers and viewers.

What is storytelling in social media?

Storytelling in social media is quite different when it comes to those found in books, magazines, or even blogs. Since people have a shorter attention span when browsing through their social media feeds, it is important that our stories are concise yet captivating. Here are some of the characteristics of an engaging story in social media:

  • Stories should start with an attention-grabbing headline or first statement. The stories you post in social media should be interesting from the beginning. This is the hook that makes readers or viewers stay engaged.
  • Stories should be concise. Unlike blogs, people don’t have the patience to read page-long stories about you or your brand. It is important to be concise and only state important details in your story.
  • Stories should be accompanied with other multimedia forms. Although text can be engaging in itself, it is proven that multi-sensory experiences in the digital world can help users retain far more information: Include images or videos with your story.
  • Stories should have a strong call-to-action at the end. Before even creating a captivating story in social media, you need to think of your primary goal why you are setting up the campaign in the first place. Do you want people to visit your website? Do you want more email subscribers? Do you want them to purchase your product? Think about your goal and start making your story from there.

Now that we understand the characteristics of an engaging story in social media, how can we create one from start to finish? Here are some steps you can take.

Think about your audience persona.
Some stories may be interesting for a particular group, and yet some wouldn’t really bat an eye on the same topic. When formulating your story, think about the type of audience that your platform or business serves. This is called your audience persona, which means personifying the archetype of audience that you may have. Think of your audience persona based on the following characteristics:

  • Age
  • Gender
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Cultural background
  • Where they live
  • What they do
  • What their problems are
  • What they look like
  • What things do they need

These considerations can help you create a story that will be interesting to your target audience. Without building an audience persona, you may end up formulating a story with full effort and no engagement.

Remember the rules of capturing attention.
One of the most popular copywriting formulas called AIDA, which stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. These four pillars of effective copy can also be incorporated into storytelling. Now that you have established your audience persona, it is important to place yourself in their shoes. What would be a story that can capture their attention?

Many marketers would go for the first-person story technique. They can talk about their personal struggles which make them relatable to their target audience. This is very effective because people want to know others’ story and how they have succeeded.

For example a company called Mountain Springs Recovery focuses on addiction rehabilitation. They use storytelling campaigns through testimonials of others’ struggles in rehabilitation and how they have succeeded through the help of the company. This is a great way to tug to your audience’s heartstrings and make them read the rest of your story. Other attention-grabbing techniques include:

  • Sharing a short case study of your previous client. Ask permission from a previous client to tell their background and how they have achieved success through your business.
  • A story about someone who benefited from your business’ advocacy. If your business supports an advocacy (e.g., helping cancer patients, providing scholarships, etc.), share a short story of how these people have benefited from your business, and how others can support them by supporting your business as well.
  • Your own before and after story. If you are a professional who has experienced the same problems as your target audience, you can use your own story as a marketing tool. For example, a fitness coach can post his or her before and after results while sharing a story of their struggles and triumphs in the weight loss journey.

Remember what your teacher taught you.
Do you remember in literature class when your teacher would remind you of the parts of the story? Mostly, an engaging story or a narrative would include the characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. You don’t have to elaborate too much when creating your social media posts. All you have to do is to keep them present when thinking about your story. Make it clear by introducing the main characters of your story (Is it you? Your client? A person you know?), where and when it happened, the premise, what the problem is and how the problem is solved.

Remembering these elements can help you create a formula that would always be engaging to your target audience in mind.

Experiment with multimedia.
Engagement is not just about using one form of media. Social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest or Twitter have different tools to help create engaging stories.

This is where you can start experimenting. If you already have a small audience you can work on, try to create different types of content. Start by crafting your story accompanied by a photo, and in some instances you would want to shoot a video.

When you create social media accounts, engagement is counted as the amount of views, likes, shares, and comments in your content. If you notice that one form of media is more effective than the other, you already know what format of stories you would want to post in the future.

Essentially, focusing on the story format that your audience wants is the key to gaining engagement and social proof. As other people see that you have likes, shares, and comments in your stories, the more that they will be curious to see what your business is about.

Build trust — don’t rely on click bait.
Unless your ultimate goal is to get views for your business merely in your website or social media accounts, don’t exploit people’s attention through click bait. Clickbait is when writers over-sensationalize stories in order to get views.

It is best not to rely on this technique as it may cause people to lose trust in your business — resulting in bad comments, poor feedback, and eventually dwindling attention. Make sure your stories are genuine, and if you do promise something, be sure you can deliver. Do not simply make up stories in order to get future clients to sign up, then setting them for disappointment.

Utilize call-to-action buttons.
As mentioned earlier, an engaging story in social media must be built with a goal in mind. This goal is realized by creating a call-to-action. For blogs and websites, a call-to-action is usually done by posting a link or a sign-up form. However, social media is a little different because you can use buttons when you make sponsored posts for your stories.

A clear example would be Facebook sponsored posts. When you boost a Facebook post, you’ll notice that they will give you an option to place a button at the bottom of your sponsored post. Below your story, you can create a button that can make the users:

  • Message your Facebook page
  • Contact your business number
  • Visit your website
  • Shop in your built-in store

Whatever your call-to-action is, make sure that it is clear to your audience and they can easily access it through these buttons.

Create stories, engage your audience.
With so many businesses vying for people’s attention is social media, you can stand out by following these actionable tips in creating engaging stories.

Author Bio: Patrick Bailey is a professional writer mainly in the fields of mental health, addiction, and living in recovery. He attempts to stay on top of the latest news in the addiction and the mental health world and enjoy writing about these topics to break the stigma associated with them. Find him on Twitter at @Pat_Bailey80.

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)

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)

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)

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)

Outrunning The Little Man: Dealing With Impostor Syndrome

There’s only one person I’ve ever been afraid of my entire life.

He’s average height, and skinny, very skinny. He’s got a bad combover, wears outdated glasses that are too large for his face, and a tie clipped onto a pistachio green short sleeve shirt. He’s an older Kip from Napoleon Dynamite. He’s very officious, and kind of an asshole. The kind of guy who loves wielding his teeny-tiny bit of power over other people’s lives.

I call him “The Little Man.” He’s not little in size, but in spirit and vision.

I live in fear of the day The Little Man knocks on my door. He’ll look at a form on his clipboard and say, “I’m sorry” — except he’s really not — “but there’s been a mistake. You’re not supposed to be a writer. You’re supposed to be a claims adjuster. Sign here, please.” I’m afraid The Little Man is going to show up one day and take everything away because of a clerical error.

Impostor syndrome makes people worry there's some bureaucrat out there trying to get us and fix some error about our lives.I’ve been looking over my shoulder for The Little Man for the better part of 30 years. Ever since I published my first column in my college newspaper, I’ve been trying to outrun him.

It’s like the movies. The hero runs as fast as he or she can, knocking shit over into the bad guy’s path. But the bad guy just steps over everything like it’s not even there.

So I’m amassing evidence to slow him down and prove him wrong. Evidence to show that his form is wrong, and that I’m where I’m supposed to be.

I’ve thrown four books in his path. Twenty-one years of newspaper columns. Thousands of blog articles. Writing awards. Writing residencies. Speaking opportunities. But he won’t stop. I’m throwing it all in his path, and he won’t even look at it. He’s a mindless bureaucrat, a drone who refuses to see evidence in front of him or use common sense. He only believes what the paperwork says, despite what real life is showing him.

I’ve been running for 30 years, and he won’t stop coming.

I thought I escaped him once last year, when I was a writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac House in Orlando. It’s a prestigious residency where only four writers are chosen out of over 300 applicants from all over the world. To me, this confirmed that there had been no error, there was no form on a clipboard.

“This will stop him,” I thought. “There’s no way he can find me here. I’m supposed to be here. They said so.”

But when I stepped inside and closed the door on my first day, he was right there on the sidewalk in front of the house, staring up at it. In fact, it was the closest he’d ever gotten.

He chases my other artist friends too. They’ve seen him, following them wherever they go, whatever they do. To a man and woman, they’ve all seen him, no matter how successful they get, no matter how much stuff they throw in his way.

In fact, the more successful they are, the closer he gets. So we all run faster and work harder, and throw more stuff in his way. But he steps over it and continues on.

It’s a rare artist who isn’t afraid of him. Every capable creative professional I know keeps one eye on their work, and the other looking over their shoulder.

The ones who aren’t afraid often don’t know enough to be afraid. They’re not committed to their craft and they don’t take it seriously. The Little Man leaves alone those artists who wait for inspiration or think they’re masters of their craft. (Because even the real masters don’t think they’re masters; they’re looking for The Little Man too.)

So we work, because that’s the only thing that lets us outrun him. It doesn’t stop him. He never stops. Because he’s waiting for the day that I stop, when I give up and quit running. That’s when he’ll get me. That’s when I’ll have to take his pen and sign his form, and finally give up on my dreams.

But that’s not today. Today, I still have things to do and dreams to win. I still have the energy and the drive to work, and to outrun him one more day.

Photo credit: Max Pixels (FreeGreatPicture.com, Creative Commons 0)