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After all the research and hard tactical work of implementing something new, it is tempting to kick up our feet and celebrate a job well done. But we still have to figure out how to create compelling stories about our products or services. If we can’t connect with our audience, then what was the point of all that innovating?
At Centric’s November Innovation Workshop, Ryan Brock, CEO of Metonymy Media, shared his company’s process for empathizing with audiences and creating stories that meet people where they are.
He started by asking us to imagine we’re telling ghost stories around a campfire. In this setting, our audience is right there with us. We all hear the crickets, the unexpected snap of a branch, the whistle of the wind. The ghost story doesn’t actually have to be all that scary because nature does a lot of the work for us.
We don’t get that same benefit of a shared, mood-setting context when telling stories about our latest innovations. The audience in real life may be very different from you. Different minds, different context.
As Ryan said:
“Your campfire may look nothing like their campfire.”
So, how might we connect and tell compelling stories? Ryan shared his three step process for effective storytelling:
- Identify your reader’s immediate context
- Confirm that context through SEO research
- Use rhetorical language effectively
Understand the context of your audience
Imagine a real stakeholder (your customer, employee, etc). Give them a name. We’re writing for people, so it’s best to humanize them. Ryan urged us to go beyond a typical “Persona.” A lot of organizations use personas, but it’s not uncommon to stop at very surface bullet points:
- Where they live
- Education level
- Income level
- Job title
- Family status and size
- Shopping habits
Those things are great to know, but can you really connect and speak to what they care about? Demographic focused bullet points are not enough.
In addition to those bullets, Ryan adds:
- Primary challenge
- Emotional state
- Personal values
With those elements, you can not only show the audience you understand their challenges, you can help connect their pain to your solution. Win-win for everyone. Here is the example we worked through in the workshop:
Helping a patient make a difficult medical decision.
“Susie” has a respiratory disease that she has struggled with for twelve years. Standard treatment has failed her. Her most recent clinical trial just concluded. She didn’t trust the drug company who ran the trial. Now she needs to decide what to do next. Susie knows her quality of life degrades significantly without being on advanced treatment. She is not sure what new treatments might be out there, or if she will be able to get in the trial. Now, she needs to decide if she resumes traditional treatment, jeopardizing her chances for future participation in a trial, or waits to get in on the next new treatment.
Susie is stressed, worried, and anxious. She is afraid she might not be able to work if her condition worsens. Her go-to anxiety coping technique is exercise, but she can’t be active because her breathing quality is so low. Despite being stressed, she has hope just under the surface. It wouldn’t take much to ignite her hope and give her something to believe in.
Susie greatly values balance, wellness, and ability to engage in physical activity. Self-sufficiency is really important to her – being productive, working, maintaining independence. She also likes to be armed with knowledge surrounding her health options. She craves reliable information and insight from providers she can trust.
One take away from this exercise: the emotion and tension is the same for many patients. You probably don’t need 30 personas. Just a few will cover the vast majority of storytelling needs.
Quick ways to challenge your assumptions about your audience
One simple approach to help challenge or confirm what you think you know about the audience is to use tools meant for Search Engine Optimization. Ryan recommended Google’s Keyword Planner.
First, generate a list of what the audience would be asking or searching. To continue with “Susie,” we came up with this list of what she might search:
- Pulmonary disease treatment options
- Pulmonary disease clinical trials
- Trials near me
- Side effects of treatment A
- Side effects of treatment B
- How long can I work with shortness of breath?
By running these queries through the keyword planner, we can learn if anyone actually searched those terms and discover related searches we may not have considered. For example, we learned there are a lot more people searching for “clinical trial news” than the terms we initially considered. Ryan issued a reminder. While these tools were designed for ad planning and SEO, the purpose here is to understand people and tell human stories.
Two more tools he recommended:
- Run your topics through Google Trends to see what comes up. Is there any new and emerging information about the topic? Events or news stories of note?
- And then, what happens when you just do a simple Google search? What results, organizations, and content appears on the first few pages?
This quick research will give you more data, less assumptions.
Use language effectively to connect with your audience
Now, for actually telling the stories! Ryan reminded us:
“Your audience is the center of the story, not you.”
And the language is important. You don’t have to stuff your writing with emotional words. In fact, if you do, you run the risk of telling the audience how they feel, rather than showing you understand what they are experiencing. When writing, keep three things in mind:
- Show, don’t tell.
- Resonate, don’t exploit.
- Reader’s perspective, not yours.
Back to “Susie” – how do these variations compare?
Telling her how she feels:
As someone living with a chronic respiratory problem, you have a lot of anxiety.
In the aftermath of a clinical trial, do you go back to traditional treatment? Look for the next trial? It isn’t always an easy path.
Exploiting her fears:
What if your last breath comes before your next clinical trial?
Tapping into her positive emotion:
Your next trial can be the perfect opportunity to find out what was missing from your last one.
Focusing on you:
We can help you make decisions about your health care.
Focusing on her perspective:
Take control of your healthcare journey.
What a dramatic shift in mood and focus! These exercises were a good reminder that just because you think your latest innovation is cool, that is not enough. You have to make your audience care too.
Let us know if you try any of these storytelling techniques. We’d love to hear how it goes!
Courtesy of Metonymy Media
- Persona Worksheet
- Campfire Content and Storytelling Slides
ABOUT RYAN BROCK
Ryan Brock is the Founder & CEO of Metonymy Media, an agency of creative writers dedicated to helping businesses and organizations communicate effectively for growth and success. His background in classics, philosophy, literature, and creative writing has helped him build a niche company that focuses on telling compelling stories through comprehensive writing services, digital marketing services, and educational writing workshops. Ryan is also the co-author of Nothing New: An Irreverent History of Storytelling and Social Media. In his book, he and co-author Muhammad Yasin explore the many connections between social media marketing and the great storytellers of the past as a way of thinking tactically about new media.