This is the part where I’m supposed to regale you with an enlightening, insightful or thought-provoking tale about an ancient Stoic philosopher, or some little known World War II general, or an apocryphal business anecdote featuring Steve Jobs, or my own personal reflection of what I learned running my first marathon.
In other words, this is where I begin a story.
There’s a trend for bloggers and content marketers – especially in financial writing – to make large claims of how some event or phenomenon or another – war, sports, business, brewing beer – explains the human condition or duly deconstructs complex concepts – investing, tax codes, retirement – into intuitive parts.
This is storytelling. It works to great effect. Except when it doesn’t.
Many blogs now take us on a journey to a point rather than just a step. Meanwhile, the average reader spends less than 15 seconds on a page.
It’s hard not then to wonder if we’ve gone too far. Has the desire to tell a great story gotten in the way of delivering the message?
Have we hit peak storytelling?
This week, Doug Boneparth – sharp thinker, good writer, coffee connoisseur, media personality, sartorial tastemaker, master of Twitter sarcasm, the lesser half of a talented podcast team and, oh yeah, president of his own firm Bone Fide Wealth – raised the issue with this tweet:
It’s funny cause it’s true; it’s equally hurtful cause it’s true.
As several people responded, I, too, am very guilty. A sinner of wrapping up the message in a long, overly detailed narrative.
Boneparth brings up a very good point. Why do we often obscure the message behind an at times irrelevant story when readers want specific answers to important finance questions?
Why we tell stories
Storytelling in blogging and content marketing is nothing new. It’s often at the top of every digital marketing best practice list. And storytelling as a means of persuasion goes back to even before the written word. It has arguably been a decisive part of all major historical events.
Consider Benjamin Franklin’s use of pseudonymous newspaper letters prior to the revolution to express his political views. When Franklin purchased the Pennsylvania Gazette in 1729… shit, sorry!
There are two primary reasons storytelling is an effective tool.
One, as we talked about, is that people gravitate toward stories. They create relationships between customer and business, client and advisor, author and reader, etc.
Brands aren’t logos. Brands are promises. If Nike opened a hotel … with your eyes closed you could figure out what it would be like. But if Hyatt came out with a brand of sneakers, no clue! Nike has a story.SETH GODIN
The other is to serve the almighty god we call search engine optimization. Google ranks pages higher when they have a certain word count (the minimum is typically considered to be 300 words and the sweet spot between 800 – 1,200 words). Additionally, a story gives you more opportunity to input those all-important keywords.
It’s easy as the writer to read our work as the writer and forget to read it as the reader. Especially with financial writing, we can miss the forest for the trees and forget the purpose, which is to provide helpful information to help people make a decision.
Seemingly, too many of us have gravitated toward historical anecdotes to make us look smart.
Making storytelling work
I’m not advocating for the abandonment of this storytelling style. There are many writers that are great at it. The stories are enlightening and entertaining.
Plus, I would argue consistent content is more important than style. If writing in a storytelling style keeps you going, then don’t stop.
However, I do think we could all use a gentle reminder of how to use storytelling effectively.
The story weaved through your article should be in some obvious way relevant. If a reader must stop and ask what does this all mean, revise it.
Never let the story bury the message. This is where form comes in. Use short paragraphs and put the message in scannable way – bold, highlight, italics, big obnoxious arrow – so people can bypass the story as needed.
MOST IMPORTANT: Storytelling doesn’t mean you need a story. The point is to use the story structure to answer who, what, where, when, why and how. Do that consistently and with authenticity, you will tell a great story.
Make every blog three sentences or less to answer one specific question and you tell the story of how much you value other people’s time.
A story is as much about what you don’t say as it is about what you do say.
What do you think? Have we jumped the storytelling shark?
Your answer may decide what you write next.
Finance blog godfather Barry Ritholtz with 10 useless finance phrases
Study them. Never write them.
My favorite: “The stock market hates uncertainty.” This could be the 2020 phrase of the year. It is not merely wrong, it reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of what drives markets.
Using today’s technology to go back in time and learn from the past
Farhad Manjoo shows how the audio and visual records of history available online can not only help us learn but experience the past as if in real time. You just might find a new story idea!
This is why it’s so hard to find dumbbells right now
An example from Alex Abad-Santos of how you can write about a problem you have that likely affects many other people, too.
What enabled me to take part in the effort to free our daughters and sons to achieve whatever their talents equipped them to accomplish, with no artificial barriers blocking their way? First, a mother who, by her example, made reading a delight and counseled me constantly to “be independent,” able to fend for myself, whatever fortune might have in store for me.
Friday fiction: Phil Klay reads an excerpt from his new novel, Missionaries
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