How a Spoonful of Story Helps Even ‘Boring’ Content Go Down

How a Spoonful of Story Helps Even ‘Boring’ Content Go Down

Content practitioners create a spectrum of creative content. Some, like thought leadership e-books, entertaining videos, or customer stories, are seemingly filled with storytelling opportunities.

Then, there are the more process-oriented pieces – standards, guidelines, how-to instructions, and other initiatives that relay valuable information. Though necessary, these “constructed” pieces are rarely considered a place to stretch the creative legs.

I’ve discussed the differences between these content sets before, using my favorite quote from G.K. Chesterton’s critique of Charles Dickens’s novel The Pickwick Papers:

The whole difference between construction and creation is exactly this: that a thing constructed can only be loved after it is constructed; but a thing created is loved before it exists.

That distinction speaks directly to the excitement of creating interesting pieces vs. the satisfaction that comes after constructing something that turns out to be useful.

Most content creators prefer creating the former. I suggested in that original post that leaders make sure talented creators get the chance to do both: “All writers write. But not all writing is writing. I’ve never met any content creator happy with constructing content as their sole activity.”

But I missed the opportunity to highlight an additional nuance – that it is possible to approach construction projects with the love you feel during creation. I should have concluded the article this way: “All writers write – and not all writing is writing. But it can be.”

Not all #Content writing is writing – but it can be, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Finding the story in constructed content

I recently worked with a professional services firm to improve the storytelling structure of their digital content. Teams from different disciplines participated, and we went through various content formats, including social posts, white papers, press releases, web pages, and even recruitment campaigns. Our goal: Look at the story structure in each piece and see how we might change them.

One of the content practitioners submitted a draft of a process document explaining the policies of how, when, and which content gets deleted from the company’s intranet.

It turned out to be my favorite asset to work on.

As you might expect, the initial draft was pretty dry. It opened with a guide to the contents. Then, in a logical outline, it explained the guidelines and instructional items for automatic content sunsetting and how the content owner could avoid automatic deletion by editing the content before that date or indicating it shouldn’t be deleted.

Exciting stuff. No, really.

As we discussed the piece, we all realized the meaningful reason behind the guide’s creation. Outdated content makes the intranet less valuable.

We started talking about injecting emotion and a point of view into the piece. In other words, we could sell this process and the right way of managing content on the intranet. We discussed including ingredients that would make more people care about reading this document. We could raise the stakes, establish tension, and make an adventure out of keeping the intranet valuable for the organization.

We used the story package framework, which separates the elements of the story structure by layers according to the overall objective. For example:

The image shows the objective and ingredients for each category.

  • Poet – the goal is to create a new belief or change an existing one using ingredients such as a human/hero, constriction, desire, relationships, challenges, and truth
  • Professor – the objective is to educate someone about your point of view using a thesis, opposition, why-this explanations, implications, and the point of view
  • Promoter – the objective is to get someone to agree or commit to an action using old-world, trigger, and new-world descriptions
  • Performer – The objective is to make someone feel, using emotion

Story structure framework.

Don’t think of this framework as a template or a recipe. I think of each layer as ingredients that give you the best shot at a fulfilling story. You decide the quantity and creativity behind those ingredients.

A #storytelling framework gives you the ingredients for telling a fulfilling story – you choose the quantity, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

We chose the Professor approach for the intranet policy guide (since it’s about teaching a concept). Then we asked questions and filled in the story.

  • Thesis (our lesson or the overall point): The amount of content on an intranet is inversely proportional to its usability. All content should be identified with an expiration date and removed when it gets there.
  • Opposition/challenge (the resistance to that point): My content alone won’t have that big of an effect; therefore, I don’t have to worry because everyone else will adhere to the rules.
  • Justification (why this approach to solving the problem and how it benefits the audience): One piece of outdated content can create distrust in the intranet. Our automated approach empowers you to prevent deletion and keeps you actively engaged in ensuring your content stays alive.
  • Implications (the implications of committing to the proposed approach): Outline the proposed time commitments and how it benefits the content creators.
  • O.V. (opinion and truth combining why this with the thesis): Understanding your role and responsibilities as an intranet content curator is a differentiating skill. You are a critical component to the health of our enterprise knowledge.

These ingredients make up starting points to help the team focus on how to craft something more interesting than an outline of processes and rules. They became building blocks to be injected with humor (their chosen emotion) and adventures adding up to a more engaging and creative story that teaches people about their role in caring for the intranet.

Only time and execution will tell if the intended audience will more readily consume this piece. But let me put it this way: After doing this work, the content will not be any less interesting.

But the popularity of the piece wasn’t the primary focus of the exercise­. My real goal was to renew the energy and creativity of the content creators working on this piece. The content was no longer a process document to be constructed.

The creators began to approach it as a creative thought leadership piece. And they felt excited about the possibilities before they even started their first edit.

That’s a win.

Helping creators feel excited to approach a #Content piece is a win, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Not every piece of business content is worth this much effort. But I’d argue more are worthy than we usually allow. Taking a small amount of time to explore the elements of a great story for seemingly boring content is a great way to differentiate your efforts.

An old saying goes, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t – you’re right.”

Here’s a version for content practitioners: “Whether you choose to create content or construct content, you will.”

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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