Storytelling TipsI’ve been thinking a lot about great storytelling.

If you watch “This Is Us,” you know what has triggered these thoughts.

Never before has a show been written so well and with such detail as that one.

The way it goes back and forth in history, into the future, and during present day is fascinating.

Danny Brown and I have our own little watch club and we marvel at the amount of forethought and strategy that goes into it.

We discuss the nuances of the storytelling. He often notices things I don’t and vice versa.

I often joke that watching it is like being in an abusive relationship. I know I’m going to bawl my eyes out, yet I keep going back for more.

In fact, I had such a crappy week last week that I had to postpone watching the season finale.

And then it wasn’t too bad, crying-wise, I mean.

I’m certainly not going to give anything away, but if you don’t watch it, it’s worth it, if only to understand how to tell a great story.

The Five Things to Include In Your Storytelling

To be a great storyteller, though, doesn’t typically come from watching television.

It comes from reading. And not just any reading. It comes from reading fiction.

Author and researcher Keith Oatley describes what reading fiction does for our minds and souls:

  1. Reading stories can fine-tune your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings.
  2. Entering imagined worlds builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point-of-view.
  3. A love affair with narrative may gradually alter your personality—in some cases, making you more open to new experiences and more socially aware.

And, while watching television typically does none of those things because it’s passive, “This Is Us” is different.

It does all of those things and more.

There are several similarities between reading fiction and watching “This Is Us”.

You’ll find it’s:

  1. Emotional
  2. Innovative
  3. Mysterious
  4. Moment-based (versus episode-based)
  5. Smart—and considers you smart, as well

Let’s look at each of these, as they relate to storytelling, and how you might incorporate them into your business owned media program.

Emotional Storytelling

There is a fine line between emotional storytelling and sappy narratives.

Think Nicholas Sparks novels. You’ll probably cry reading them, but they’re not going to add anything to your life.

What you want to do, instead, is tug at emotional strings in a way that people can see themselves.

In working on a presentation for the Tech Marketers Group in New Zealand, I found a Nike Instagram post that does this extraordinarily well.

Nike Instagram Post

How many times have you told yourself, “I’m too tired.” “I’m too busy.” “It’s too early.” “It’s too late.”?

We all find excuses—and there are plenty. But if this guy can get out on the track, so can you.

So can you.

The reason this is so compelling is it plays to your emotions.

It understands what we all do when it comes to exercise—provide excuses.

When you put your story in context of what the viewer or reader already experiences, you have won.

Innovative Storytelling

Innovation is one of those things that everyone talks about, but no one does.

It’s hard to be innovative and creative and smart.

Which has not been more apparent than in the thousands of emails we have all received in recent weeks that have begun with the words, “Out of an abundance of caution.”

It always makes me laugh to hear marketers and communicators complain about all the crap they receive in their inboxes…

…and then they sit behind their computer screens and churn out the same old crap.

I fully understand some of this cannot be prevented—it often is dictated and we have no control. I get that.

It’s also hard to convince the powers that be to take risk on anything, even your social media posts or email marketing or content.

But if there is anything “This Is Us” has taught us, it’s that being innovative works.

Yes, it’s risky. Every show on television does things a certain way (which we’ll talk more about in a second).

But they’ve managed to build on successful storytelling tactics, with a twist.

It jumps back and forth in time. It leaves major characters on the sidelines for entire episodes. And it has long, uninterrupted monologues that a short-attention-span audience isn’t supposed to sit still for.

And it works.

Mysterious Storytelling

As humans, we crave resolution—and “This Is Us” gives us a tiny bit of it in short doses.

When the first season ended, we were all certain we knew how Jack dies (not a spoiler, people!).

And then that wasn’t it at all.

In this current season, we see the past and future generations and how they intertwine with the present.

We know what the future holds for Rebecca (presumably), the matriarch, but we don’t yet know how it all comes together.

There are some assumptions we make as each episode ends, only to be surprised several episodes later that we were completely wrong.

Mystery is hard to write, particularly in a business setting, but it can be done.

This works well in a content series. You don’t want to do that every time you produce content, but you can do it every once in a while.

Moment-based Storytelling

There was a phase a couple of years ago that every author on earth was writing historical fiction.

It was interesting at the start but then it got to the point that I could not read one more historical fiction anything.

That’s how it goes with your storytelling, too.

“This Is Us” is successful because it takes risks and it builds on successful tactics, with a twist.

So let’s say you create a content series so you can add some of these elements of storytelling, particularly mystery.


Interweave some moment-based storytelling, too.

What “This Is Us” does incredibly well is make you live in the moment—and you may not come back to that moment again for several weeks or until next year.

Perhaps there is a way for you to tell a story about how your organization is handling work from home, in this moment.

Or what your furloughed employees are doing, in this moment.

You may never come back to this moment (God willing, none of us will), but it will make for a great story right now.

Smart Storytelling

When I was a young whippersnapper, I interned for the Omaha Wold-Herald.

I wrote the wedding announcements—and I learned AP style.

It used to drive me crazy that I had to write an acronym in parenthesis.

Such as frequently asked questions (FAQ).

As if readers weren’t smart enough to figure out, when I used FAQ, on the second mention, they wouldn’t know what I meant.

The Flesch Reading Score in Yoast also drives me crazy.

I kind of pride myself on getting a red light on that when I write content.

It means it’s smart.

You all are not dumb, and it makes me a little batty that I’m supposed to create content as if you are.

“This Is Us” gets this exactly right.

We’re not dumb. We can handle grown-up storytelling that assumes we were paying attention.

The same goes for your content.

Unless you truly are producing content for a fourth grade audience, go ahead and assume your business audience can keep up.

Start Practicing

These are not easy elements to include in your storytelling and it takes a lot (A LOT) of practice.

It also takes some convincing of the powers that be.

But if you can follow these five things that “This Is Us” does incredibly well, you will also reap the benefits of lead generation and lead nurturing and sales.

Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder, CEO, and author of Spin Sucks, host of the Spin Sucks podcast, and author of Spin Sucks (the book). She is the creator of the PESO Model and has crafted a certification for it in partnership with Syracuse University. She has run and grown an agency for the past 15 years. She is co-author of Marketing in the Round, co-host of Inside PR, and co-host of The Agency Leadership podcast.

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