As kids, most of us loved listening to stories, and as adults, we’re still suckers for a story well told. Since the beginning of time, people have used stories to entertain, educate and inspire. Stories that used to be carved into stone, written on parchment or recited around a campfire can now be shared through a podcast, told through a Tweet or portrayed through an interactive slideshow or video. All you need is one great story. If you have that, you can find dozens of different ways to tell it, depending on your audience and your outlet for sharing it.
Storytelling, at its most basic definition, is using words, images and sounds to convey events. In print, this often takes the form of telling or explaining; in video, showing; and in online media, demonstrating and engaging. But whether you’re conveying your story through a simple blog post or a multimedia package complete with clickable graphics, live video streaming and Flash animation, you’ll succeed at captivating your audience if you follow these five tried-and-true storytelling principles:
1. Get to the point. Figure out exactly what you want to say and what you want people to take away from your story (it’s best if you stick to one or two messages)—and waste no time getting to the point. Give the audience vivid, telling details they’ll recall when reflecting on the story or repeating it to others. This might mean kicking off a video with a strong, symbolic image or blogging from a different point of view.
2. Make it interesting. Whether writing a case study for the Web or a 140-character Tweet, you must capture the interest of your audience from the beginning—or you’ll lose them. To grab them from the get-go and build suspense, develop a conflict. Every story worth its salt has some kind of internal or external conflict, or obstacle, to be overcome. In a podcast, for instance, you can immediately put the listener in the story by posing a dramatic question that needs to be answered. Or you can arrange content in a quiz format to help your audience work through a quandary or use an interactive graphic to teach them something.
3. Use compelling characters. Every good story has unforgettable characters. You can bring a story to life by letting them speak through memorable soundbites or narration juxtaposed with powerful images or words. If your content centers around a company or brand, make it relevant by focusing on its role in the lives of customers.Or you can turn your audience into characters. By taking the time to listen and respond to blog comments from followers or using your content to interact with them, you can gain a better understanding of what motivates them—and speak to that.
4. Pay attention to plot and pacing. Speak to your audience in short, breathable segments or digestible bits of information. Talk in a conversational, informal tone. If your story takes an audio or video form, you can use music to evoke or change moods. Even small things like varying the length of sentences or the format in your blogs or changing up the zooming and panning effects in your video can create a rhythm that will draw the audience into your story. Plot out your message and let it unfold. If you’re doing this through a series of Tweets, it might look like this: Start by sharing what you want to communicate, then link to related articles or state facts that amplify your point, then ask and answer questions, and finally, thank those who have shared their insight or helped spread the word.
5. Start a conversation. At its best, good storytelling can create sense of kinship, reinforce a relationship or encourage people to rally together for a common cause. Every story, whatever the format, should get the audience talking. Working universal themes like loss, redemption, crisis or change into your content will keep people engaged and spur them to action. And by offering them an outlet through which they can share their thoughts or provide feedback, you’ll create a growing and learning opportunity for your audience and for yourself.
For more storytelling tips for any format, check out this tutorial with NPR’s Scott Simon.