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The gift of great storytelling: 5 tips to captivate readers

7 min read
Adam Turner

Storytelling may have become a popular buzzword amongst marketing folk, but there's no denying that it works. There’s simply nothing like a good story to illustrate something about who you are or what you provide. It really helps get your message across.

Rather than just hitting readers with dry facts and figures, the art of storytelling involves crafting engaging website text, social posts and video scripts.

Great storytelling invites you on a journey and makes you feel something.

Storytelling can encourage you to see yourself in the story, or perhaps look through someone else's eyes to view the world from a different perspective.

The way people engage with stories and process information also makes this type of persuasive writing a powerful tool for getting your small business message across.

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5 tips to boost your storytelling skills and attract readers

Even if you don't have a flair for persuasive writing, there are a few simple tips you can follow when putting together a great story to captivate readers.

1. Know your audience

Like any form of marketing, it's vital to know who you're trying to reach so you can craft your storytelling message accordingly.

If you want to sell your audience on the merits of your offerings — and convince them that you're better than the competition — then it's important to understand their wants, needs and aspirations. You’ll also want to consider the pressures they're under every day.

If you've already developed customer personas for marketing purposes, then they'll make a great starting point.

You might want several personas, if you're producing different kinds of content aimed at different kinds of people.

Ask yourself who you’re trying to reach. Examples of popular audiences include:

  • Aspirational consumers
  • Hip influencers
  • Environmentally-conscious shoppers
  • Bargain hunters

In the business world, you can try aiming for:

  • Frontline workers
  • Middle management
  • Decision-makers
  • Executives or those who hold the purse strings

Whoever you're trying to reach, you need to put yourself in their shoes to make sure your story resonates with them.

2. Plan your story

When storytelling, don't try to write it word-perfect from start to end in one go. Instead, put aside perfection and let your ideas flow.

Think of writing like doing a jigsaw – you don't start with the top left corner piece and systematically work your way across each row until you place the final piece at the bottom right. Instead, you spread out all the pieces and start sorting them as the picture gradually comes into view.

When writing a story, start by brainstorming ideas. Don't worry about polishing or vetting them, just throw them all on the page as bullet points.

Once you've covered all the important issues and have enough to work with, start grouping those bullet points together into story sections. Then shuffle around the sections into a logical order to create an outline.

Remember, it's not carved in stone, you can always change things as the story comes together.

3. Find your voice

Now that you have an outline for your story, it's time to flesh it out.

Knowing your audience helps you choose the appropriate terminology, style and tone — sometimes known as your "brand voice" — to ensure you're speaking their language.

Consider the goal of your story: are you aiming to inform, involve, instruct or inspire? Don't just think about what you want people to know after reading your story. Think about what you want them to feel and what you want them to do next (click, share, buy).

Here are a few techniques to help sharpen your storytelling language:

  • Use active tense: Whether you want to come across as professional, authoritative, passionate or playful, it helps to write in active tense rather than passive. "The dog bit the man" reads much better than "The man was bitten by the dog."
  • Write in first person: Try writing in the first person "I should think about my financial security," or the second person "You should think about your financial security." It helps make more of an emotional connection than writing in the third person "People should think about their financial security."
  • Choose your words: If you want to make more of an impact, choose more evocative language, such as changing "You should think about your financial security" to "Think about financial security as the foundation of the house you’ll live in all your life."

Don't get too bogged down in crafting the perfect prose in your first draft. Write down what you want to say, then come back and polish the way you say it.

Related: A beginner’s guide to brand identity

4. Hone your intro

Person holding a card that reads About Us

Your headline and first sentence needs to leave readers wanting more, so think about what will appeal to them the most.

Sometimes it's easy to write a captivating introduction before you start fleshing out the rest of your outline. Your intro needs to be tight, snappy and engaging — every word needs to earn its place — but don't get bogged down making it perfect in your first draft.

If you get stuck, move on to the rest of the story and come back to it later. By the time you get to the end, you usually have a better idea of what you're trying to say and the perfect compelling intro becomes clear.

5. Polish your drafts

Don't be satisfied with the first draft; it's always worth going back to give it a polish.

Walk away for a while and come back with fresh eyes, reading your story aloud as you edit. Along with checking for mistakes, you want to make sure that it flows logically. Also look for ways to make it more engaging and less convoluted.

Remember, you want to make an emotional connection with your audience.

It can take a few drafts to really hone your story. Sometimes you can be too close to the topic, so it helps to get someone else to read over it.

Why you should write with your audience in mind

Person reading newspaper while sitting in bed

Ask anyone: knowing who you’re talking to makes all the difference to what you say and how you say it.

Don't try to sound hip when talking to business executives, and don't sound too stuffy when you're appealing to consumers.

Are you trying to play on your reader’s intellect or emotions? Creating an emotional response through storytelling can help cut through some filters and reach people on a personal level. The most important thing is to sound authentic.

Business folk tend to write in a very convoluted way that's heavy on jargon. They sound like lawyers, because they think it makes them seem knowledgeable and professional. But the truth is that this style of writing alienates most people.

You probably don't want your story to read like a stuffy business report. Keep it clear, simple and concise without making it dry.

Final notes on persuasive writing

We can't all be Shakespeare, but these simple tips can help boost your storytelling skills to captivate readers. Firstly, know your audience. Don't get bogged down trying to write the perfect prose in the first draft. Start by getting down your ideas and creating a rough plan.

As you flesh it out, find your voice and craft a great intro to grab the reader's attention. Don't be satisfied with the first draft, keep polishing until your story shines. Make your story leap off the screen and watch people respond!