As many of you may know, I'm a student of storytelling, I love using storytelling in marketing, and I recently had the honor of chatting with one of the co-writers of Shrek, Roger S.H. Schulman. In addition to his hugely successful writing career, Roger coaches writers, including people who, like me, are keen to improve their business writing and tell a story in their marketing.
As we countdown to Christmas, there are always a few movies that show up on the television schedules each festive season, and one of my favorites is Shrek. Ground-breaking in many ways, Shrek broke the mold of how we perceive an animated movie.
Unlike Disney films, which traditionally don't advertise the names of the actors delivering the lines of the animated characters, and lived in its own world, Shrek's marketing loudly proclaimed the names of the actors on its posters and trailers, and drew us to it because we were fans of those people and were curious to see what they would do in an animated movie.
Brands need to tell their story in a way that quickly brings empathy, engagement and encourages action. One thing I was really keen to explore with Roger was how to create empathy in a business marketing story, given that the opportunity to do so is much more limited in a few lines of marketing copy than in a full-length movie. As entrepreneurs, we need to make sure our business communications are concise and effective, grabbing the attention and telling our business story in a way that stands out from the crowd.
To me, there's a gulf between the two disciplines of business writing and long-form screen-writing. How do we create empathy in such short marketing messages and cause someone to take the action we want them to take? The foundation of a great story is often pain, suffering and deep human emotion, but how do we transition from that to a practical framework that someone can apply to business communications when we want to write great marketing messages about our brand?
Focus on authenticity.
Roger was very illuminating on the topic, and for him, there is no gulf. "It's only a gulf in the mind", he told me. He stressed that no one wants to read emotionless and passionless copy. "If we aren't convinced ourselves by the words we are writing then we are never going to convince anyone else". The words that make up the business message, whether its an advert, a PowerPoint presentation or an eBook, need to be authentic and from the heart, just like the greatest novels and movie scripts.
Without being an experienced and trained writer, (and sometimes even if you are), it can be all too easy to be hypercritical of our own writing and lose sleep over whether its any good, and whether it will be successful. Roger's sound advice is that we need to look at our writing and make sure that it represents our true feelings in some ways. If it does, it's successful.
Now that may not necessarily immediately translate into commercial success, but it's important as a communicator to write from the heart, otherwise, the message will never hit home. In truth, we can never know what the audience will make of our story, but as long as it is written honestly and with authenticity then it is successful writing. "Over time", he says, "you can feel it, knowing you are authentic. The rest is in the lap of the gods."
Be honest, and keep it simple.
It came across loud and clear in our conversation that honesty and simplicity is a powerful differentiator when it comes to business communication. Unless we are trying to deliberately confuse or obscure something with our writing, (which could be said to be true at times of some government or military messages), avoiding jargon and marketing-speak is essential in a world where everything needs to be communicated quickly in the brief moment of time we have the attention of our audience.
Don't forget the basics.
I asked Roger for two key practical tactical tips to elevate business writing and make it resonate more effectively and his answer was straightforward. In fact, it took me back to school days and the golden rules of a story from my English literature classes. Roger said, "Ask yourself, What's the story being told? Make sure you know the beginning, middle and end of it. His other tip was to ask, "Who's the hero? Your hero might not be a person, but you need to have some kind of protagonist. If you aren't answering those questions properly and with conviction and authenticity then there isn't enough structure for the message to be compelling."
In business communications, the hero in your story might not be obvious, but there's one in there. Most likely the hero is the great piece of advice at the heart of your message or the news of a great service development that you're launching. Set the story up with an outline of what you do, talk about the issue that your development solves and how you tackled it, and highlight the benefits that your solution brings. That's the classic hero story - an adventure, a crisis and a victory.
It was a fascinating discussion, and I'll be sharing the full conversation in a new season on my Getting Goosebumps podcast launching soon on iTunes.