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Storytelling in a 140-character world

#BrandStorytelling, #ContentMarketing

Let’s face it, storytelling doesn’t fit comfortably into the world of social media. Good stories take time to unfold. Unlike the inverted-pyramid approach many content creators embrace, where we keep it short and tell the most important or newsworthy information first, storytelling starts at the beginning and ends when it’s finished. Yet in the realm of social media, we’re restricted by hard character counts and best practices built on brevity.

In many ways, storytelling and social media inhabit separate realms. But they do co-exist and they can complement each other in powerful ways. As content creators and strategists, we have to be aware that the learnings we gather in one realm can benefit the other.

In particular, the need for succinctness in social media content can improve our storytelling prowess. Here are some examples of what storytellers can learn from social media practitioners.

Use visuals

A picture is worth a thousand words. Using visuals, even as background images, can help convey the setting, set the tone and establish character. Plan on using them as you write your story, not as an afterthought. You’ll find that these images become an integral element of your storytelling, not just a way to augment it. Your story will be stronger for it.

Ruthlessly choose what to exclude from your story

Anton Chekhov offered this principle to writing drama: “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don’t put it there.” In other words, avoid extraneous details.

The power of storytelling is its ability to make people care. So when you’re deciding what to lose, be sure to keep the elements that people care about most and that make storytelling such a unique form of content. I’d argue those elements are character development and tension, even at the expense of plot details. In many cases, as Chekhov instructs, paring the plot will actually improve the story.

Know your readers and let them fill in the details

One of my favorite stories is expressed in Nike’s historic tagline “Just do it.” With its imperative sentence structure, these three words immediately place the reader—an athlete or would-be athlete—as the protagonist in his or her story. It captures the tension that exists in every athlete’s mind, whether it’s the newbie who needs to get up early and go for that first run, or an Olympic-caliber athlete looking to set a personal best. Plus it doesn’t offer a pat resolution. It’s up to readers to write their climax and conclusion. The writer of this tagline really understood the motivation of the audience. And because of that, he or she was able to imply so much while only needing to state the essential.

Word limits only go so far

Yes, this suggestion is contrary to the ones I’ve mentioned above (and it certainly isn’t one that a social media expert would suggest), but it’s an important one. You may have best-practice limits on copy lengths that argue that shorter is better, but when it comes to good storytelling, you’ll need to ignore them. These best practices were likely based on the attention span of time-constrained, largely disinterested readers. But people enjoy reading an insightful, well-told tale and they’ll take the time to read one.

As Neil Patel blogged, “It’s not all about length.” Substance, style and several other factors matter, he says. For a good story, make it worth your readers’ time. Be sure to write a great opening sentence that hooks the reader and makes every line after that deliver something meaningful. Break the rules and trust the story.