You probably already tell very realistic tales about your brand. Telling much more imaginative brand stories about it – science fiction, fantasy, even horror ones – can unlock very important truths about it too.
That’s because those kinds of stories reveal different kinds of truths in different ways. Let’s start by understanding what those truths are.
What does each kind of story do?
Science fiction stories think about the present from the point of view of the future. We use them to think about what might happen next and how we could respond to it. They help us practice being surprised by tomorrow.
SF stories are about things that could happen.
Fantasy stories are about the impossible. They describe worlds and people that play by their own rules. They help us understand which parts of ourselves will never change, even if everything else does.
Fantasy stories are about things that never happen.
Horror tells stories we want to turn our eyes away from. They help us explore all the different ways our lives can go horribly, irrevocably wrong, then show us how we might live through all that awful pain and loss.
Horror stories are things that shouldn’t happen.
And finally, there are the realistic stories you’re already telling. They help us look directly at the world of today, understanding either how it works or how it came into being. They explain the world as it already is.
Realistic stories are about things that do happen.
New worlds for your customers
Telling customer stories in different genres helps you think through all the different things they might need from you and you can do for them.
A few years back, I did some work with a big DIY supplier. When we discussed how people already used their products, we told realistic stories. That helped us understand problems customers actually had and improve their day-to-day product experience.
They liked making up fantasy stories about their customers too. That’s how they ended up staging gigs in people’s gardens as part of a big promotional campaign (‘What’s something that will never, ever happen?’ ‘Your favourite comedian playing your garden shed!’).
Telling SF stories helped them understand how the DIY world could change, and what they could do about it. And when they thought about how it could all go wrong, so they could make absolutely sure that everything went right, they told horror stories.
New ways of imagining your business
Telling different kinds of stories about your own company helps you understand who you really are and plan for whatever’s coming next. Imagine that Brexit’s going to have a big impact on your business, for example.
It might have come onto your radar years as ago as a fantasy story: ‘It’ll never happen, but let’s think through what it could mean anyway.’ Exploring the impact of impossible changes will throw up surprising insights into your business and your customer relationships.
Then Brexit would have turned into an SF story. ‘Well, it could happen, so let’s look at how it might pan out and see what that’d mean for us.’ With greater realism comes more precise speculation and planning, making sure you’re never surprised by whatever’s next.
Right now, the chaos and uncertainty it’s created is something that shouldn’t happen. Telling Brexit as a horror story will help you understand what you need to preserve and what you might be forced to let go of as it goes forward.
And one day, it’ll be a story about something that actually did happen. You’ll know exactly how it all turned out, and you’ll be able to tell the tale of what you, your business and your customers learned from it.
So those are some ideas about new kinds of stories you can imagine. But they’re only starting points – the world of storytelling is limitless. So now, it’s over to you.
Think about all the fantastical, surprising, terrifying stories that have blown your mind over the years, then work out how you can tell stories like that about your business. You’re sure to find out some wonderful – and very useful, and hopefully not too scary – things…
The ProCopywriters’ Network interviewed me on Twitter, asking about brand personality, tone of voice and content strategy. Here’s what we talked about during our #ProCopyChat:
Let’s start with you telling us a bit more about yourself. What’s your writing background?
Well, I’m a Brand Language Consultant. I help all sorts of different organisations change how they write so they reach their customers more directly and powerfully. It’s a bit like being a brand design agency, except with words instead of visuals.
I’ve been freelancing for about 10 years. Before that I was experiential at Imagination and brand focussed at Corporate Edge. And I started off at Unilever, marketing frozen food and ice cream for Birds Eye Wall’s.
I’m also an SF novelist who learned about storytelling by working in feature film development. Stories are how we make sense of the world – they’re a big influence on how I see brands. And the SF helps me get clients ready for their own futures.
When we think of tone of voice, we initially think about the personality of the brand/client/business. How is this created, and how does it then have an impact on the audience?
Who you are is defined by what you do. So that’s how I look at brand personality. Once I’ve read through all their writing – I ask people ‘what’s the best things your brand actually does?’, then I dig into what that means for their customers.
A brand exists to help its customer solve their problems. So we usually end up discussing things like: ‘What sort of friend is this brand? What vital things does it help you get done? How does it help you do them?’ Then I turn that into a story.
You can understand most stories as ‘Hero wants to do something / Hero can’t do something / Hero does something’. You can use that structure to tell a story where the customer’s the hero on a mission and the brand’s their vital support.
Everybody loves being the hero! So from the word go you’re winning the customer over. And you’re telling them a story about how the brand helps them achieve a vital goal in a unique way. So you’re showing them why they should buy into it.
And it’s also a great way of digging into anything the brand doesn’t quite get right. After all, nobody’s perfect. Getting people talking about how their brand might be a *challenging* friend can be very helpful too.
Why is tone of voice an important concept in copywriting?
Writing is where a brand comes to life in real time. A good tone of voice shapes that writing, making sure the brand cuts through the noise to reach people in a direct, instantly recognisable way, with words that have genuine, alluring meaning to them.
A good tone of voice also makes customers feel the conversation’s centred on them by helping brands use their own language to reach them. That’s very powerful too – ‘Me me me’ is a terrible sales pitch, ‘You you you’ is much more effective.
And it’s a live response because writing’s live. Logos, look and feels – they don’t change. But if someone’s grumbling on social media, the brand has to write back live…
If they’re launching a new product, they’ve got to find new words to describe it… everywhere from on the pack to in the instructions to in the press release to on the website…
And even if someone at the brand’s writing a customer email – well, it’s great if that’s on tone as well, because it shows that the people at the brand stand for the same values as the brand itself.
Oh, and it’s where emotion comes in too – very often, particularly in B2B writing, people are all Sherlock Holmes – dry and rational. Tone of voice brings in the Dr Watson – powerful emotive storytelling!
Can you give us some good (and bad!) examples of tone of voice?
The classic is Innocent Drinks – they pioneered that cheery, chatty modern conversational brand tone, they’re completely unforced and entirely natural. And their tone is (as I understand it) a very precise reflection of what they’re really like. Perfect!
A tone of voice should never be lipstick on a pig – it should be a direct and honest reflection of what’s best about a brand. Not that I’ve got anything against pigs – rather, tone should match personality, not try and cover it up.
In my first ever job I edited (and sometimes wrote) the jokes on Wall’s ice cream sticks. They set the tone for the brand perfectly – the fun of ice cream brought to life in a very inventive way.
I have a big soft spot for Lego instruction booklets too. They’re so perfectly put together – no words, but sometimes the best language is no language. They’re a brilliant example of show don’t tell, a core storytelling idea.
Oh, and Dilmah tea – their pack writing isn’t always too polished, but they’re so transparently and genuinely enthusiastic about their products it really doesn’t matter. They come across as very honest and authentic.
As for not so good ToVs… actually, my own personal bugbear is the ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ slogan… so confrontational, it’s never change anyone’s mind! It’s the opposite of what its audience needs to hear. None of us need more confrontation just now.
And I find station apologies incredibly irritating. Endlessly repeated robot ‘We’re sorry for your inconvenience’ = Grrrr! Southern Rail, I’m looking at you. Though to be fair making corporate apologies can be a real challenge.
Once you’ve established the tone of voice, what’s your next step in creating a brand identity?
Well, you know who you are and how you talk – the next problem is working out what you’re going to say! So – content strategy, aka the art of turning what you know into what your audience needs to hear to get them to a place that’s good for both of you.
Oh, and you might end up chatting to the designers too – although I’ve found that brand language definition tends to happen long after any design work’s done and dusted. That’s another bugbear – core words and visuals should happen together!
How do you develop a content strategy around the brand personality and tone of voice that you’ve established?
What really defines it is the brand’s customer – you think about where they start and where you want them to end up, and then you build a customer journey that gets them there.
Imagine you’re driving your customer – the brand personality’s the vehicle you choose, the ToV’s the music, chat and views that makes them love being in it, and the content strategy’s the GPS system that gets you to a destination you’re both happy with.
So you’ve got to understand where your customer’s starting from, where you (and they) want them to get to and how you’re going to get them there. Then you build your content to take them on that journey.
You might have several different kinds of customers. Then it all goes a bit ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ – you set up multiple paths through your content, and let customers choose (or just guide them through) whichever one’s best for them.
And there’s no shame in turning people away. If you can’t help them or they’re not the kind of people you want to do business with, you need to make that clear as soon as possible. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time and theirs.
Wasting people’s time is the greatest content sin. A good content strategy stops you from ever doing that, because it gives every little bit of content a clearly defined reason for existing. It makes sure your audience never shrugs and asks ‘So what?’
Weber BBQs do content strategy fantastically well. They want people to cook awesome food on their BBQs, so they provide every kind of content to help them do that – from all the normal stuff to BBQing courses and some of the best cookbooks I’ve ever read.
Do you go through this process so you can write effectively for on a client’s behalf, or is it more of a toolkit so the client can improve the communications they make themselves?
It depends what they want. Sometimes I’m involved in the whole process, even doing some of the writing and editing myself, sometimes I just give them all the guidance and structure I can, train them in how to use it all and leave them to it.
Both have their plus points. Of course it’s lovely going back to help out over months or years – but I also love the challenge of writing guidance and training people too. It really makes you dig into what you do, so you can help someone else do it for themselves.
What’s the best piece of advice you can offer to someone to help them write more effectively?
Always start with the people you’re talking to. Understand the obstacles they face. Pin down what sort of hero they are. And then tell them a story about how you can help them overcome those obstacles to achieve something awesome.
Finally (and most importantly) – what’s your favourite biscuit?
The US-style cookies my wife makes on special occasions, with stroopwafels coming in second. Both washed down with a strong cup of black filter coffee! As my entire writing career runs on a platform of coffee.
When you’re telling stories, you end up spending a lot of time thinking about change. That’s because stories are for the most part about why and how people change. And the way they map out change can help you think about the customer journey that turns people from distant prospects into committed customers.
How change works in stories
That change can be purely emotional. But it usually involves real world change too. Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ is a good example. Its hero, Fanny Price, is often seen as quite passive – but she actually changes quite a lot.
She begins the book as a 10 year old girl, feeling profoundly lost as she arrives to live with her rich (and sometimes rather hostile) relatives. She ends it as an 18 year old woman, married to the son of the house and at the moral heart of the family.
And sometimes it can be entirely practical. Hercule Poirot’s personality never really changes, despite all of his adventures. But in every single one, he starts the story not knowing who the murderer is and ends it by revealing them.
Mapping out change
As a writer, one of your big challenges is to map out that change. And there’s a way of doing that that can help you map out a customer journey too.
First of all, you find a single word or phrase to describe your character’s starting point. For Fanny, it might be ‘lost’ or ‘terrified’. For Poirot, it’s ‘oblivious’ or ‘unenlightened’. Choose extreme, evocative words – the bigger the change, the more compelling the journey.
Next, find the opposite of that word – perhaps ‘at home’ or ‘supremely confident’, or ‘fully aware’ or ‘all-knowing’. Then track a course between them, finding maybe six to eight words that move you from your first word to your final word.
Once you’ve mapped that journey out, you’ve got the spine of your story. Then your job is to describe the events and people that help your character move through those different words.
Defining a customer journey
Every customer journey is about change. Your customer moves from having a problem you can solve but not knowing about you to not having the problem, and both knowing about and being grateful to you.
So you can use the same technique to map out their journey. Think about how they feel when it begins; think about where they end up; then blast out words describing the stages between those two points. And that gives you a basic map of the journey you need to plot for them.
Once you’ve defined that journey, you can make sure you’re there for them in just the right way at every stage of that journey. At first you’ll reach them with communications, and then with products and services, that make sure they’ll always get where they need to go.
I was at a tech meetup the other night. It was a hot evening and I’d had a glass of wine beforehand. All the presentations were full of fascinating info, but also quite technical and bullet pointy. So – as I’m sure you can imagine – my attention began to wander and I started feeling a bit sleepy.
Then someone new took the stage. He didn’t have any slides. He just sat down and started telling a story. He told us about his journey into the blockchain world, sharing how he’d come to understand and believe in the tech, and how that belief was driving him to invest in and document its growth.
A story to act on
That talk woke me right up. It did what a good speech should, grabbing its audience’s attention, memorably sharing both experiences and information and, most importantly, motivating its listeners to actually do something.
It did that so well because it wasn’t really a speech – it was a story. And stories have a very strong impact on us. They’re how we’ve been sharing information for millennia, lighting up parts of our brain that other comms styles don’t even begin to reach.
They do that in some very specific ways:
They’re built around people we identify with, so they trigger our sense of empathy and set us imagining what it’d be like to live through them ourselves.
They use emotive words and details, waking up every single part of our brains – unlike dry corporate language, which only triggers our language processing faculties.
Because they create so much empathy and brain activity, we find it much easier to remember any facts we hear as part of them.
And as we all have an instinct for story, we’re more likely to retell them to other people and act on them ourselves.
Before and after story
Here’s a practical demonstration. First of all, read this:
Blockchain engagement and support actions:
Growing investment from initial $100,000 purchase
Establish blog, podcast, YouTube channel, etc
Prioritise long term commitment over short term gain
‘So when I went to my first meetup I was just amazed, everyone was so open and friendly. They were all in t-shirts and shorts, they’d all brought their dogs, I wasn’t used to that. And I realised I wanted to get involved – but how?’
‘Well, I bought $100,000 worth of Bitcoin, so now we had a position. But that wasn’t enough, it didn’t help the community. So we started our blog, we made films, our podcast runs every day.’
‘We’re recording it, we’re helping people understand it all. We’re building for the future because we’re in it for the long term. It’s such an exciting world to be part of.’
If you share information as a story, you make it easy for people to take in, remember and act on. And that’s the power of story in action.
Once you start talking about brand storytelling, it’s hard to stop. We discussed how to give your brand a compelling personality, tell it as a gripping story and show your customers how it can play a crucial role in their own adventures. Oh, and we touched on tone of voice and content strategy too.