This post is part of the book Voice and Tone Strategy: Connecting with People Through Content, the 12th title in the content strategy series of books from XML Press (February 25, 2020) and The Content Wrangler.
As a content designer, UX writer, or content strategist working with or developing strategies for voice and tone, it could be argued that everything you’re doing is rooted in storytelling. Deep customer empathy, character and voice, meaningful relationships; they all come from stories. Truly understanding why voice and tone works—how it resonates with people—comes from a deeper understanding of the rules and techniques used by storytellers. In my book Voice and Tone Strategy: Connecting with People Through Content, I touch upon the power of story in crafting a strategy. This article goes deeper into that topic.
To be clear, I’m not talking about turning your product into a screenplay. I’m talking about the application of storytelling rules that have the power to create connections with your customers and your audiences through voice.
Storytelling is key to characters and connections
Throughout history, nothing has created more human connection, brought more people together, and facilitated more change than storytelling. It is the oldest form of communication and still the most effective. Stories make sense out of words. We use storytelling in our everyday lives, often without realizing it. Through story, we are the keepers of tradition and the teachers of life’s lessons. We connect with stories big and small that draw conclusions, form bonds, and bring our shared experiences to life in ways that the mere dissemination of information cannot. We are hard-wired to communicate through storytelling. And when we do we trigger imagination.
If you wish to truly connect with people in meaningful ways and influence their behavior as a result, you must learn from and leverage stories that resonate with your audience. Most good stories aren’t just about mystery, adventure or conquest. At their heart, they’re about the relationship between two characters. Treat the relationship between the character in your product’s voice and the character of your customer as a story, one that builds and develops, and it will make a big difference for your business.
You can take inspiration from stories with great character relationships: Think about Jim and Tom Sawyer in “Huckleberry Finn,” or Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi in “Star Wars.” What roles do those characters play in those relationships? Why do they work?
“The key to understanding our character, and our voice, is to understand the role each character plays regardless of their individual characteristics,” says storytelling coach and long-time game writing pro Susan O’Connor. “Characters play archetypical roles. You’ve got to know what role you’re playing in the story with your voice.”
O’Connor and I worked together at Intuit to create a role for our character’s voice based on a mentor archetype. Based on the needs and desires of our customers, we looked at stories with hero/mentor relationships, and then asked what attributes our mentor could embody to connect with our hero: the TurboTax customer.
Storytelling is important for digital content creators
The best speakers, the best leaders, the best coaches, and the best writers are all good storytellers. And so are the best content designers. Whether you realize it or not, you are telling a story. And whether your customers realize it or not, they are hearing a story.
But how can the content in the software that delivers healthcare services or powers an online shopping site be part of a story? Simply put, the strategic building blocks I cover in this book can represent the basics of a good story. Story is the essence of any relationship you might have with your customers. It brings humanity to your voice and tone. It builds trust and makes sense out of complex experiences.
It’s true that story may not play out in all the content you create. At times you’ll need to pull back and be deliberately transactional—more matter-of-fact—when that’s what your customers need. It’s also important to recognize that not everyone will want to engage with your product or experience in a way that taps into story and the emotion that comes with it.
But when the opportunity for you to lean in with emotion presents itself, especially with the many people who are open to it, a customer experience built around a narrative with character archetypes and a goal of transformation can take your product or service to new heights.
Getting good at this doesn’t happen overnight. For many content pros, it starts by letting go of old habits, even those that resulted in success. This can get very uncomfortable. We’re used to being mostly transactional, making things quick and easy for our customers. We’re confident in our ability to guide people through a task by spitting out clear and concise information and then staying out of their way.
But this seldom creates meaning. If that’s part of your goal—and it should be—then you should also think about your craft in terms of the story you can create. It’s a skill that not only requires a change in mindset but also a bit of fortitude and courage.
The craft of storytelling is changing dramatically, and this has huge implications for how you can connect with your audience through digital media. For millennia, stories were passed down through word of mouth. In Greco-Roman times, the theater started playing a big role. By the nineteenth century, print media—mostly short stories and novels—were the dominant form of storytelling around the globe. Then in the twentieth-century movies came along and did the same thing through celluloid. In the twenty-first century, the Internet and video games are edging their way in as the mainstream form of storytelling, carving out an ever-larger space in the same way movies took over books.
Your customers, whether external or internal (that’s right, employees are customers too) are tuned in to all of this. If you leverage and emulate popular forms of storytelling in your marketing and product experiences, people will want to engage with you and, in turn, may become passionately loyal.
Storytelling, as seen through the lens of a movie-maker/script-writer, has been and continues to influence content designers and voice and tone strategists. Video games, too, have some new and important lessons to share, including the dominance of interactive stories. But it all starts with the narrative. That’s what engages people, and our digital content can do the same. Although most stories are about characters, those characters are defined by the role they play in the narrative.
It’s all about the narrative
Simply put, a narrative is a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It can include challenges faced, rewards seized, and truths revealed. The beginning may be just that: the start to an awesome new journey. Or it can be the end of one loop and the start of another journey within a bigger story. The end might be about transformation and revelation. But the all-important middle can be about pushing through fears and emerging victorious. Sound like something your customers may experience?
Joseph Campbell’s instrumental tome “The Hero with a Thousand Faces” is a good resource and a perfect place to start when learning how a plot-driven narrative works, one that follows a circular format with key thresholds that bring meaning to the journey, while relating to the audience with widely understood character archetypes. It’s a model that has not only inspired many successful movie makers, including Stanley Kubrick and George Lucas, but a story format that has been used by successful content and marketing strategists for years. It has a lot to teach us and can help us create a winning strategy.
When we look at the world of marketing and user experience design it’s fair to say that most companies, whether explicitly or implicitly, use some form of the hero’s journey. Those that do it well succeed, because they understand their customer’s story and the role the customer plays, and they recognize the role their company’s brand character can play in that story.
The narrative circle
In this example our hero (or our customer) …
- Lives in an ordinary world where thing are predictable:
- The world of your customer when they first arrive at your front door
- They are called to adventure, and after some resistance, are persuaded to go on the journey:
- The result of a marketing experience that helps them overcome uncertainty and doubt by realizing the benefit of engaging with you
- They are prepared for challenges with tools and knowledge, and then push through their fears to emerge victorious:
- Your customer completing a task, purchasing a product, or learning something new, then feeling sense of accomplishment or purpose
- They seize their reward and carry it forward to transform the ordinary world:
- The closing of a loop in your product or experience, in which your customer “levels up” and shares their success and satisfaction with their friends and family through word of mouth
Through all of this, it’s the relationship you’re engaged in with your customer through voice and tone that can bring magic and meaning to the experience. Make it aspirational and your customers may want to stick with you. Don’t just hand them a tool, entice them to discover something new, to feel stronger, or empowered to take on a challenge, no matter how simple or small. Don’t just guide them through a complex or difficult task, help them to feel victorious and successful, to experience a sense of accomplishment and reward. And tie it all together by helping them to see the connections that make it all relevant to their own life story. A little goes a long way with this. In my book, I discuss the power of even the most seemingly simple language—a title on a screen, or some microcopy under a button can serve to build this sense of relationship through story.
The character of your customer is central to the story
“You’re stepping into their story,” O’Connor emphasizes. “not bringing your story to them.”
Indeed, there are countless examples of companies that have fallen down hard because they thought customers would care about the story their company, and their writers, were imposing on them, without consideration of what the customer was thinking or feeling, the story they were telling themselves about what is important.
When Netflix decided in 2011 to start charging their customers for their streaming service, they thought everyone would be happy about that, because they were offering it as part of a broader service change. Instead, they lost 800,000 customers almost overnight, and trust in their brand took a huge hit. Ultimately, company founder Reed Hasting apologized and said he was guilty of “overconfidence.” Some argued he was guilty of failing to understand the story his customers were telling themselves about what Netflix was all about, and what was important to them.
We’ve talked about how customers gravitate toward opportunities to connect with people. But the truth is, with only a few exceptions, customers aren’t coming to a product looking for it to tell them why it’s special or good. Most of the time, they’re just looking for the best way to get something done. The most important lesson from decades of failure is that your company—and its product or service—is never the hero of the story. The customer is the hero. Start there and you’re on track to create a winning voice and tone strategy.
“Understanding that the hero (your customer) may be on a journey of transformation is important,” O’Connor says. “But it’s all about what they’re after. You’re just going to help them get it.”
And ideally help them feel like a winner when they do.
So, your customer has come to you with a story about what is going to happen and why it’s important to them. It’s already their story and you need to resonate with it and make it awesome.
Using the narrative to understand your customer
But before you craft your own character and figure out the relationship between your voice and your customer, you need to get grounded in who your customer really is, the role they are playing. You need to start building deep customer empathy. Remember, the most important building block in your strategy—the foundation of it all—is identifying your customers’ needs and desires. These are not only gleaned from a variety of proven research methods, they can be found by walking through their individual story using the narrative.
The storytelling workshop led by Greg Ames at Proctor & Gamble that I talked about in my book, is a perfect illustration of that. By telling the story of their target customer for Tide laundry detergent in South America, they were able to discover her biggest fears, which changed their strategy for how they would talk about Tide in that region.
Remember, we are all hardwired for story. We all fall in love with other people’s stories, and you can fall in love with your customer’s story. You can play a part in their story. That’s exciting. By listening to your customers, you can learn what story they’re living, apply classic storytelling rules to their narrative, and use that to engage with them in a powerful new way.
You play a role in your customer’s story
So yes, you have a role to play in your customer’s story, and your voice is key to making it real. They’re the hero of the story, out in front, facing challenges and deciding whether or not to act. You’re with them on the journey, talking to them in a way that inspires confidence, revealing tips and advice—wisdom and knowledge—at key moments to help them succeed and move forward, and ultimately stepping back to allow your customer to take action and seize their reward.
This is where character archetypes come into play. You need to become a character that has the potential to connect, one that a broad audience can relate to. An archetype, like those found in classic stories, is a universally understood character that follows predictable patterns in human nature. Applying this classic storytelling technique helps to identify the role you play in the narrative and, ultimately, the nature of your relationship with your customer.
You probably weren’t telling yourself, “I want to learn about the field of psychology,” when you started reading this post. That’s why you became a writer, not a psychologist. But it applies to the craft of storytelling. Legendary psychologist Carl Jung was famous for identifying a set of character archetypes that each play a role in the story of our modern lives. They don’t necessarily represent who we are, but rather an aspirational, idealized version of who we would could be, which we can apply to ourselves and our customers. These archetypes, which include personas such as “the everyman,” “the innocent,” or “the villain,” are not only influential in the world of psychology to this day, they are used by marketing pros and content strategists to figure out their ideal brand character.
You’re not limited to these classic Jungian archetypes when figuring out your role in a customer’s story. Modern archetypes tend to resonate even more. Think about a “player’s coach” or a “sidekick.” There are thousands of archetypes that come from modern-day storytelling. And the relationships between them are tested and proven. The “retiring cop” paired with the “out-of-control rookie” in the “Lethal Weapon” series is a relationship that works, built on archetypes we all understand.
Story archetypes, in addition to character archetypes, are in play as well. Ever seen a movie you might describe as a “rags to riches” story? Or one that could be described as “a quest”? These are story archetypes, and you can apply them in your own quest to codify the story you are participating in with our customers.
The Hero’s Journey from Joseph Campbell’s book is built on one or more of these story archetypes and contains classic character archetypes in its narrative, including “the hero” and “the mentor.”
TurboTax won with the hero and the mentor
At TurboTax, we developed a highly successful voice and tone strategy that was built on this hero/mentor relationship. Applying storytelling techniques to what we wanted to achieve, we recognized that our “new” customer or acquisition target was coming to us telling themselves a story about how scary and difficult it was going to be to do their own taxes. Instead of telling them it is easy, which didn’t really connect with their story, we made the provocative decision to flip it around, and opened the door by validating their story.
“Yes, taxes are complex and difficult,” we said, “but it’s a challenge worth facing because the reward is great. And most importantly, we’re going to be with you, by your side, giving you everything you need to be the hero and win the game.”
We became a mentor character. And it worked because a good mentor meets the hero where they’re at. Yoda in Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back didn’t say to Luke Skywalker “you need to become a Jedi.” Luke just wanted to fly x-wing fighters, be victorious and get the girl. So, Yoda made it all about that. And when the door was opened by resonating with what Luke wanted, his character’s voice became unmistakable. In the end, Luke was transformed into someone who was so much more than he ever imagined he could be.
This is the role of the mentor. They hold a bigger vision than the hero holds of themselves. As a mentor, you know where the hero could end up. You communicate this aspiration to your customer by making it specific to your product or service. “It’s about painting a picture of the rosy life that lies ahead [if they use your product] and putting them at the center of that,” O’Connor says. “We need to get them excited about it.”
The end of the story is a powerful hook
This touches upon another powerful storytelling technique: revealing something about the end of the story at the beginning. This can be part of your character’s role, and it comes through in your voice. Enticing the audience with what is going to happen at the end of the story is a common rule used in books, movies, and video games. And it’s also a rule you can follow to entice your customers into your experience with your voice.
In video games, it’s quite effective. Reveal up front what the player will get if they win, the prize for succeeding, and they’ll be even more motivated to take on the challenges that lie before them. This is more than just showing the jackpot amount at the top of a slot machine. It’s about revealing the emotional benefit. Don’t just talk about simple benefits like money. Talk about aspirational benefits like becoming a better person or being able to care for your family.
As part of the “what”—the subject matter they cover with their voice—many companies are not only positioning themselves as the go-to expert in their field—perhaps as a kind of mentor or champion—they’re increasingly talking about aspirational things. We all need to recognize that we’re only a small part of our customer’s story. You can’t force them to buy your products. But through voice, you can connect, giving them the knowledge and advice they need to succeed, while getting them excited about the possibilities. They still have to choose to use what you give them, but your presence—your human-like voice and tone—can engage them by making things seem possible.
The role of story in an interactive age
The Internet has catapulted content design into an age of interactive storytelling. You need to be thinking about this, and how your voice and tone needs to adapt.
Unlike the sequential narratives found in fixed media like most books and movies, where readers and viewers passively consume the carefully prescribed story delivered in the way it was designed to be consumed, the web provides consumers with the opportunity to be active participants in their own journey. They can choose whether to read our text, listen to audio, or view videos, and they get to determine the order in which they consume your content. It’s their journey. It’s often non-linear. And, it’s increasingly immersive. Consumers can click or tap (or not) on hyperlinks to learn more about a topic, or quickly browse a content collection stopping briefly only to pay attention to—and perhaps share with others—the pieces of your content they find most interesting.
While the web introduces a variety of communication opportunities you should explore, the fact is, consumers are overloaded with choices. They don’t have to listen to the thousands of messages with which they are bombarded daily. They can swipe left or click away at any time. And they will. It’s your job to leverage stories to engage them in new and more powerful ways.
“[The Internet] is inherently participatory,” writes Frank Rosen, in a widely read article for Wired Magazine in 2011, “not just interactive, in the sense that it responds to your commands, but an instigator constantly encouraging you to comment, to contribute, to join in.”
Narrative video games also are changing the way consumers engage with stories by making their storylines deeper and more immersive. The writers and designers of successful games recognize the role of their customers—the player character in the game—and the role of the non-player characters that tag along on the journey with them. They’re crafting stories that resonate with players, complete with characters that don’t just speak to them throughout the game, but rather invite them to interact. And what they say, their voice and tone, changes to match what their customers want in varying touchpoints and situations.
In this age of interaction, where customers expect to be able to interact in a way that resonates with what they want—storytelling becomes critical to your success as voice and tone strategists and content designers. Actively engage your audiences with story and you’ll win them over every time.
A note about strategy vs. tactics
When you craft a story that resonates with the story your customers are telling themselves about what they want and what is going to happen, you are being strategic. By connecting with them, drawing them into a relationship—whether they realize it or not—you are more likely to keep them as customers and get them to speak positively about your product or service to other people.
In doing this there are a number of storytelling tactics you can employ, and it’s important to know the difference between a tactic and strategic element as you dig deeper into things like voice attributes and principles. I cover these topics in the book.
Metaphors are a powerful communication tool—or tactic—used by the best storytellers, who know that we are all hard-wired to understand the world in this way.
When astrophysicist and renowned science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about comets, he doesn’t say, “comets are ancient balls of prehistoric ice flying around our solar system.” Instead, he starts with, “comets are the snowfalls of yesteryear.” He engages his audience in a very complex and scientific topic by relating it to something they already know and understand: Snow. That very powerful metaphor delivers on a strategy, which is to bring people into the world of astrophysics by talking about it in a human way.
As a human, you are a storyteller. Every day we are telling stories. And every day we are hearing stories. Now, as a writer and a strategist, you can start to think about how to use the power of story to get what you want.
Storytelling also is a powerful tool to help you create presentations that hook people, something you’ll need to do once you’ve crafted a strategy and are preparing to roll it out to your organization. I recommend this outstanding work from Nancy Duarte, Resonate: Present visual stories that transform audiences.
If you are interested in learning more about the power of voice and tone — get it now. It’s loaded with useful tips and tricks and contains a framework for the development of a voice and tone strategy and ideas for how to ensure your efforts help you accomplish your business goals.