Tag Archives: storytelling

7 Writing Tips from Country Music: It’s Almost Like a Song

UPDATED NOV. 3: In Nashville, they say country music is a form of storytelling. And in a lot of ways, that’s true. Think of “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “The Gambler” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” They aren’t just three of the greatest country songs ever written. They’re also examples of what storytellers of all kinds can learn from Nashville. I mean communicators in public relations, internal comms, journalism and everywhere. The Country Music Association Awards on Nov. 5 will offer lots of more recent examples, including songs by some of the performers listed here. Communicators of any kind can learn from country’s focus on craft, detail and mass marketing. If it’s bigger and more calculated than Loretta and Merle ever imagined, we can still learn how to catch our audience’s attention, milk an emotion or drive home a point. Because how much time do you give a song on the radio before changing the station? Exactly.

Florida Georgia Line, "Cruise"

Florida Georgia Line, “Cruise”

1. Don’t Bore Us; Get to the Chorus. What makes this tune — or speech or tweet or blog post — distinctive and relevant? In news, we said, “Don’t bury the lead.” In business, we strive for brevity and avoid jargon. Example: “Cruise,” performed by Florida Georgia Line, which even starts with the hook. 2. Focus, focus, focus. I have a friend whose walls are covered in platinum albums. He reviewed several of my draft compositions, shook his head and said, “Look — a song is about one thing. ONE thing. Not this thing and then another thing and then something else.” That’s helpful when writing in lots of forms. Example: “Follow Your Arrow” performed by Kacey Musgraves, or: Be yourself.

Miranda Lambert, "The House that Built Me"

Miranda Lambert, “The House that Built Me”

3. Get emotional. As a journalist, I was trained to be objective, removed and dispassionate, so this sometimes feels counterintuitive. I try to remember it at the piano and at the office. Reveal yourself. Risk being vulnerable. Connect emotionally. Example: “The House that Built Me” performed by Miranda Lambert nailed me to my seat the first time I heard it. 4. Show, don’t tell. This is important, of course, in all kinds of writing. Hard to do, sometimes. Example: “I Drive Your Truck” performed by Lee Brice starts with describing the inside of a dead soldier’s vehicle… and then rips your heart out. 5. Write what you know. That doesn’t mean to relate only your own experiences. It means: Don’t BS your audience. They will know — always. Example: Imagine Justin Bieber singing a Willie Nelson classic. 6. Be clear. Music Row doesn’t produce tunes that are too poetic, opaque or otherwise fuzzy. Rock ‘n’ rollers and singer-songwriters can do that. But the best country songs, like the best business communications, are sharp and immediately understood. Example: “I Don’t Want this Night to End,” performed by Luke Bryan. Got it. 7. Tell a story. It’s not always the right approach in business, but it often is. And in Nashville, it’s no coincidence that many of the most-honored songs tell a narrative. Example: “Stay,” performed  by Sugarland, about a mistress who decides she’s worth more than second best.

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What to Leave In, What to Leave Out

Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom, movie, poster, Idris Elba

Mandela movie poster

When it comes to storytelling material, how much is too much?

We’ve all faced the question many times. And it’s not a bad problem, having tons of rich, compelling and relevant content. But it presents another series of questions about focus and editing.

“Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” struggles to squeeze a magnificent (and long) life into a single film. Two lives, actually, since Nelson and Winnie Mandela’s stories are profoundly inextricable.

The movie covers decades of history, barely touching on many episodes and relationships that could have been given much more time. It goes for sweep, and delivers to an extent, in the old-fashioned Hollywood biopic way.

But is it too much? Would Mandela’s story have been better told by taking a more narrow approach? For instance, the one favored by “Invictus,” which told a specific episode from Mandela’s later years? Or maybe a longer approach – say, a TV miniseries?

It made me think of challenges I’ve faced working on corporate communications or mainstream media projects, either print, digital or some combination.  How much information to share with which stakeholders? How much background? How many examples? Here are a few things I try to keep in mind.

5 Things to Consider

1. Brevity’s hard. Mark Twain once wrote, “Hello, my dear friend. Forgive me for writing such a long letter, but I didn’t have time to write a short one.”

2. What’s your main purpose in telling your story?

3. What can be pulled out for a sidebar or later update?

4. What’s the best channel for your story and any other components?

5. Kill your babies. Shake the tree. If it doesn’t really have to be there, then it doesn’t deserve to be there.

One last question: Why aren’t the stars of “Mandela,” the spectacular Idris Elba and Naomie Harris, in more movies? Hollywood – hello?

My Photos from Robben Island; Video of Mandela’s Cell

Nelson Mandela was held on Robben Island for 18 of the 27 years he spent imprisoned. For hundreds of years, the island off Cape Town was used to hold mental patients, lepers and political prisoners like Mandela and others who fought apartheid. I recently visited South Africa and toured the notorious facility. Here are a few pics and a video of Mandela’s cell that I took with my iPhone.


Tell ‘Em a Story, Give ‘Em Good Content

“Storytelling” and “content” are buzzwords in business communications, with a lot of articles and studies flooding the blogosphere. Some of it seems obvious (people are more engaged by stories, information with emotional content and resonance, rather than by mere facts or reasoning). Some of it seems a bit mushy – “content” might mean one thing to a marketer, another to someone in employee comms and several other things to people who produce or manage it.

Just today, my Twitter feed brought up two articles making a connection between storytelling and brain function.

As presenters we want people to pay attention, be engaged and remember the message. The key to doing that? Science now says it involves storytelling: Stories stimulate emotions, which may be the key to better learning, attention, memory and decision making.

That’s from an article headlined The Science Behind Storytelling — and Why It Matters on slideshare.  A Forbes article touts the cognitive benefits of reading long-form narrative, like novels.

And this headline/subhead combination from the WSJ brought it home: To Persuade People, Tell Them a Story; Narrative Is a Powerful Way to Get a Message Across.

Finally, Search Engine Journal offers this intriguing post: Leading Experts Predict The Content Marketing Trends for 2014.

We all want to persuade audiences, and storytelling and content will continue to be more important in business in 2014.  Effective storytelling needs good storytellers, who know what a good story is (and isn’t), who can gather information, break it down and present it again in ways that  matter to selected audiences. To have a good story, you need good content, yes — but you also have to know how to present it, to whom and why.

Fun stuff to think about and to tackle in our work, whatever kind of stories we tell.

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Boffo Wish Fulfillment

Stan Lee SpidermanMarvel Comics guru Stan Lee just turned 91, and here’s a nifty comic-style video/story from the Washington Post. I like the look and feel and length of this, and I love Lee’s comments on the enduring power of fairy tales. Stories are wish-fulfillment, he says — comics, movies, books — for adults or children, with or without superheroes.

As a kid, I couldn’t wait to get to the PX every Thursday, when new adventures of the Fantastic Four, the Avengers, Spider-Man and the rest arrived. My dad told me I was a sucker for the cliffhanger marketing, but he also shared memories of watching Tom Mix serials the same way. I didn’t mind having to buy another issue, of course — just having to wait for it.

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Storytelling Lessons from Disney

“Saving Mr. Banks” tells how Walt Disney convinced the “Mary Poppins” creator P.L. Travers to let him make the movie based on her books. It’s very high-gloss, very Hollywood and wholesome and predictable and I liked it just fine.

Saving Mr. Banks, Disney, Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, P.L. Travers, Mary Poppins, author, storytelling, inspiration, movies with flashbackBut I really appreciated the (almost meta) focus on the power of storytelling to help creators and audience members make sense of the chaos of life.

That theme is woven in throughout and summed up clearly toward the end.  Disney (Tom Hanks) again tries to reassure Mrs. Travers (Emma Thompson) that he will adapt her tale respectfully and treat her characters (based on her family) with more kindness than life did —  and that his movie will spread hope to countless viewers around the world. He sums it up nicely. “It’s what we storytellers do,” he says. “We restore order with imagination.”

And, sometimes, a spoonful of sugar.

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