Narrative – Story’s mysterious other half.
Narrative is the much feared and often misunderstood sibling of the Story.
As synonymous as they are with one another, story and narrative are far from being the same. When deciphering between the two, one phrase says it all – Without a perfect narrative the story is irrelevant.
Narrative invites, story evokes
There’s no doubting that storytelling is an artform. Manipulating and sparking the emotions and memories of a reader to inspire action is an exacting skill. This is not possible without narrative.
As a professional copywriter, and former screenwriter, I’ve always had to be brave with my words – to understand what they needed to do, to shape them around this meaning and action.
This is where the seemingly subtle but invaluable differences between Invite and Evoke come into play.
Narrative is the participation
Narrative in any form is a signpost to meaning. It leads, guides, supports and sometimes downright launches you through a series of connected events. Complicated, fluid and open-ended, narrative offers something story doesn’t – participation.
You aren’t just invited along for the ride, you determine the outcome with an active, evolving process of decision making and organic engagement.
Narrative allows you to structure the world you create through your content. Questions, decisions and actions are determined by language, context, social ideals and even medium. Once this invitation is accepted, story begins to fill in the gaps.
Story is the authority
Story can seem like an unnecessary late comer to the party. If you’ve already influenced an audience, why is the story so important? It gifts creativity. Stories host a moral or ethical fabric that has the power to evoke instant reaction. This is usually measured by the strength of the story and its relevance to the readers.
Far from being an emotional minefield, stories possess the ability to offer their readers an authority, a right to re-home and reinterpret the story, often culminating in active sharing – the holy grail of any content strategy.
Stories don’t have to be epic adventures, they can be relatable wins and personal triumphs. Relevance, heart and inspiration are the makings of a powerful story.
To the quest …
When I think of the word ‘Quest’, I get taken back to a very specific moment, sitting in my living room watching Jason and the Argonauts for the very first time. Not only is this the antithesis of the quest narrative, in its most epic sense, but it’s a merit to the power of story.
Story is embedded in our memories and experiences. It’s a way of assessing what we see and applying it to our world understanding at that time. For me, story is impact that resonates.
This human impact is a harder thing to acquire in the digital realm. The speed and nature of the web doesn’t leave much space for melancholy.
Fast connections required to fulfil an instant need are generally the aim, such as acquiring a ‘like’ or ‘share’, but it’s the emotional ownership of a story that encourages readers to invest in the meanings beneath the story itself.
The narrative roots emotion in a structure, one that can be as complex, simple or evocative as you wish. A quest narrative is the structuring of a commitment to progression. There are a few key elements:
All these factors drive the protagonist to move forward and meet, exceed or redefine their goal. This is what drives engagement.
The quest should encourage curiosity, the challenges needs to establish a promise, your positioning as an authority, and the ethos and longing act as the journey, gathering friends and supporters as you travel.
It all sounds a bit dramatic but it is essentially the bare bones of the success story.
Quest narratives are a rewarding and highly effective means of inviting your audience to connect, and an invaluable way of developing new relationships around their engagement.
Digital storytelling in action
To remain genuine and impactful, your story needs to be presented in the right place at the right time.
Technology has not only gifted new ways of extending and hosting the narrative but it offers a new context for understanding and implementing it. The evolution of narrative is a result of its adaptable nature, this makes it perfect for a trans-media, multi-device audience.
Each new platform reinstates narrative and redefines its role in the act of storytelling, transforming how stories can be told.
Harley Davidson have condensed their infamous spirit and applied it across various channels and mediums, targeting unique niches within their audience as they do it.
They have a well established brand and cult status but they aimed to reach out and create new channels and stories within their existing narrative. Not only do they move between platforms but they position themselves as revolutionary and progressive in their approach to welcoming all riders and the walks of life they represent.
They leverage the quest narrative in an ingenuous indirect way while ensuring their message and flag flying is in tone and true to brand heritage. Via their Facebook page they targeted Women Riders, a collective widely underrepresented, and created posts that seek out stories of struggle and survival.
Harley Davidson position women riders as members of ‘dynamic tribes’ and actively encourage these modern warriors to share and almost recruit on their behalf. Brilliant.
They regularly utilise Twitter feed to a similar effect. They set the narrative and invite you to fill in the gaps with a personal experience.
The Quest narrative has taken on a new identity in this realm. I see it as a mish mash of varying disciplines that all piece together to weave a more impactful content strategy.
These forms of strategy and storytelling, set the scene for creating your own quest narrative.
This branch of storytelling is perfect for stripping away any fears you have about a lack of creativity, and reinstating the function and strategy of the exercise. It’s rooted in the planning and theory of effective communication, rather than emotion and legacy of the story. Strategy, organisational studies and management make this discipline perfect for addressing how to tell an effective story, and more importantly if you have one to tell at all.
Find your story
A narrative isn’t able to hide the lack of story. You need to establish if you have a good story to offer the world first. It may not have to be flawless but it does need to possess the ingredients for engagement and eventual ownership.
- Is it inspirational?
- Can it site progression?
- It is rooted in a real, relatable world?
- Can it be customised, adopted and shared by an audience?
You can’t extract meaning from nothing. Give your narrative a fighting chance by spending some time to explore, develop and define your brand story. Here is where you uncover the object of your quest narrative, the importance and messages you want to communicate.
Step #1: Create a word bank
When I begin planning a quest narrative, the first thing I do is create a Word Bank.
This collection of words can be used throughout my content generation process and helps to focus my writing. It works like a quick and simple version of it’s more advanced counterpart, the content style guide.
To create a word bank you simply spend some time writing down the words you would like your brand to be associated with. This choice language will form the basis of your content. Keywords and themes develop and your story begins to come to life.
Now you have to consider how audiences will interact with the content. More than immersing themselves in the story, people will want to engage further so have you given them that opportunity? This is where the online arena can either be your asset or downfall. The biggest compliment to any writer or story is when is it re-homed and re-imagined by a reader. As a writer you have given them all the tools they needed to understand and implement what you communicated. Stories don’t belong to the writer, they belong to the reader and their ownership is key to producing user-generated content.
Coke’s 2013 ‘Chase’ campaign did this perfectly …
As such a well-established brand, they needed to give their audiences a way of influencing a narrative, a means of owning a slice of their story and history for themselves.
This interactive campaign allowed viewers to shape the storyline of the ad via digital and mobile streams. The CTA at the end of the ad invited the audience to vote for their favourite of the Showgirls, Cowboys and Badlanders, and even sabotage their rivals.
The success of this form of storytelling is very much dependant on the platform and media you use to tell your story. The more channels that host it, the greater capacity it has to be developed.
The act of sharing content is a personal one, it’s a self-expression. Offering themselves up as a poster boy to your brand ethos or message is the branding jackpot. It takes trust and commitment on your part.
Consistency, relevance and a bit of brash bravery may capture someone’s attention but a three dimensional, layered narrative will hold it.
Step #2: Describe the journey
This is where things start moving. The quest is set so where are you wanting to take your audience?
Everyone loves a good success story, cliched maybe but audiences need to know you are coming from a genuine place before they follow you. Offer them a context they understand.
I set my narratives up with three clear stages;
Normality – Introduced.
Disruption – Challenged.
Resolution – Redefined.
Narratives can be open-ended but clearly including these three milestones means you can easily equate each with their own content, and see the gaps in between. This arc allows you to stagger and structure your content in a fairly technical way while still enabling you to tell the story at the heart of your narrative.
Normality – Use your own stories or those of people you know to guide your story. Personal anecdotes create a direct connection and develop a mutual interest. Use your heritage and history. What connotations come with your industry? How did they influence who you are?
Disruption – Enlighten them. Through discussing challenges, position yourself as a new found expert. This authority comes from a real place and situation. What made you want to progress and develop? What got in your way?
Resolution – Be an example. Discuss experts, resources and the new and improved you. What doesn’t kill you makes you more brandable.
How are you changed? What does this mean?
Taking what can be deemed as a fairly traditional narrative and putting it online can be a dicey move. Online readers are fickle and fluid, moving between fragmented narratives. A brand that managed to perfect this transition is Johnnie Walker with their ‘Man who walked the world’ campaign.
The quest narrative at the heart of the story is fairly simple – to progress and fearlessly impact the whisky world. It’s a journey rife with personal tragedy, industry innovation and steadfast grit and determination, however it’s the implementation of this narrative to its fellow marketing efforts that gives it real value.
The ‘Keep Walking’ campaigns represented the quests of everyday life, in love, happiness, success, anything that required a challenge to overcome. In 2009, they took this exploration deeper with ‘Walk with Giants’, real life storytelling.
It was a collection of stories that echoed the Johnnie Walker ethos and encouraged others to do the same.
They invited audiences to take on a new frame of mind, a positive resilience that alluded to strength character and survival – the key attributes of their own brand story.
Step #3: Create a story map
This structuring tool allows you to organise content across a timeline. It plots out main ‘chapters’ and associated content markers. Continue to add and develop this map, don’t dismiss any content or be too strict with this framework. Mine story map templates look something like this:
A good story map is as full with ideas as it is actionable content. This then feeds into a routine for adding and organising content into an editorial calendar.
You can be quite vague and thematic with the headings, for example;
Setting – Doesn’t have to be literal. It can be an industry, market or emotional longing.
Characters – These can be you as narrator, negative situations as disruptive ‘baddies’, anyone and thing that aids, prevents of enriches the experience.
Problem – What is the obstacle – emotionally, physically. How does this spur on your quest?
Action – Conscious decisions, morals, contexts – anything that bridges the Problem and the Outcome.
Outcome – The lesson that was learnt. The message/ethos that came through.
Multi-platform distribution of your story is the next step. This extensive form of storytelling really tests the stealth of the narrative, and its success becomes tied to how well suited the content is to the platform. Your narrative has allowed you to develop and establish a relationship with the audience, now the story becomes their canvas for ownership and sharing. This means you have to invest your time in exploring and creating new, succinct platforms for this purpose.
Aim to make your content part of their lives, each piece on content should perform its individual purpose but be able to integrate into a larger, all inclusive narrative. In 1991, Marsha Kinder stated:
“Transmedia intertextuality works to position consumers as
powerful players while disavowing commercial manipulation”
This is a tactic commonly used by franchises, it can be achieved by engaging audiences in new ways.
‘The Blair Witch Project’ (1999) utilised multiple platforms to engage on a momentous scale with the pre-release audiences. Newspaper clippings, full-length articles, ‘lost’ signs and fake footage and reports were produced and released via a network of bloggers, journalists, websites and viral campaigns.
Step #4: Mobilise the message
It’s paramount that you give the audience all the tools they need to join the dots and create new patterns. This isn’t a decision to take lightly, maintaining and synchronizing multiple channels of interaction is a full-time job.
Get together a good team. Ensure every member understands the scale and commitment of your objective. Ensure each is exemplary in the field they represent whether it be Twitter, Online marketing or blog writing.
Craft mini-experts by encouraging each member to value individual ownership of their content alongside co-creation with the rest of the team. Consistency in tone of voice in essential so advocate personal responsibility.
Reach out to bloggers, fans, journalists, reviewers, anyone with the opportunity to host and share another slice of content. Be an anchor. Never assume your audience knows enough, keep rooting your content throughout these channels. Perform regular content audits to gauge who your audience is, where they visit from and how they engage.
Share your journey
Be part of this system and be sure to share your own journey, its challenges and invaluable resources – while hopefully building up to a successful ending.
This is a guest post by Nic Evans. Nic is a freelance copywriter based in Glasgow; she believes that no matter what the medium, brief or platform, using the perfect words in the best possible way can create a story, a natural communication between people, their ideas and the rest of the world. You can learn more about Nic over on her [beautiful] website, and you can also follow her on Twitter.