Talking Content Marketing welcomes from Australia, Jonathan Crossfield.
Jonathan’s business card refers to him as ‘Storyteller’. He didn’t want to pigeonhole himself as a writer, journalist, social media consultant, copywriter, content marketing strategist or blogger, etc. He mentions, “If I put ‘social media guy’, people think I can’t write. If I put ‘writer’, people think I can’t advise on strategy. We’re so used to specialisations these days, but it’s more important to have the holistic view – and the common thread is telling stories”.
Jonathan works with others on their content strategy and writing and also writes a column on social media marketing for Chief Content Officer magazine, published by the Content Marketing Institute. He has also been on the judging panel for the Content Marketing Awards for the last two years.
Here we talk about the role of storytelling to connect, educate and share our knowledge with others.
With the ease of access to technology to share a message, has the world exploded with too many self-proclaimed ‘experts’?
Rule one: a person doesn’t get to declare him or herself an expert or ‘guru’ or thought leader. True leaders in the industry demonstrate their expertise through the quality of their actions and insights. Your clientele or audience will choose whether to anoint expert or thought leader status upon you based on those actions.
Usually, if someone calls him or herself a thought leader or guru, it’s a signal to me that they’re not, no matter how much they’d like to be.
I’m also nervous about the ‘expert’ tag because the technology changes so rapidly. I once wrote that social media marketing is like trying to eat soup with a fork. You can never control it completely and will always end up with some of your lunch down your shirt because it moves so quickly. And that goes for many areas of marketing today.
So, true experts recognise that they are always learning and experimenting, trying to find a ‘better way’. More importantly, true experts are always willing to admit when they don’t know or are unsure. “I don’t know” isn’t an admission of failure. It is recognising the limits of their expertise. And no one can be a true expert without recognising his or her own limitations.
Why do you think storytelling has built such prominence as a way to engage?
I don’t think it has ‘built such prominence’. Storytelling has always been the most effective way to pass on information. There’s plenty of research that indicates that our brains are hardwired to interpret and respond to stories far more effectively than raw information. Stories provide the context we need to make sense of the world. The daily news is told to us each night as a series of stories. Experience and education is handed down through stories. Our history is revealed to us through stories written down or related to us by a few subjective sources. Our ambitions and fantasies are explored in our imaginations as stories yet to happen.
There is a myth that is still very prevalent. “Let the facts speak for themselves.” It’s rubbish. Raw data and information requires a number of contextual filters to become at all persuasive to the right person. Storytelling is not just about ‘once upon a time’. It is about the ordering of information to show cause and effect. It is about describing scenarios that the reader may recognise and therefore understand as relevant, making it easier for him or her to apply and act upon the information.
So our entire perception of the world is shaped by stories. I could write for hours on how they don’t even need to be true or accurate either. Do you know someone who believes absolutely in the existence of ghosts? That belief is based on stories that (either by accident or design) misinterpret or misrepresent key information. There is absolutely no scientific proof for the existence of ghosts, no matter what anyone may tell you down the pub. Believe me, I’ve checked. But those who believe will often point to stories that are highly anecdotal or subjective in presenting the information.
So marketers have to be extremely careful and ethical about how they use storytelling. Our goal is to persuade, not manipulate. We trade in truth, not fiction.
Is the ability to connect with people by content striking a nerve on an emotional level, one of the biggest assets a company possesses today?
We are not rational beings (as I hope the ghost example illustrated). Our decisions and beliefs are driven far more by emotion than logic, and we are more likely to believe what we want to be true. However, often we will post-justify our decisions or beliefs to convince ourselves that they are based in logic and reason.
The reasons we rely more on our emotions and instincts is often because we lack enough information to make a truly informed decision. For example, when selecting a bookshop, I may have very little information to go on to decide who I trust more to provide me with great service and a memorable experience. So our initial impressions of things like trust are based less on factual information (we may have very little or none) and more on things like simple ‘likeability’.
I have a small independent bookshop just a block away from my house and I adore it. It costs me more than buying from Amazon, and they have a much smaller range. But I love the smell when I walk in there. I love how the shop assistants make me feel. I love the displays. I love the wood-stained shelves and décor that evokes memories of old libraries and a reverence for good books. All of these are emotional responses, and none of them change the fact that I could probably save half the price and get the exact same product from Amazon. Yet I am more likely to buy the book I’m after from the small bookshop (if they have it) than from Amazon simply because I like it more. I am willing to pay more for what are purely emotional reasons.
So our content needs to create that same sense of likeability and shared values that your target audience can relate to – and base their emotionally driven decisions on – before they gain the hard evidence of what the experience of becoming a customer is really like.
Naturally, that customer experience then has to live up to the promise. Fostering likeability and creating an emotional connection before the fact are not replacements for being trusted and seen as good value after the fact.
C.C. Chapman mentioned that most businesses are ‘clueless’ when it comes to embracing an attitude as storytellers as they are more focused on distributing content. Do you agree?
The arrival of the internet and digital technology has led to some amazing things. But it also led to an increased focus on technical issues instead of less tangible activities, such as creativity. Instead of focusing on good content, too many businesses focused on SEO instead, for example. Marketing became a technical problem, instead of a creative one.
Because distribution is easier to see and control on a spreadsheet, it is the first area many marketers look to when looking to improve results. I’ve been in way too many marketing meetings where creativity and the value of good ideas are barely discussed, because it’s just easier to print out a new keyword report and set KPIs around driving more traffic within an agreed budget. Who cares what that content is, as long as it attracts more clicks at a lower cost?
This approach results in strategies that produce swathes of mediocre and repetitive content, regurgitating the same lazy and unoriginal information. But this stuff is so common because it is quick and cheap to produce to meet quantity targets designed to achieve KPIs focused more on distribution metrics — retweets, hits, downloads, etc.
And when the CFO starts asking difficult questions about how this stuff actually helps the business bottom line — why is there no increase in sales from all these extra clicks — marketers try to smudge over the ineffectiveness with more buzzwords like ‘brand recognition’ and ‘customer engagement’ – stuff the CFO couldn’t give two figs about unless they can be linked to revenue.
Distribution is important. SEO is important, as are UX and social engagement and download numbers and every other delivery or technical KPI marketers may use. But marketers need to develop a greater appreciation for what good content looks like. They need to recognize good writing, and why it is more effective than the mediocre writing that forms 90% of all content marketing out there.
Do businesses overcomplicate things by using a language that isn’t human and more focused on self importance?
This is one of my biggest soapboxes. Plain English is so important in marketing because we’re trying to persuade people, not hide our meaning behind jargon and vague buzzwords just because they sound more ‘professional’. But so much of what I see every day is far from plain English.
One of my biggest bugbears is the word ‘solution’, which is usually a sign that the business doesn’t really know how to explain in simple terms what they do. And that’s a big problem for any marketer trying to interest the right people.
Recently, while driving around Victoria, I found myself behind a car at the lights. Across the rear of the car was the business name — ‘Pensioner Solutions’. Nope, I’ve no idea either. I don’t know whether the business is an aged care home, a financial advisor specialising in superannuation funds or a discrete euthanasia service! The word ‘solutions’ tells me absolutely nothing, least of all the problem the business promises to solve, making the message less persuasive instead of more professional.
Too often, this self important writing is cobbled together from cliched language and overly formal grammar the writer would never use in everyday life. Therefore, it’s a deception, trying to appear more professional or smarter than he or she actually is. And because the writer doesn’t normally use such complex language, there is also a massively increased risk of mistakes. The irony is that writing that tries to appear more professional by using such gobbledygook often ends up looking far less professional to anyone who knows how to write.
Professional language is always that which is most easily understood by the majority of the target audience.
How do you learn? What inspires you to write?
I read a lot of non-fiction. A lot! But I don’t read that many books or blogs on marketing. I try to stay outside of the echo chamber as much as possible.
I stay aware of what is out there and subscribe to many newsletters and blogs. But just seeing the post titles in my feed is usually enough for me to see if it’s going to interest me enough to click through, or if it’s just another echo around the chamber.
Instead, I read books on psychology, on human behavior, on grammar, on how to form an argument, on rhetoric, and so on. I get far more ideas, and form my own views on how to improve my own work, from juxtaposing what I learn from these books with my experiences as a content marketer.
Recently, I’ve polished off:
- ‘The Art of Thinking Clearly’ by Rolf Dobelli, on 99 common thinking errors
- ‘You Talkin’ to Me?’ by Sam Leith, on the art of rhetoric and the structures of a persuasive argument
- ‘On Writing’ by Stephen King, which should be required reading for absolutely anyone who works with words.
My pile currently contains Ann Handley’s new book, ‘Everybody Writes’, as well as EM Forster’s ‘Aspects of the Novel’ and Jorge Luis Borges’ ‘On Writing’ (which I suspect may be rather different to King’s).
I also read a lot of classic literature. To be a good content writer, you need to be a good writer. Don’t think that because a white paper isn’t ever going to win a literary prize that you can skip the foundations of the craft. And absolutely no one can become a good writer without first becoming a good reader. I don’t mean you have read the complete Dickens and be able to recite Chaucer at will (in the original Middle English). But if you’re not a habitual reader with at least an interest in this stuff, you’re not going to develop the breadth of skill that marks quality writing. Orwell is my idol, for both his fiction and his essays. I find myself often reviewing my own writing through the filter “What would Orwell do to improve this?”
Very importantly, I always read with my iPad or notebook next to me, so that when I read something that triggers an idea – and that happens a lot, no matter what I’m reading – I write it down quickly. I’ve lost far too many great ideas over the years purely because I thought I would remember it later.
Some of the best ideas come from juxtaposing two completely different thoughts together. A line in Frankenstein might suddenly prompt a fresh analogy for explaining cloud computing for example (hmmm, now that’s a thought…) or a psychology book may prompt a new insight into a common social media trend. Everything is relevant. Pay attention to all of it, from The Walking Dead to Bertrand Russell.
Massive thanks to Jonathan for his thoughts and how a storytelling approach has true meaning. Hope this helps when considering applying to your business. To find out more from Jonathan:
Jonathan on Twitter: click here
Jonathan’s Website: click here