Your Content is Slowly Killing Your Readers.
Stop making bad website content and
start creating stories.
My job is to turn people into great story makers. This is important because if you’re putting out bad content, nobody is reading it and nobody is caring. You’re adding noise to an already deafening abundance of nothingness and I’m not interested in letting that be OK, especially for our clients.
Generally, the people and teams I’m working with don’t have any experience in the creative arts. They may not even have writing or storytelling in their job descriptions. Yet, they are being asked to be story tellers.
Story tellers are NOT: Fact tellers, data sharers, number crunchers, picture re-touchers, code tweakers, big picture strategy thinkers, mic pointers or camera button pushers.
Story tellers ARE: asked to craft and convey meaningful, engaging content that communicates to their audiences via the digital platforms we exist within today.
One of the best ways I know to teach people to become better storytellers is to start with something that maybe isn’t so great, and make it better. By deconstructing the elements of a dull story, we can begin to see how to make our ingredients into much more flavorful experiences for those who taste them.
Let’s use NASA as an example.
For me, nothing is more exciting than the notion of an organization like NASA. And when arriving at their website, I have high expectations for the level of engagement I’m going to get. At the time I visited the leading story was “New Window Into High-Energy Processes on the Sun.” Let’s dig into this title alone.
First, is the title evocative or descriptive? Does it entice the reader, or simply provide a categorical type of description? And, does the title give the visitor any reason to actually read the story? I suppose if you’re interested in high-energy processes on the sun, it would catch your attention, or if you were just interested in things related to the sun. But is the title missing out on capturing a larger audience? In this case, I think the title could be much better.
I do however give it points for not being overshadowed by a larger headline reading “News” or “Headlines” or “Featured Story”, although content further down the page does suffer from this bad habit. Side Rant: If you need to put a categorical headline above the content to let us know what kind of content it is (images, videos, words, tweets, kinda important stuff, time and date related info), then you’ve failed. You are treating your website like an encyclopedia of boring.
Once you dive into the article, you realize that this fascinating work is only possible because of the spacecrafts and technologies NASA and their partners have developed.
The content needs to try to get to the heart of what NASA does, and it should hold a deeper message, one that is arguably more important.
Getting to the core.
I feel that this story (and all NASA published stories) should be supporting NASA’s core values or key branding messages. Content and stories — especially the ones that lead a user’s introduction to your organization or brand — should be carefully crafted to ensure they are introducing a user to your brand in the most beneficial ways possible.
Reading the story further, we see that a key challenge to this work is that neutrons, which the scientists are trying to study in order to learn more about solar flares, only last for 15 minutes once they are created by the flare. How can we get close enough to something so deadly and inhospitable like the sun, to study something with a 15 minute life span?
Just like a book has a cover, a story has an introduction and in this case, it’s the headline and the leading image.
So what if we first ensured the title fell in line with core values. Let’s make an educated guess that one of NASA’s core values is “Exploration of the Unknown”. The title could be rewritten to be “The Dark Side of the Sun” — conveying an impossible scenario, which might exist in the realm of the unknown. Now we have turned a descriptive and rather academic sounding title into something that is intriguing, and more importantly, conveys a deeper meaning about who NASA is.
Next we need imagery.
Humans started out as a species using images to tell stories, and the image will always grab a user more strongly than any words will. It’s human nature.
So get good images — it’s not a “nice to have”, it’s a “must have”. I did a quick Google search for images, and found this one, from NASA.
The Dark Side of the Sun
The fifteen minute life of a neutron may unlock the mysteries of solar flares.
NASA publishes a ton of stories on its website, and they are all well written, and informative. Their current home page design limits them from doing something exciting or visually captivating. However, the reality is, design matters. And design is everything you are seeing, the visuals, the words, the calls to interact…. everything.
After all, why shouldn’t something be as enjoyable and pleasurable as possible if we are expected to spend time with it?
Writing your story.
Once you’ve solved some of the introductory aspects of your story and given it a more compelling title, introduction and initial design presentation — you need the story itself to be as well crafted as possible.
We often fall into the bad habit of writing stories as if we are back in 5th grade, where we learned the supposed essential components of any meaningful content — who, what, when, where and why.
I argue that there’s only one of those five that really matters to the reader, and the other four simply provide some additional context.
Why something matters is all that really matters.
The answer to “why” gives it meaning, a sense of purpose, otherwise who cares? Who cares who, what, when, or where, when “Why?” is left to the end, or not given the highest priority?
Start with “Why?”, and don’t stop until you’ve arrived at something basic, something core, something universal — this is your starting point. This is “why” your content matters, and will matter to the reader.
If you dig deep enough, you can find a more meaningful element to any story, and that is where to begin.
If we look at the original NASA story, provided here, we can see that the author never really tells us why it’s important to know more about these neutrons and these solar explosions. However, a little outside research lets us know that solar storms can be devastating to the human population — here’s a recent near miss report.
While I am not suggesting linkbait Buzzfeedy titles, I am suggesting getting to some more meaty emotions when you’re writing.
To get started, dive into the “Why” of your story. Why does it matter? Ask yourself that again, at least five times, to get to a much more interesting starting point.
If we continue with the NASA story, we can change things up to be something more like this:
The Earth’s Worst Threat May Be Our Own Sun.
By studying the fifteen minute life of a neutron, scientists work to unlock the mysteries of solar flares, and prevent one from disrupting life as we know it.
A solar flare, triggered by a solar event or storm, could have potentially catastrophic effects on the human population. The probability of such an event happening in the next 100 years is 12%. A solar flare can seriously disrupt the electric grid and all devices and products utilizing high frequency circuitry, creating a situation where the entire population of earth would be without electricity for weeks, to months, to several years.
Until recently, studying the output of such flares was nearly impossible, due to the output element (the neutron) having a life span of about 15 minutes, and the extremely inhospitable environment any “near sun” study finds itself dealing with.
Now the reader knows why this is important work, because it’s possibly making the difference between life as we know it and getting thrown back to the dark ages.
As long as we continue to reinforce our content with the “whys” (ideally at the beginning, several times in the middle, and as a key ingredient in the final statement), we will have a much more engaged audience.
I’ve gone from reading a NASA feature post thinking, “wow, these people at NASA are really smart and doing some interesting stuff”, to, “wow NASA is a critical organization and their work has a direct impact on my life, and on the future of our world.” I’m now much more likely to want to establish an ongoing relationship with an organization I feel is doing things that positively impact the world and my life, as well as do things like donate to them, purchase publications from them, and otherwise support their efforts.
I’d encourage you to take a look at the last bit of content you were asked to create, and see if you can make it better. Approach it like an artist, let it become a creative process. Allow yourself to start out with an idea, and let it take you on a journey. It’s ok to not know what it will look like when you are done.
In fact, you should never know where your creative process will take you.
If you give up a little bit of control, and never stop looking and asking yourself to dig deeper, and remember to listen to what comes out, I can assure you, you will become a story maker.
And people will connect with what you are writing.