Storytelling checklist: How to know if you have a good story

Photo credit: Devlon Duthie / Flickr

In our line of work, we experience many stories. Few are amazing. Some of them are ok, but most are horrible. They are either created in a hurry or written without a solid grasp of what a good, make that great, story requires.

Few content creators have the right understanding of how an editor’s mind works. This is why we’ve created this checklist anyone can go through. The idea is to avoid the most common pitfalls when creating content for others to publish.

The checklist is designed as a workflow. It tries to replicate the thought process of an editor. Understand, though, that some of these steps are unconscious. Few people go through this list step by step. Nevertheless, here is the process:

(If you’re an editor and do something different, please leave a comment).

  1. Personal interest in the topic: It’s undeniable we always check stories against our personal preferences. If the story touches on a theme we love, we’ll pay more attention. The fact that we like the topic doesn’t mean we’ll publish it, though. Still, liking the theme goes a long way.
  2. Freshness of the content: Even if we like the content, if we’ve published a similar story not long ago, we’ll pass. At least for a while. Leaving time between similar stories is important. If the content is fresh, relevant and trendy, we’ll take a deeper look. Good editors, like good DJs, think about their audience first. Even if they don’t personally like the song.
  3. Originality of the story: If we like the piece, and it’s fresh, we’ll look for originality next. Editors read a lot. It’s their job to know what’s going on out there. Their job is to be masters of their space. This means they’ve seen plenty of similar things to what they get pitched on a daily basis. Good stories are VERY original. I stress this because being slightly different isn’t being original. Your piece has to get the editor thinking: “Oh wow, that’s groundbreaking, that’s impressive”. It’s not easy to achieve. What might be original to you, might not be the case for someone that’s reading through hundreds of interesting posts every week. If the editor knows more than you do about your story, it won’t get published.
  4. Angle of the story: Stories can be divided into two big groups. Stories about a great and original product and stories about what people achieve with the product. There are many available permutations, but to some degree, it either touches on product or people. What resonates with the editor will depend on the editorial guidelines. Some publications focus only on product-side stories. Others, concentrate on the people. Let it be the founder’s story; the user’s achievements with the product, or a combination. Make sure you understand what angle is the primary focus of the publication. For example, Tech.eu’s broad editorial line is about the state of the European technology markets and industries.
  5. There are always exceptions: No editorial strategy is without exceptions. Just because an editor doesn’t cover certain topics doesn’t mean it won’t in the future. More often than not, an unusual circumstance arises that makes that story worth writing. Don’t take the exceptions to be the norm, but don’t make the norm ironclad either.

Product stories

Photo credit: Toshiyuki IMAI / Flickr

These type of stories shine because of the originality of the product or service provided. In them, the “WOW” factor is the product itself.

A good example of this is crowdfunding campaigns like Pebble’s. These stories work because the product is desired by a powerful niche audience. This audience is underserved and will rally around anyone or anything serving their niche needs.

This type of story requires a considerable degree of originality (see point 3). If the product is similar to other well-known ones, it won’t fly. It won’t make a market impact, and it won’t make it to the media either.

Things to take into account for product stories:

  • The product must fix something that people on the target audience feel is very painful for them.
  • The intended audience of the product needs to be aligned with the publisher’s audience. If the product is useful for architects but my audience is geeky mathematicians, it won’t be relevant to them, or to me for that matter.
  • The product needs to be unique. If there are either good substitutes or products that solve the issue in a slightly different way, it won’t be interesting. Focus on the uniqueness of the product.
  • Sometimes, while the product itself doesn’t solve a pressing problem, it might bring good memories to the audience. Playing on nostalgia and vintage products sometimes works very well for product stories.

People stories

Photo credit: Dustin Diaz / Flickr

The other type of stories is that where the human element is the center of the scene. The product/service is a supporting part of the story.

What hooks the audience is the person behind it. Maybe it’s about the founder, about a customer, about an employee, etc. There needs to be a protagonist, with a name and last name behind it.

These stories must be rooted in truth, or they’ll come through as phony. These type of stories are potential WMD. If done right, they’ll go around the globe in hours.

The power of these stories lies in the human component. People use stories as a way to draw their identities. If enough people can feel identified with your piece, then you have a home-run.

Once again, originality is key for it to be of any interest. A personal story experienced everywhere (i.e. founder dropout that moves to California to do a startup) won’t work.

For people stories to be successful, they need to have several ingredients. The absence of these equals to a shitty account every time. Nevertheless, the presence of them doesn’t ensure success either. (Sigh).

  • Conflict of the protagonists: Good stories have massive levels of conflict. Think about conflict as a measure of emotional distress in the story. Such levels can be achieved in various ways, but the most common one is by threatening human life. 
    Any story that plays with life or death situations will gain plenty of conflict. Make sure you analyze or quantify the level of conflict in the piece. The best way to test this is by sending it to someone to proofread. If their reaction is: “Oh, wow, that was… incredible”, then you know you’re onto something. If that’s not the reaction, double check the story because you might need to scrap it.
  • Moral of the story: Good personal stories are told for a reason. They always encode a moral or key message they want to get through. Your product/service has to be connected to the personal story somehow. If no key message links them, then it will backfire. 
    Keep in mind that stories aren’t about you. They are about the audience. What do you want to tell my audience? If there is no compelling message or a non-existent one, it won’t get published. 
    Good editors always think about their audience. Will this touch on my audience. Will it inform them of something useful or change them in any way? If you were the audience, and the story wasn’t about you, your product or your company and you read about it, would you care about it? If the answer is no, then kill the story.
  • Story resonance: The characters in play need to resonate with the target audience. If the people you’re featuring are far detached from my reality, I’ll stop reading. If the people I read about is like me, I’ll start bonding with it. That’s me. That happened to me too! Oh wow, been there, done that. 
    The audience wants stories to validate their opinions and thoughts about our problems. Have you realized how often you like a story just because you agree wholeheartedly with the thesis? (Check the last stories you liked on Medium for example).

Conclusions

A great story is unique, timely, authentic and touches an emotional chord. Though perhaps we’re just restating the obvious, and there are many angles and topics for great stories we did not touch upon, most people still get this wrong. That’s why we think the checklist is useful. We hope you do to!

Our goal is that content creators can take this structure and create a quick checklist they can follow to make sure they’re nailing it.

In a future post, we’ll attempt to create a summarized version of this post, in checklist format. Stay tuned!