One of the current buzzwords in content development seems to be ‘narrative’. It’s talked about as a goal for content – that we need to be telling a story.
Making content into a story can better engage your audience. It can also make your messages more memorable.
But what exactly do we mean by narrative and story telling, and how do we achieve it?
Use in marketing
In marketing, the use of narrative is straightforward. It is often about bringing a character into information, so the audience sees themselves in the character’s position and follows their journey.
So rather than a simple ad telling you that porridge is delicious and warming, you see the cosy kitchen on an early winter morning with a child preparing porridge and enjoying it with their dad. Rather than an ad that lists a car’s features, you see the family escaping on a weekend trip in comfort.
Or it’s about using engaging examples and comparisons, such as a website that tells you how many swimming pools of water you save with a new efficient dishwasher.
Use in websites and reports
For content developers who are dealing with government, policy or science information, it can seem harder to use ‘narrative’ techniques.
But there are a few key ways to bring narrative into information.
Adding flow and links
The easiest, and perhaps the most important, way to build narrative is simply to make links between your pieces of information, so that it turns into a story rather than a list of facts. Even short additions can improve the flow of your story. So:
Mercury was used in various applications such as batteries and fluorescent lighting. Mercury poisoning causes severe neurological problems. Many uses of mercury are now being phased out.
Mercury was used in various applications such as batteries and fluorescent lighting. However, mercury poisoning causes severe neurological problems. This is why many uses of mercury are now being phased out.
Think about how each fact leads to the next, and use words to join concepts:
- Does the next fact add to the evidence? Use and, also, further.
- Is the next fact in opposition to the evidence? Use however, but, although.
- Does the next fact provide a reason for the evidence? Use because, since, due to.
- Does the next fact conclude or bring together the previous 2 facts? Use this is why, this means, therefore.
Curating the information
When you are making links in the information, you may find that a piece ‘doesn’t fit’ – you can’t link it to the other pieces. If it doesn’t fit in the story, think about whether you really need it.
There can be a temptation to include information just because you have it. First consider what you are trying to achieve and what your audience wants to know, and then include the information that builds or supports that message.
For example, if your aim is to explain the process for making a noise complaint, you don’t need to include descriptions of relevant legislation and management structures. If you are describing a new education program, you don’t need to add descriptions of similar programs, unless you are making a specific point about how the new program relates to others.
Content developers can also use comparisons to illustrate and strengthen their message. For example, which has the stronger message?
The risk of serious blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine is 0.0004%.
The risk of serious blood clots from the AstraZeneca vaccine is 0.0004%. This is very low compared with other common medicines and activities: the risk of serious blood clots from the contraceptive pill is 0.05% to 0.12%, and the risk of serious blood clots from smoking is 0.18%.
The second point gives the same information, but it also gives context and allows people to compare the risk of vaccines with those of well-known medicines and activities.
Simply focusing on the user can make information into a story that relates to them. Take the audience on the journey by including them in the story. For example:
1 Application submitted
2 Application reviewed
3 Application accepted or rejected
About the application process:
1 Submit your application online
2 We will review your application
3 We will be in touch to tell you whether your application has been accepted
Characters and case studies
Characters can help to bring content to life. For example, if you are explaining a process, you may present the list of steps and then a story box with imaginary characters to illustrate the steps.
Case studies of actual events or projects can also be used to provide real-world examples of the information.