This guest post is awesomely written by Logan Marshall, who you should check out by the way!
In an attempt to hide the fact that we were all 98 pound weaklings, my friends and I used to challenge each other to see who was the bigger man.
We took it to the extreme.
We scaled our high school in the middle of the night, ran five miles completely barefoot through the woods and routinely attempted (extremely painful) acrobatics off a local bridge.
But that’s just the beginning. Compared to what you’re about to hear, that shit is tame. And far less dangerous.
Here’s how it went down.
It was mid January, the sun was sinking below the pine trees, and we had our dumbest idea yet. What started as “we should camp out in the yard” had somehow turned into “we should walk two miles into the forest and sleep on the riverbank – without a tent.”
And so we set off into the pitch-black Maine woods. Pushing into the darkness and the cold, hurdling trees and crossing frozen streams – four nerds who had no idea where we were going.
After 40 minutes of walking, we (somehow) arrived at our destination: a half frozen river that snaked through the dark hills.
We made camp.
The sky was completely black as we gathered firewood and built a “lean to” that any boy scout would be ashamed of. But we were ignorant adventurers. And after an hour of pure “man labor” we were sitting around a crackling fire feeling like Bear Grylls.
And then the idea struck.
“We should swim across the river,” my friend Will declared. We all laughed and said “HELL no! There are freaking ICEBERGS in that water!”
And there were. Big chunks of ice floated in the arctic current, drifting by like lifeless polar bears.
But my friend was insistent.
“No, this is happening,” he said, shooting down our reluctant comments one by one. “No shut up. Stop being a bunch of girls and man up. We are DOING this!”
Before I knew it I was shivering in my boxers, standing on the riverbank and gazing down into the black water.
The woods were deathly quiet. Images of my imminent death flashed across the screen of my mind. I’d seen this in movies a dozen times. Someone gets trapped beneath the ice and can’t find the opening. Words like hypothermia and frost bite swirled through my mind like premonitions, but there was no turning back.
“We jump on three,” my friend said. “And remember, you have to swim across the river AND back. No wimping out.”
ONE…TWO…omg no, no please no…THREE!
Together we stepped forward and leaped into the air. Time moved in slow motion as I hovered above the river, gazing down into its obsidian depths.
The second my skin touched the water, I thought my heart stopped. All thoughts disappeared and my body instinctively thrashed to the surface like a hydrophobic dolphin. Gasping for air I let out a high-pitched wail, bellowing swear words into the night.
Despite what every cell in my body was telling me, I forced myself to keep swimming. When I reached the opposite bank, my body had gone completely numb. My skin burned. My head pounded, but I had to go back. I had no choice.
Cursing my friend and praying to stay alive I hurtled an iceberg and crashed beneath the surface once more – fighting forward with every ounce of remaining strength.
Now at this point I bet you’re probably looking at your computer with a look of amused confusion on your face wondering, “What the HELL does this have to do with writing!”
Well, I’ll tell you.
It’s an example of one of the least used (yet most powerful) tools in any online writer’s arsenal: storytelling.
You see, the human brain is hard-wired to seek out and appreciate good storytelling. It’s human nature. As Robert McKee eloquently puts it:
“Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact.”
Stories are a writer’s most lethal weapon. They suck readers in, captivate an audience and keep people engaged, entertained and devouring every last word.
Stories are the secret to making your writing stand out online.
Here’s how to use them.
Storytelling: THE Deciding factor
Before we dive into specific strategies on how to implement storytelling in your freelance writing or blog, there’s something I need to say. Something that is CRITICAL to your writing success.
I was listening to a TED Talk the other day with Andrew Stanton (creator of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Wall-E), when he said something brilliant; something that encompasses all the intricate pieces of a story into one single sentence:
“The greatest story commandment is: Make me CARE.”
Such great advice.
In every piece of writing you create, regardless of the topic, keep this quote in mind. If your writing doesn’t make the reader CARE, you simply can’t expect them to consume or share your content.
With this in mind, your task is simple:
Create something engaging. Build suspense. Evoke emotion. Write “Epic Shit.”
And what’s the best way to do this?
Yep. You guessed it – storytelling.
The Secret to Effortless Storytelling
… is not as glamorous as it sounds.
Sorry, but if you were hoping for some “magic bullet secret sauce of awesomeness for lazy people”, you’re gonna have to look elsewhere.
That’s not my style. Never has been.
Just like all other worthwhile skills, storytelling is an ability that is DEVELOPED over time through diligent and consistent practice. It doesn’t happen overnight.
Jeff Goins explains it like this:
“When my wife and I moved to our new house this summer (where there weren’t as many hills), I started running again. Because of the flat terrain, I found myself going for longer runs without really noticing it.
Soon, I was running nearly every day. I did this for a couple of months. I got into pretty good shape, but I did it mostly for the joy of running.
Since I was comfortable running three to four miles per day, I started increasing the distances. First, five. Then six or seven. Now, even as much as eight miles.
The weirdest part? I rarely feel sore.
I’m running the most consistently I’ve ever run in my life, and it’s causing me the least amount of pain.
What’s made the difference?
The answer is the same thing that makes it easier to write than ever before:
I didn’t set out to run every day without any discomfort. Nor did I ever anticipate being able to write with such ease. But it happened.
Why? Because I’ve started approaching writing like I do running. I get up every day, no matter what, and I do it. I try not to think about it too much or listen to my own doubts.
I just start. Some days are better than others, but the one thing that is constant is that I do it often. And it’s starting to get into my muscles. My body is beginning to remember. It’s getting used to the practice.
And slowly but surely, it’s getting easier.”
I love that.
To drive this point home even further (and give you an additional insight) there’s one more thing I want to share with you. It’s from an article I recently read by the infamous John Carlton.
In the article he writes…
“So the main rule for writer/marketers is this: Learn what kind of story appeals to your audience. If you don’t know, you’re taking a risk with anything other than a paragraph-long tale.
Don’t pretend to know how to weave a story that gets listened to. Instead, learn the craft. (Just as you would never pretend to be able to play guitar if you wanted to impress real musicians.)
There are no short cuts, but you can get hip to good storytelling fairly quickly if you apply yourself.”
He goes on to say…
“You gotta tailor your tale to your audience. That’s the primary lesson. A story that bores the bejesus out of one person, may dazzle the hell out of someone else.
And you should get good at knowing whether you’re bombing or scoring quickly (so you can change course if necessary).”
Such great advice!
Storytelling is an art. Take the time to understand what kind of story will make your audience care, then start practicing.
That’s the secret.
How to Tell a Compelling Story in 3 Steps
You understand the power of stories and the “secret” to effortless writing. Now let’s get practical.
While only practice can give you that clear and compelling “voice” we’re all searching for, here are three key steps that should get you started.
1. Define Your Objective
Every good story has a purpose. A clearly defined point that the author is trying to convey.
Online, this often translates to a specific “call to action.” For example, you might create a story that is designed to get people to share your content, subscribe to your email list, buy your product or simply pay attention to your message.
So before you start, determine your objective.
Make it crystal clear.
Then move on.
2. Use a “Pattern Interrupt” to Suck People In
Most online writing is dryer than a saltine cracker. It’s flakey, bland, and boring.
Ryan Deiss puts it like this:
“Finding information on the Internet today is sort of like drinking tap water in a 3rd world country. Sure, it’s wet, it might even quench your thirst – for a bit. But before long, you’re vomiting out of both ends because the “water” (like most of the “free content” on the internet and blogs) turned out to be filled with dirt, filth and parasites.”
In spite of that hilariously graphic visualization, Ryan speaks the truth. The web has now become a virtual dumping ground for mindless rambling.
Chock FULL of pointless, boring, good-for-nothing content.
Because of this, people have been conditioned to expect mediocrity. Boring, cookie cutter content has lulled us into a half conscious browsing state, barely aware as we click from blog to blog.
BOOM SAUCE! That’s where you come in.
Your job is to grab these glassy-eyed people by the throat with unexpected verbiage and make them “Wake the eff up and pay attention!!”
In the mysterious world of NLP, this is called a “Pattern Interrupt.” In essence, a “pattern interrupt” is a strategically surprising action or statement that catches people of guard and forces them to give you their undivided attention.
As Andy from StomperNet puts it, “a Pattern Interrupt is the distant cousin of “Exceed Expectations” but with Moxie.”
Too funny. But very accurate.
For an example of what I’m talking about, watch the beginning of Frank Kern’s latest video. Frank’s a master at pattern interrupts and between the rap music, driving, special effects and “corn hole”- I’d say this is a pretty killer pattern interrupt.
Ultimately, creating a captivating intro that “hooks” your audience comes down to just two steps:
- Understand the “norms” in your niche. Figure out what people have come to expect.
- Do something “completely different.” This can be a question, a ridiculous story like mine, a contradictory or compelling statement – you get the point.
Done right, this works like nothing else on earth.
As Jonathan Feilds puts it, “pattern interrupts give you the power to change behaviors, opinions, assumptions and decisions in the blink of an eye. Yours and others. In business and in life.”
3. Tell Your Story
I know what you’re thinking.
“Wow, great advice. “Tell Your Story. That’s genius.”
But hold up. We’re gonna break this down.
While there are no specific “rules” for creating a compelling story, there are some guidelines.
Here are my top four.
1. Tell your story chronologically
Every story has natural “flow” or momentum to it.
With this in mind, the simplest way to convey any story is to tell it chronologically. To start at the beginning and move through the action step by step until you reach the “climax.”
As Jeff Goins adds, “Ira Glass calls this (chronological storytelling) the “anecdote” — a story in its purest form — and likens it to a train on which you’ve invited others to join. Those riding along can feel that you’re headed towards a destination.”
Very cool stuff.
2. Every story needs conflict
Every good story needs conflict, suspense and tension. Ideally all three. Without “emotional” conflict or something that must be overcome, you quickly drift back into the saltine littered desert of boredom. Not where you want to be.
As Oscar winning screenwriter William Goldman once wrote, “No one wants to listen to a story about the valley of the Happy People.” Movies pedal sex and violence but passion and tension are the same thing. Don’t just “report” what happened – dramatically proclaim your epic tale. Even if your writing topic is as boring as a brick, find a way to weave in some mystery and anticipation.
Find the obstacles. Find the drama.
If things go static, stories die.
Want to improve your ability to create or communicate conflict? Read fiction. Novels from people like James Patterson, Steven King – heck, even J.K. Rowling (Yep. Big HP fan right here. Get over it)
3. Brevity is key
Excess wordiness will kill your writing. Clutter is a disease. Sentences like, “Every fiber in Bob’s body prepared to fire like gazelles at the waterhole as lions circled the herd, climaxing with a lurch and a leap of forward momentum unlike he had ever experienced before!” can be shortened to “Bob ran like hell!”
As William Zinsser writes in his classic work On Writing Well, “The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating experiencing considerable precipitation wouldn’t think of saying it may rain. The sentence is too simple —there must be something wrong with it.”
Keep sentences short and punchy. No wordiness. No B.S.
As David Siteman Garland says, “If you want some fluff, go pet a bunny.”
4. Make your readers solve problems
Finally, don’t “give” your readers the satisfaction of knowing the ending to your story right away.
Make them work for it.
They love it.
As Andrew Stanton (the Pixar guy) puts it, “Don’t give the audience 4, give them 2+2. Take them almost all the way there, then let them solve the problem themselves.”
The Greatest Storytelling Tactic Of All
I’m gonna wrap things up now…
…then give you a chance to join my upcoming project at the end of this post.
But before I do, there’s something I want to talk about. Something that makes everything you’ve learned so far look like “small potatoes.”
What strategy am I talking about?
Two words: OPEN LOOPS.
If you’ve ever watched Lost, 24, or The Sopranos you know all about open loops, but you may have never called them that.
Here’s how they work:
You’re fully captivated by a story, you’re on the edge of your seat, wanting desperately to know what happens. The action rises. The tension builds. And then…the episode is over. You have to tune in next week to see what happens.
Here’s an example.
You build excitement and the expectation of higher value, then leave the story UNRESOLVED. This way people have to wait (or travel to another website…hint hint) to see the resolution.
This is brilliant. Works every time.
There are countless ways you can apply this to your online writing, but here are my top two:
1. Create “context” between your content
Most blog posts and auto-responder messages exist in isolation. They cover entirely different topics and stories.
This is fine and very common, but if you want to drastically boost your open rates and comments, I highly recommend creating “context” between your content and using open loops to create anticipation for each new “episode.”
Read that last line again. Let it sink in.
I first learned this strategy from Andre Chaperon who calls this a “Soap Opera Sequence” and writes:
“Each new email installment is like a new episode.
There is a connection to previous emails (context), and there are connections to future emails/events (open loops).
Missing an email in the series would have a similar effect as missing an episode of Lost/24.”
Super powerful stuff.
2. Use cliffhangers to leverage your guest posts
Finally, open loops or “cliffhangers” can also be used to leverage the power of guest posting to your advantage.
Instead of just writing a post and linking to your byline at the end, you build excitement and the expectation of higher value, then leave the story UNRESOLVED. This way people have to visit your landing page to know what happens.
Here’s and example:
“While all these strategies will give you big-time results, there’s one tactic that outperforms all others. This tactic works like nothing else on earth. It allowed me to generate an ABSURD amount of email subscribers over the past few weeks. I still can’t believe the results its gotten me.
To see a crystal clear example of what I’m talking about, head over toFree Life Project. You don’t wanna miss this.”
But don’t just exaggerate in order to get people to click. Just like my swim across the river, your writing should take your readers on a journey.
Shock them with the icy surprise of a pattern interrupt, fight through obstacles and build anticipation, then warm your readers up around a fire of satisfaction. Reward them for for sticking with you. Really over deliver.
Do this, and your readers won’t just make it through your writing alive, they’ll climb from the banks of your article feeling strong, inspired and alive.
This is your objective. Now go write a story.
Logan Marshall is on a mission to help aspiring entrepreneurs change the world with their message.If you’re one of them, check out the cinematic trailer to his upcoming blog.