Interview: ‘Your content needs to be unique, useful. Good content travels’

‘What’s Your Story, The Essential Business Storytelling Handbook’, which was launched on August 23 by Penguin Random House, takes us on a racy journey down this road of how to tell your story

A former business journalist, Anjana Menon is also the founder of Content Pixies, a firm that guides companies on critical content strategy

Humans think in stories, says historian Yuval Noah Harari. Cognisant of this fact, the corporate world is increasingly turning to tell compelling stories to their customers.

Short attention spans, however, demand that stories have to be told in innovative ways, packaged with data that unravel a story, eye-catching, informative images and crisply edited videos with background footage.

The rapid transformations in technology also means they have to choose the right platform from the plethora of mediums around to enable effective story-telling.

What’s Your Story, The Essential Business Storytelling Handbook, which was launched on August 23 by Penguin Random House, takes us on a racy journey down this road of how to tell your story. Written by former business journalists who work in the field of corporate content strategy and communication, the book starts off by sharing a “secret that turning your message into a great story is to think like a journalist, a storyteller, and then speak to your audience”.

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It is divided into three parts – the first portion deals with the basic elements of storytelling, from writing killer headlines to using data and images to give heft to the story. The second section delves into the multiple channels and ways to tell a story, while the third section “pulls it all together” and offers tips on topics ranging from how to position your company leader into an icon to help your company battle a crisis.

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What makes the book interesting is that it is peppered with stories of how businesses have used social media platforms to nail what they want to convey. In some cases, companies may just want to be out there with their story. The book gives the example of GE’s popular podcast The Message, based on a fictional tale about a group of cryptographers trying to decode a message from outer space. The podcast is not selling the brand nor is it hawking a GE product. But it drives home the message that GE is closely linked to technology.

There’s another example in the book of a podcast by toothpaste brand Zendium called 2 Minutes of Zen, which gives wellness advice on doing squats and calming the mind while brushing your teeth. There are scores of such instances of corporate campaigns on social media, which makes it a must-read for not just communication students and professionals, but for entrepreneurs as well.

Content creation is a sprawling canvas as it encompasses traditional media as well as commercial content. “It is as robust and constantly evolving in India as in any other part of the world, though some forms such as podcasting are still in the early stages,” observed Anjana Menon, co-author of the book. However, it is not a crowded space as it is in North America, for instance, she added.

A former business journalist, Menon is also the founder of Content Pixies, a firm that guides companies on critical content strategy. The other two authors are Barcelona-based Adri Bruckner, a communications professional with experience in journalism and PR, and Marybeth Sandell, who heads group employee and leadership communications for Electrolux in Stockholm.

“I’d say our book’s greatest strength is that it is written in an easy to understand style. Simplicity is often underestimated, but it’s powerful in its ability to help people grasp concepts and ideas well,” said Menon.

In an interview with The Federal, Menon, who divides her time between London and Delhi, discusses the story behind the book.

What is this book about? What prompted the three of you to write this book? How does it compare with other books in the market on effective storytelling?

What’s Your Story? is a comprehensive guide on storytelling for businesses. It tells you how to craft and pick the elements in storytelling, how to choose the right channels and then deploy everything you have learnt to get heard.

We felt there was a market for a book that could serve as a building block for storytelling because virtually everyone today needs to have this skill in a corporate environment, whether it’s in giving a presentation, or engaging employees or even building a leadership profile or writing thought (opinion) pieces.

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Every book on storytelling is unique. I’d say our book’s greatest strength is that it is written in an easy to understand style. Simplicity is often underestimated, but it’s powerful in its ability to help people grasp concepts and ideas. The book focuses on getting the basics right because it becomes easy to build on that and constantly learn as the mediums evolve.

How did you bring your experience in journalism into the book?
What is your story?

All three of us worked in Bloomberg News for a good part of our journalism careers. It was a place where you had only a few seconds to decide the headline of the story and a few minutes to tell the story clearly to a very impatient audience. This taught us the importance of clarity, brevity, accuracy, crafting the right message and headlines, all of which are important in storytelling.

I then went on to become a founder editor of Mint and that involved training journalists to tell stories better. So, I was able to share those learnings and see them come together in an award-winning newspaper. When I moved to run a television newsroom and anchoring, that taught me a lot about storytelling in the visual medium. In hindsight, everything I learnt, and my co-authors learnt, was preparing us for this book.

How long did it take to bring the book from the concept stage to print? How did you three collaborate to write the book?

It took a little over a year for the book to move from concept to the print stage. The most challenging aspect was to make sure that we had examples from multiple geographies to support a wide audience, and that these examples had universal appeal.

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We divided the book between us and chose areas that were our strengths, based on our experience, and wrote those chapters.

What went into researching the book since it teems with examples and stories. What are your favourite examples?

We paid attention to a few things. For example, you will find that we have showcased women in many of the case studies and examples. This was important to us as women writers because women always have to shout harder to get noticed and heard. So you will read about Lilly Singh and Huda Kattan and Indira Nyooi just as you will read about Warren Buffet.

I would urge readers to pick their own favourite stories. But the chapter ‘Death by Jargon’ has an example of how even the most storied consultancy in the world uses jargon as a crutch and how the messaging for a product in two different countries can mean completely different things.

Your book gives valuable information on subjects like SEO. How have you deconstructed these concepts in the book?

People often get very overwhelmed when they hear the word SEO, or search engine optimisation. All it is, are the words that people use when they search for something. It is common sense more than anything else. At the very basic level, if you wanted to find a restaurant serving Chinese food, you would have the word food, Chinese and restaurant in your search.

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Of course, search engines constantly change their algorithm so that people don’t game the system, but at the end of the day, it is based on what people search for, and what words they use while searching. There are plenty of free basic tools online that everyone can use and we have shared those. Sometimes, people think that keyword stuffing will get you there, but that’s not true.

Your content needs to be unique and useful to readers to rank well. Good content travels. Using keywords needs a fine balance and once you know the basics, you can decide whether you need a specialist to help you with SEO.

Content creation seems to be a big canvas encompassing traditional media as well as commercial content – how do you approach content for each medium differently?

All content must serve its audience because each medium has a different audience. Know your audience and what they like. Like you said, there are traditional media, commercial channels such as OTT platforms and a big chunk of the content now rests in social media – there are millions of unique creators on YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and the like. There are also other platforms to communicate, such as LinkedIn, events or company reports, and this too needs the right content for it to get heard.

Our book tells you how to choose the right platform and how to tailor your content for it because there are some basic rules for good content.

The approach varies for each platform. For example, we talk about how long videos should be if you are planning a corporate video. We also talk of the difference between news or editorial and advertorials and sponsored content, which can easily look like news. Or, whether your content should be on Instagram or LinkedIn. At the end of the day, the approach will also be determined by the demographic and preferences of your audience. But what is universally true is that attention spans are getting shorter and the mediums are proliferating, and your content needs to adapt to that.

There’s so much crowd on social media. How do you stay on top of it and stand out?

There is no substitute for good content. There are a ton of tips and tricks in the book on how to get there, but the basic rule is your content has to speak to your target audience and you have to continuously respond to them. Continuity and consistency are very important and a lot of the influencers on social media pour a lot of time and energy into building their brands.

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It’s like a full-time job, where you have to be always on and respond to users’ preferences and the environment around you. It’s important to know your strengths and your talent and stick to building on that. You cannot be everything to everybody.

Content creation got a boost during COVID. How has that changed the landscape?

It has made it more competitive, which means you have to work smarter at making your content relevant. Video content has got a big leg up. A lot of new faces have come into content, from grandmothers to young children on reels who get millions of views, people who host FB live sessions, TikTok stars, and Instagram influencers too. Online events have become the norm. Clubhouse happened during the pandemic and that’s a different kind of content, in that it’s audio and has a short shelf life, but in truth, we are inundated with choices.

Then there is the explosion of content on OTT platforms because the movie-going experience has moved to your phone, TV or other handheld devices. Millions of us have been confined to our homes during the pandemic. This also means people are looking for content to deliver the same sensations of joy or connectedness that socialising did, like in the days before the pandemic.

What is the future of content creation? How are the channels of storytelling evolving? What next?

Video is getting bigger as is hyper-local user-generated content. Authenticity is very appealing in content. A lot of the content is driven by the evolution of the devices we consume them on. So, as smartphones and devices get more sophisticated we will see more immersive storytelling. Especially if the pandemic is going to be around for a while, people will want more real experiences in their virtual world, so we think augmented reality and virtual reality will become more popular.

You can already see this happening in art exhibitions such as Van Gogh Alive in which a visitor can go inside a Van Gogh painting and become a part of it. That’s a completely different way to experience art.

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Content creation is a space that will evolve continuously, so your basics must be spot on, so everything that you learn will be like the layers you add to a frosted cake, where your imagination is your limit. And this book teaches you to get the basics right.

What is the most important factor companies should keep in mind while communicating in a crisis?

Companies should be honest because their relationship with stakeholders is based on trust. People tend to forgive mistakes, but once trust is lost, it’s very hard to gain back.

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