The Art & Science Of Storytelling As Told By Journalists

As SEO becomes more about good content and outreach becomes more about relationship building, the gap between link building and journalism continues to shrink. Where once I cursed my journalist background (because of the lack of job opportunities it brought me), I now adore it because it’s taught me how to tell great stories.

Storytelling is an integral part of marketing. Great stories bring great links.

Storytelling, like marketing, is both an art and a science. There are pieces that are inherently in you — copywriting and creativity — that can be fostered and sharpened, but not necessarily taught. That art is lost without scientific planning and executing.

That’s what all journalists are first taught, and some of journalism’s finest — Ted Spiker, Mike Foley, Norm Lewis, Betty Cortina, Bill McKeen and many more — taught me how to tell great stories. Hopefully, you’ll find their and others’ advice as beneficial as I did.

For my Florida friends, University of Florida is also hosting Digital Storytelling Workshop this summer if you feel like you need to brush up on your storytelling skills.

Focus On The Character

It’s ultimately the character that makes the story. You may be marketing or link building for a product or service, but you’ll find it incredibly difficult connecting with your audience if you’re telling the story of a payday loan.

“We connect to seeing people in a real three-dimensional way,” said Ted Spiker, co-author of YOU: The Owner’s Manual, Blog Guy Blogger for Runner’s World and former editor at Men’s Health. “Good storytellers establish a strong sense of character that you must follow on his or her journey.”

SEOmoz does this brilliantly with Roger. No matter how amazing their tools — and don’t get me wrong, they are quite amazing — they would not nearly have the hold over our hearts if it weren’t for that loveable little robot. Have you ever tried relating to an online scraping tool? Now how about relating to this guy?

storytelling in marketing

That’s what I thought.

Another example: We’re working with YouCaring, a free online fundraising website, and instead of focusing on the service they’re providing, we’re highlighting the people the fundraisers help.

storytelling marketing

“Nothing engages an audience in a more powerful, compelling way than sharing with them a human story,” said Betty Cortina-Weiss, consulting senior producer for “One of struggle or overwhelming success, one of happiness of frustrating despair: it doesn’t matter. Through the stories of people you can bring to life virtually anything.”

Taps Into Basic Human Need

There’s a reason reality television sucks you in: You are dying to know how it all turns out. Bad example, yes, but it’s doing something right.

“A great story taps into our basic human need to ‘know what comes next,’ as writer Tom French says,” said Mike Foley, master lecturer for University of Florida’s Department of Journalism. “Oh, yeah: It also has to be well-written.”

Great stories have an intriguing beginning to hook you; a middle that moves it forward and keeps you wanting more; and a conclusion that leaves you satisfied, and wanting to tell everyone about it.

Great marketing and great link building should do just that. They should leave wanting to know more.

Bonnaroo does a great job at this with RooClues. The music festival’s lineup is kept on lockdown more than Coke’s secret formula, but about 6 weeks before it’s announced, they release clues to some of the musicians.

storytelling marketing

Tame Impala will be making an appearance at Bonnaroo 2013.

People were dying to know what they mean, so they came back, put in their own guesses, and shared with their friends.

Packed With Emotion

Whatever the medium — a story you’re telling to a friend, a book or article you’re reading, a movie you’re watching, or a marketing message you’re absorbing — the elements of a good storytelling are the same.

“Drama. Love, happiness, sadness, shock, trepidation, anticipation. Conflict. Obstacles overcome. Humor. Surprise. Something that teaches, gives insights, deepens your understanding of other people, places, ideas, happenings,” said John Schlander, senior editor of online operations at Tampa Bay Times. “It’s up to us to capture it.”

Case and point:

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Don’t Forget Utility

Those emotional, knee-jerk reactions are what we strive for, but we can’t sacrifice the purpose of why we’re doing something just for the sake of a reaction.

“I look for something that has emotion as well as utility,” said Norman Lewis, Assistant professor of journalism at University of Florida. “It describes how it benefits you and offers an emotional pull.”

Lewis brought up Subway’s Jared. It’s practical and inspiring. We watch him because we have an emotional connection to him — we hope he keeps the weight off. It’s a continuing saga we’re tied to, even if we don’t particularly like Subway’s product.

Another amazing example. (I didn’t intend to do all Super Bowl commercials; I promise.)

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If that doesn’t emotionally tie you to farmers, you have no soul.

So, what’s your business’s story?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land.

Related Topics: Channel: SEO | Link Week Column


About The Author: is an experienced digital strategist, content developer and search marketer. She's currently the SEO Manager for The Home Depot and has previously worked agency-side for mid-sized business and Fortune 500 companies. She speaks regularly on digital strategy, content development and inbound marketing at conferences nationwide. Follow her on Twitter @erinever.

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  • Body By Vemma

    Thanks for the reminders on how to pull in storied and emotions to help create connection with our audience. Mel


    I recently challenged subscribers of my weekly newsletter to write a story about someone who inspired them. Since I actively challenged, I also actively participated, and wrote my story focusing on an experience in my life. A brief 4-week snapshot where my coach helped to inspire positive development of my character. This was my opening sentence, “My father passed away of a heart attack when I was 13.”

    I’ve been sending my newsletter for nearly 9 months. Hands down, this piece has been read the most over that time frame. It’s also the most personal contribution I have offered.

    To connect with people, to inspire people through your stories, you must BE you and SHARE you through your character/s. Great post Erin – Thank you.

    Share your story
    Check out my story noted above:

  • Dino Maiolo

    I wrote a Squidoo Lens that began with, “Racing through the dark, unfamiliar streets, we sank deeper and deeper into the village.” I was relating a travel experience I had at a Balinese Purification Ceremony to help consumers understand what they can experience through one of our custom Bali tours. We got a lot of traffic from that story and it still brings us customers. Of course, selling a cultural tour in Bali is a lot sexier than say, HVAC services or bail bonds, but I believe if one puts their mind to it, they can write a story about anything. It just takes a little creativity. Nice post!


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