Do This Not That: One Reporter’s 12 Rules for Writing Highly-Shareable Stories
By Molly Fosco, Freelance Tech Reporter
When I first became a science and tech reporter, I thought the most important part of my job was reporting facts. Getting to the truth is critical, especially when misinformation is so easy to come by. But I’ve learned that telling a good story is just as important. My most-shared stories all have something in common: They engage readers with a surprising, well-reported narrative.
As a marketer, you should abide by the same journalistic storytelling principles to inform and engage your audience. It can seem intimidating to become a good narrator but it’s a lot easier than you think. If you have a story worth telling, you’re already halfway there.
Before you put anything on the page, ask yourself two questions:
What will readers learn from this? Marketers often write about what they know without considering what the reader will actually learn. If you’re not sure, talk to someone in your audience.
Is this unique or 10x better than what’s already out there? Nothing is new under the sun, but it can be valuable if it’s better. HubSpot is a great example of this. Their blog is filled with thorough articles that include step-by-step instructions and visuals to teach their customers. The topics aren’t new, but they are complete.
Beyond that, here are 12 specific dos and don’ts:
1. Do: Write an outline.
It helps organize your thoughts and ensures you have a beginning, middle, and end, which are surprisingly easy to overlook as you let the words flow.
Don’t: Just start writing. Often, you don’t figure out what you’re writing about until the end. If you don’t go back and edit, you’re taking the reader on a long journey they may not want to go on. Outlines ensure you start with what’s interesting.
2. Do: Start with an anecdote.
Narratives are what draw the reader in and encourage them to keep reading. L’Oreal’s makeup.com consistently does this well. A recent post about the five best face oils to wear under makeup starts with a personal story from the contributor about her own skin issues. It makes the reader curious about how she solved her problem.
Don’t: Start by philosophizing. E.g. “In a world of endless automation” or “The key to chatbot communication is strategic thinking.” Boring. The post below from CMO.com begins by emphasizing the power of the consumer but neglects to offer a real, tangible example. It’s a missed opportunity to engage the reader and instead offers only a muddy concept in the form of a run-on sentence.
3. Do: Get to the point by the second paragraph.
In journalism lingo, your first one to two paragraphs are the nutgraf. It tells the reader what they can expect to get from the piece.
Don’t: Wait until the end. Unless you’re a trained novelist, few people will read past the 20 percent mark. Be sure they get your meaning early.
4. Do: Include outside sources.
You’re not an expert in everything—give your message validity with other voices. It also keeps the piece moving. VC firm First Round Capital does an excellent job with this on their blog, First Round Review, which has become legendary in the world of content marketing. They often feature interviews and guest posts from their portfolio company founders, offering advice to young entrepreneurs.
Don’t: Rely solely on your own insight and expertise.
5. Do: Use data!
In the era of fake news, people are hungry for data-driven stories. Utilize your unique company data as well as data from your industry. Make sure it’s surprising but also, real.
Don’t: Use out of date stats. This Entrepreneur Magazine article was published this past June but cites a Nielsen report from 2015. While this is the most recent report from Nielsen, YouGov conducted a similar survey in 2017. The results show that more consumers trust advertising now than three years ago. Not only should you cite the most recent stats available, but you should also consult multiple sources in your research.
6. Do: Experiment with different formats.
Sometimes a listicle makes sense, other times a first-person opinion piece from a founder or team member is the way to go. American Express does this well with their content. When they want to offer simple yet helpful tips, they use a numbered listicle. But an article about using data to rebrand your business comes from an agency founder telling her story. It shows the advice works because it worked for the author.
Don’t: Write content in the same format every time. You want to be consistent with your brand voice and editorial style but you don’t want to be rote. Readers crave nuance in the content they’re consuming. Creating a schedule can help. Perhaps you publish an opinion piece on Monday, an interview with an industry expert on Wednesday, and a fun listicle on Friday.
7. Do: Think about how this piece could be syndicated in other publications through partnerships.
Many media outlets have branded content teams that work with clients (that’s you!) to create branded media campaigns. Ally Bank did a thoughtful campaign in 2018 with The Knot and The Bump called We’re In This, Together that covered how to navigate the intimidating financial side of important life changes like getting married and having a baby.
Don’t: Write content as just a one-off post. You should be actively researching which media outlets fit with your brand and reaching out to them directly to get coverage and create partnerships.
8. Do: Consider converting your written content to an audio format for a podcast.
There are tons of podcast production services like Resonate Recording that can turn a simple written article into a podcast episode and distribute via Apple, Spotify, and Stitcher for a reasonable fee. Diversity of medium is critical today.
Many brands have successfully included podcasting in their brand messaging. “Rise and Grind” by ZipRecruiter is a great example. They have a charismatic host, Daymond John of ABC’s Shark Tank, talking about productivity and how to achieve your goals. This pairs naturally with ZipRecruiter’s product, a job-seeking platform. The show even won the 2018 NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Instructional Literary Work.
Don’t: Let your piece live in one place or exist in the written format alone.
9. Do: Write for a generalist audience using terms people most people can easily understand.
It helps to think about how you would explain what you do to your grandmother or someone who has no knowledge of your industry. Stick to the basics: what you do, how you do it, and why.
Don’t: Use jargon. You might think it sounds smart but if no one can understand what you’re saying, you lose them. This blog post from Gainsight, The Science Behind How We Can Predict a Customer’s Likelihood to Renew, looks like it will offer valuable information on customer acquisition and retention. But the post is riddled with jargon, like “recursive Bayesian approach” and “statistically meaningful updations.” It’s also heavily theory-based, offering almost no concrete examples. Even if you’re a customer marketing pro, ask yourself whether the story really holds your attention.
10. Do: Use catchy headlines and descriptions that intrigue readers and invite them to click.
Your title should revolve around the main point of the article, the nutgraf, which you should know by the time you’re brainstorming headlines.
Don’t: Use clickbait headlines. If your post is titled, “You’ll Never Believe What This Research Uncovered,” and you don’t totally blow the reader’s mind, you lose their trust. It makes it seem like you’re intentionally misleading them.
Avoid repetitive headlines. The title below is from Forrester and uses “insights-driven” twice in a row. It sounds terrible, plain and simple.
11. Do: Write in clear, complete, and succinct sentences.
Sometimes when you’re putting your thoughts on paper, they flow out in a stream of consciousness. That’s a good technique for brainstorming but for writing a complete story, it’s best to pause in between ideas, re-read what you wrote, and ask whether you’re sticking to your outline.
Don’t: Overuse commas or use run-on sentences. This blog post from CMO.com is a classic example of a run-on sentence that could easily be broken up to create a better flow.
12. Do: Remember you can do this!
Don’t: Think too hard. Everyone can be a writer, especially if you know your topic well. And if you’re a savvy marketer, you already do.