Creating a 12 month narrative to tell a single story
I have sometimes been caught referring to myself as a writer. Sometimes I even use the term storyteller, although mostly that conjures images of the guy who works in the National Centre for Children’s Books opposite the Pickle Jar office.
But I realise there are people like me who specialise in telling one-off stories, usually in blog posts, and there’s another breed of writer who knows how to eat an elephant, one episodic spoonful at a time.
People who write whole books impress me, but right now I’m more in awe of American TV show writers.
Now, to be fair, they mostly work in teams which purists might consider cheating. But still, on average, they write as many as 22 episodes in order to create a story, made of up of little stories, that lasts a season.
Try watching Blacklist for example. Even some minor character in episode 4 could become hugely significant later in the arc of the story. That’s a clever piece of work in my book.
In our world of content strategy, the concept of story has gained a lot of attention in recent years. Whether it’s Sarah Richards placing a user story on the cover of her book, Content Design, or Jonah Sachs talking about Winning The Story Wars, content marketing in particular draws increasingly on the elements of narrative.
I am currently working on a project with a client promoting an app based around forming life-changing habits of behaviour. Rather than just list out the attributes of the product and look for stories we could tell to illustrate them, we chose to create a 12-month narrative.
A 12-month narrative takes what we know about the user and what we want to say about the product, and connects them through a compelling story arc made up of smaller stories. Each story must contain tension of its own, because if a story has no tension, it’s not compelling.
But why take a year to tell a story if you don’t have to? Well, this structure provides us with a fresh way to generate new content ideas, repurpose existing content and plan content delivery.
It creates a single thread on which all our individual pieces of content can hang, creating a stronger effect – like pearls on a necklace. Without the the thread they are not a necklace, they’re a pile of pearls.
It’s all based around a story we want to tell in which the user becomes the hero, not the product we want them to download and use.
But what if I’m not a storyteller? That’s okay. As I explained earlier in this post, there are pre-existing narratives that underpin most of the stories ever written. You can choose the right one for you, then adapt it to serve your goals and work with your content.
But why would a reader stick with our story for a year? Perhaps the life of your institution feels less dramatic than an episode of Blacklist. The answer to this question lies in understanding your audience, their pain points and aspirations, and then crafting episodes or scenes that track with the journey they are already going on.
You are storifying an experience they are already having and helping them to see it more clearly.
So now let’s walk through some of the steps you need to take in order to create a 12-month narrative for your context.
Choose your plotline
All stories have basic elements in common:
– Stories need tension in order to hold attention.
– Stories are a telling of connected events, presented in a sequence.
– Stories have a beginning, middle and end.
– Stories usually have heroes, however conflicted they might be.
– Stories are comprised of scenes, voices and locations.
When you start putting together your narrative, you can use one of these seven pre-existing story archetypes to create the overarching structure of your story. Your users have encountered all of these archetypes before, whether in books they read as children, or Netflix shows they binge-watched recently.
Look through this list of story archetypes, and discuss with your colleagues which one has the most potential to fit with the brand of your institution.
Overcoming the Monster
The hero must destroy the monster to restore balance to the world
Play the role of either the sidekick that will stick with them tothe very end, or the weapon that will deliver the final blow.
A modest and moral but downtrodden character achieves a happy ending when their natural
Play the role of the “Fairy Godmother” that gives the hero
Voyage & Return
Normal protagonists who are suddenly thrust
Your products or services can assist audiences in their
The hero, often accompanied by sidekicks,
Your product or service is meant to be a long lasting tool that can be used along the way.
A threatening shadow seems nearly victorious
The audience sometimes needs a push to realise “Something has to change, there is a better way”. Once the “Rebirth” story has been initiated, everything else becomes easier.
Some kind of confusion exists that must be resolved before the hero and heroine
As a brand, you have to be willing to thrust yourself in the
The consequences of human overreaching and egotism.
It’s not difficult to identify when your audience is going through a tragedy. Help them get through a difficult time.
In my current project we chose the quest, because the product was about forming life-changing habits. We recognised that this felt like a mountain to climb but we wanted the user to imagine it becoming part of their daily or weekly routine.
But we also selected a secondary narrative – voyage and return – so that we had some flexibility once we moved into our brainstorming process for specific content ideas.
Our two story archetypes were quite similar, and I would avoid trying to bring together very different archetypes because it undermines your intention to bring your user through one well-told story.
Once you have tried this tool and begun to iterate your content, you might consider using different archetypes for different audiences.
Decide where the story is taking us
When Airbnb launched a magazine they built it almost entirely around the stories of their customers. They understood that an essential ingredient in any great journey or travel experience is that it becomes a story worth telling others about.
Education is no different. Our institutions are full of stories and people who love telling stories.
Students in particular love telling one another stories.
They might be horror stories about accommodation, adventure stories about road trips taken, or just comedy stories about shared memories. In my case I love telling the story about a history professor who didn’t turn up for my tutorial because he got lost in the university library. I had another professor who used to work for the C.I.A. and loved to tell us, “No-one ever really leaves the C.I.A.”
We can’t control all the stories they tell, but we can leverage the fact that our audiences will receive information in a very different way when it comes to them in story form.
And we can safely presume that even prospective students are imagining the stories they will be part of when they consider their choice of university.
What universities and travel brands have in common is that they want to hold out the potential of a life-changing experience that unfolds over time like a great story.
To begin storifying the journey of your user try completing the following sentences. I have given examples in case you need a jump-start.
Once upon a time… (a prospective student worried about finding the right university)
And every day… (they received conflicting advice about how to make their choice)
Until one day… (they attended an Open Day and met people they wanted to be around)
And… (they saw themselves thriving in that city)
Then take it a stage further by thinking about the main points in the journey your story takes us on. Some people try to think of a possible plot twist in the middle.
We open to… (how can I know this is the right university for me?)
We cut to… (I’m learning the way to make smart decisions isn’t what I expected)
We end on… (I can’t imagine myself anywhere else now)
This exercise helps you begin thinking of your story in episodes. That’s essential in providing a structure and flow for the content ideas you eventually start brainstorming.
This brings the art of storytelling to the skill of planning content to a calendar. But we’re not at the calendar point yet.
Create a 12-month key
The 12-month key is a simple outline of your 12-month narrative, usually in four quarters, but you can break it into thirds if it’s more helpful. It looks like this:
Goal of Journey: Enjoy my final year at university but be ready for the workplace
Theme: Making a difference together
Define Audiences & User Stories:
– Prospective undergraduate student – “I am a…, and I want to… I need a way to…, so that I can …”
– Prospective postgraduate student – “I am a… and I want to… I need a way to…, so that I can …”
To complete the 12-month key you need to answer these three questions:
– Who’s the audience? (the hero or protagonist)
-What’s the goal of the journey? Think about the hero of the story – your user. Where are they at in their journey with you at the moment you hope to connect? What is the end goal of the journey? This allows you to break the story into scenes.
– What’s the theme?
I think this tool works best with audiences you have strong access to throughout a year. Deciding who you’re talking to helps you imagine where the conversation, or story, should begin and where you want to take it to. That will become the plotline for using this tool within a content strategy.
This is where the brand messaging work your institution has already done should help flesh things out.
Turn the key into a calendar
With my client we took the scenes we created in our 12-month key and our product roadmap and built our 12-month narrative with more specifics.
The graphic below (click the graphic to expand) is similar to the approach we took. I’ve imagined a user story for an audience that content teams in HE deal with regularly – current students – and then completed some parts for you.
This is really the last step you need to complete before creating a fully scheduled content calendar.
To create the content calendar I used a simple table where I gave every scene a blog post title I tested using Co-Schedule’s Headline Analyzer.
We then turned our 12-month narrative into a project in GatherContent and built a plan for using multiple channels to promote the story we are telling.
Now you’ve got a story, what will you do with it?
The first 12-month narrative I was shown had all sorts of bells and whistles and additional components I decided I didn’t need for the project I was working on. What I ended up creating was more like a cohesive content calendar designed to improve the flow of how I promoted the product in question, by connecting it with moments and points of tensions in the lives of real people.
Aside from creating and scheduling content, here’s some other things we’re using the 12-month narrative for:
– Doing a more strategic inventory of existing content:
When I do a content audit with the client in question, I can now indicate which quarter of my narrative each piece of content could be repurposed for.
– Building an agile approach:
By iterating the channels we use, the types of content we employ and even which writers are gaining the most traction, we can learn how to tell the same compelling story better every year.
What if your target audience is unlikely to connect with content you created for the narrative at the moment you intend? Won’t that feel like joining a film after missing the first half hour?
We thought about this a lot and our answer was to run the four quarters of our narrative every month. So each of the four stages in the narrative became a week of content. This allows us to tell the same four-part story twelve times in a calendar year using different approaches each month.
If all this sounds a little complicated for the project you’re currently working on, this post by Tracy, our CEO, gives you some places to look for inspiration for your next blog post.
Like any content strategy tool, the 12-month narrative needs to be played with and bent into a shape that works for you. But it helped my client find a fresh way to communicate with their audience without scraping the barrel for a totally different way to describe their product every week or month.
If you want to find out more about using storytelling to inform your content strategy, please get in touch.