Fiona O'Connor

Story ArcBecause of its ability to draw readers in, storytelling has become a potent format for B2B writers. Just like everyone else, many businesspeople enjoy consuming information in story form versus other formats. Because they come with a beginning, middle and end, stories propel audiences along a path that’s both easy and enticing.

For writers, that makes the Story Arc an especially useful tool for plotting out the journey we want readers to take, from a shared initial observation to a compelling close and call to action. Like a more organic form of an outline, we can use a Story Arc to make sure our ideas are complete and cohesive from beginning to end. If they aren’t, we risk losing readers part way through or leaving them unprepared to pursue the actions we want them to take. Unlike fiction writing where it’s truly up to the author to decide how they want to leave the reader, in writing for business objectives, we must focus on improving perceptions of our product or brand. And that makes using the Story Arc even more important.

While B2B content creators won’t usually resort to tales of undiscovered planets or exotic life forms, most pieces beyond those of a few paragraphs will still benefit from an arc you’ve planned out for them. Here’s one example of a standard form that I find very useful in my work.

#1 – Enticement – What’s the problem you are trying to solve? What’s its scale or scope?

To paraphrase what the great Michael Gerber has said about entrepreneurism, a great story must revolve around a world-changing idea. That’s probably a bit overblown for your next e-book, but you get the point. You always want to be writing about something that’s going to matter to your target audience. So, my go-to approach is often to open with a problem that, in my or my colleagues’ research has been shown to be common and bothersome to many. I call this the “Enticement” because it’s an invitation to be drawn in. If your assignment didn’t start out intending to solve your prospects’ problems, you may need to go back a few steps to figure out why it made to the top of your pile in the first place. Solving prospects’ problems is a shared goal of entrepreneurs and B2B writers alike.

For your enticement, try to be as specific as possible in your problem articulation. That will really hook the readers to whom it matters most. A well-articulated enticement sets the context out clearly and invites readers to dive in with you to explore the issues and a solution in very precise, tactical way.

#2 – Diagnosis and Development – Why does this problem exist?

“Diagnosis” is a bit like a flashback. As an author, you’re laying out how it is that we’ve arrived at this point in our industry and regarding this particular problem. This part of the Story Arc can be especially helpful to your readers at an emotional level – by identifying causes far beyond any individual situation, it reduces the stress of feeling out there on one’s own. When a reader understands the root causes of the problem they’re experiencing, they tend to have an easier time looking forward to a better future and marshaling the energy to solve the issues in their company once and for all. The “Diagnosis” can take a lot of research on the writer’s part, and a lot of thinking, but it’s worth it because of the emotional value it brings to readers. Most problems have organizational, cultural, process, economic or other complications. As a writer and business thinker, your job is to help lead readers out of the wilderness and into the light.

#3 – Resolution – How might this problem be solved?

If you’re like me, the “Resolution” is actually where many assignments begin. Your company has a solution that’s been created to solve a known problem. Collateral materials that lay out your features clearly – “For companies that have XYZ problem, we’ve got this widget and its speeds and feeds are these …” – certainly has a place in your overall mix. But that’s for folks who already fully aware of their needs, the categories of potential solutions, and so on. They’re different from the people we’re talking to here. Our prospects, or perhaps the colleagues they’ll need to bring on board, are in a much earlier, more fragile stage of discovery. If we were to jump right into our product, they’d have no context in which to find and situate themselves. That’s another reason why we have to create these stories. And we don’t want to blow it at the end by turning it into a piece of product collateral (always staying aware of course, that we’re in business here, so we need to try to push the prospect forward).

The transition from “Diagnosis/Development” to “Resolution” must be handled with substantial care. To have drawn in your readers with objective learnings and logical explanations only to present them with a miraculous (and therefore unbelievable) cure-all will likely undermine the effort you’ve made up until this point. Instead, you’ll want to maintain your objective tone, point out exactly where you help and avoid sugarcoating what else will be necessary for them to proceed successfully.

Lastly, for those who are ready to take a major step forward, never forget to point them in the exact direction you think is best. Sometimes this is to another asset. Sometimes it’s to one of your consultants. And often its directly to a colleague who can further qualify them as a potential opportunity for Sales.

Putting the Story Arc into practice

The Story Arc serves as both a map for your story and for how you need to impact your organization’s business funnel. To get the most out of the concept, you’ll want to apply it early on, before filling in the details. Personally, I’ve found using the Story Arc a helpful way to get clear on the story I’m trying to tell with my piece. I use it to check both that it makes logical sense and that it will have some emotional appeal. I find it really helps me identify those areas where I need more information, that don’t flow well enough, and more. And while it always helps me start, that doesn’t mean that I don’t often change it as I work through my piece!

Story Arcs are guides for your writing. They help you clarify both how you will engage your audience and how you will move them along in a buyer’s journey. Here, by looking at one simple example, I’ve tried to show how this works for me. In your own efforts, use this one, or feel free to experiment with other forms that you think will serve your situations even better. At the end of the day, your content needs to be both engaging and clear, accessible and prescriptive. Using the Story Arc is a great way to check your work and improve it as you go.

content development, content marketing, Story Arc, storytelling

Read More