How to pick the best writing style to nail your business storytelling online
Sometimes the best messages don’t resonate and it’s not because the content sucks. Depending on your audience and the platform you use, the writing style you use to craft a message could be killing your storytelling online. However a focus on narrative writing, storytelling online requires a lot more than fancy words; it requires intent.
Where storytelling online fits into marketing (and why writing style matters)
Writing stories for your business is about getting your name out there, connecting with the right customers, and getting them to take action.
The process to do that has three steps before you start writing:
First you need to know who you are as a business. That comes from branding, and there are lots of amazing books on the subject including World Famous. Branding can also be expensive, but there are many ways to build a brand for no cost (or a relatively small investment).
After branding comes knowing what to say. Books like Made to Stick can help you figure this one out with their SUCCES framework. Part of this is coming up with slogans, but it’s also a broader process of crafting your message.
After knowing who you are and what to say, the final step before choosing your writing style is figuring out who needs to hear your message and how to communicate it to them, something explained in product positioning book Obviously Awesome.
Storytelling and writing narratives
Storytelling online is the last piece.
You now have:
- Who you are
- What you want to say
- Who needs to hear your message
- How you need to communicate it to them
Storytelling is the step you choose which writing style is the best way to reach customers. Think of tone of voice like a bridge – you need to build the right one in order to get across from one point to another.
There are four primary writing styles we’ll cover in this article:
- Conversational writing
- Prescriptive writing
- Philosophical writing
- Persuasive writing
Writing style: Conversational
A meandering, easy-to-read writing style, conversational writing is all about taking the readers on a journey with you.
Conversational writing style
Conversational writing pulls the reader through because it feels natural (like a conversation). If you’ve ever been told to “write like you speak”, then conversational writing is a good idea.
Some conversational writing examples include April Dunford’s book Obviously Awesome and most op-ed pieces written in the first person.
How to write using a conversational writing style
Step 1: Outline your “conversations” – detailing your main line of thinking in a logical flow and noting where anecdotes and stories would fit in nicely.
After that comes Step 2: Write each step compartmentally so you have individual pieces (e.g. point 1, anecdote 1, point 2, point 3, anecdote 2, story 1, etc.).
Then you have Step 3: Work on transitions between the points, anecdotes, and stories to create one full piece of content.
Finally, Step 4: Adjust the placement of, or remove, anecdotes and stories as needed for flow.
Applications of conversational writing
Conversational writing, from a business storytelling online perspective, is best used for top of funnel content. This means anything meant to grab attention, but not necessarily drive a specific action beyond staying on the site or clicking into another piece of content.
This writing style would be good for:
- About pages
- Interesting blog topics
- Blog topics about really complicated, high level things you are breaking down
Downsides of conversational writing
Using a conversational style of writing, be aware that readers may drop off if you go too far away from the point. To combat this, make sure that anecdotes and tangents enrich the story, not diverge from it.
Writing style: Prescriptive
Prescriptive writing is the most common type when it comes to content marketing. It’s the style you’ll see in a million listicles like “X things that will increase sales” or “X ways to improve SEO”.
When you’re writing a sentence using prescriptive writing, you usually start with a verb. That not only signals to the reader they need to take action, simply using a verb makes your sentence writing more impactful.
Applications of prescriptive writing
The best time to use prescriptive writing is when you’re sharing wisdom or explaining how to do something. This is why listicles end up being a good format, since you can get a lot of prescriptive advice out in an easy-to-read way.
You can still write narratives when using prescriptive writing – you do this when you set context.
The biggest trap that prescriptive writing falls into is not setting context properly. For example, you may have given great advice on how to get more customers, but forgot to mention that your advice only works if certain conditions are met. If that’s the case, many people who try your advice will likely fail, especially if those certain conditions are rare (such as a personal contact at a large company helping close your first client).
It’s a best practice to always set your context. You don’t have to give up every detail, but you should be upfront about external factors that helped you along the way.
Since you’re telling someone precisely what to do and how to do it, context is crucial:
- What external factors will affect you taking action
- What decision frameworks someone should consider if one action step isn’t working
- Environmental factors that impact the advice shared in a prescriptive article
How to write using a prescriptive writing style
Prescriptive writing usually follows this format:
Step 1: State your point or action and set context.
After that, you have Step 2: Explain why the action is necessary – i.e. what benefit the person will get from doing it.
Then comes Step 3: Explain how to do the action in the specific context.
Finally, Step 4: Offer a proof point – data or an example – showing how the action works.
Sometimes, depending on if your advice is contrarian or uncommon, you may need to put your proof point up at the top in step 1.
Downsides of prescriptive writing
When you’re writing with a prescriptive style, the key downside is that you could be wrong or inadvertently giving bad advice. To avoid this, make sure you have built up credibility in your writing and present information as one way to achieve something, not the only way. If you really are presenting what you believe to be the only way to achieve something, you may be using persuasive writing (see more below).
You can build up credibility by:
- Using real-life examples of the advice working as prescribed (proof points)
- Using studies and data to back up your claims from research
- Offering well-known examples of your advice working (social proof)
Writing style: Philosophical
Philosophical writing can be one of the best ways to write narratives and stories. The word “philosophical” often gets associated with philosophers, as it should, but the word can be re-applied to business storytelling as well.
Put simply: philosophical writing in business storytelling online focuses on exploring the impact of an idea without an opinion.
It’s similar to writing poetry or lyrical writing, which explores ideas and experiences, but does not always have an opinion on the matter.
How to leverage philosophical writing styles for business storytelling
The best way to write using a philosophical style is to create an idea tree around your core topic.
Step 1: Start with the core topic, for example: the impact of AI on the world.
Step 2: Then create 3-5 possible impacts of your topic. For example:
- AI could help humanity
- AI could destroy humanity
- AI could do nothing
Step 3: As you write, look to studies, experiences, or opinions from credible people on all the possible impacts you listed.
For each impact, “go down the rabbit hole” and fully explore the impact. Look for, or ponder on, answers for the following questions:
- How will the impact come to pass?
- What will happen that leads to the impact happening?
- Why will the thing that happens deliver the impact?
Basically: think about all possible avenues for the “impact” to come true. Then do that for each impact.
It’s important to ensure that the impacts, when put together, are collective and exhaustive – meaning no other options exist. That means the impacts must be sufficiently high-level to ensure coverage.
Downsides of philosophical writing
When writing using a philosophical style, it can be easy to get lost in the idea or to let opinions come through.
While having an opinion is not a problem (and you could state it at the beginning or end of the piece), having too strong of an opinion will reduce the credibility of the writing. If you’re too opinionated in one direction, readers are less likely to believe that you wrote exhaustively about the idea or topic.
In that case, you lose the value of being seen as an objective author, and your content could end up being ignored or disregarded.
Writing style: Persuasive
Persuasive writing is when you have an axe to grind. It’s when you’re thinking “no, it’s not like that – it’s like this” and you want others to see your way of thinking.
In business storytelling online, persuasive writing can be really impactful if you are in a new space or an area that needs change.
Types of persuasive writing
Depending on what you want to accomplish with your persuasive writing, you could write to:
- Persuade someone to heed a warning or pay attention (e.g. “The robots are coming!”)
- Get someone to believe your course of action (e.g. “Success comes from doing A, not B or C”)
- Convince someone your ideology is correct (e.g. “Healthcare needs X, not Y”)
Regardless of what you want people to do, you fundamentally want them to listen to you. Getting to that requires a few different persuasive writing techniques:
- Demonstrate with examples
- Use facts and data
- Leverage social proof and other forms of credibility
Persuasive writing versus prescriptive writing
Because both leverage facts and other credibility markers, persuasive writing is very similar to prescriptive writing. In some cases, they are the same (if you are trying to convince someone to take a course of action versus simply indicating a course of action is good to take).
Persuasive writing is also one of the most attacked forms of writing, since many people will think it’s simply an opinion and not something they should pay attention to. Ensuring you have built up credibility and stick to verifiable facts will mitigate this and give your persuasive article the best chance of people paying attention.
As you continue persuasive writing, be open to changing your mind if new evidence comes to light. When this happens, take note of how the information was presented that made you change your mind – it can be good inspiration for your next persuasive piece to get more people on your side.
Writing stories with different writing styles
The best content will use a mix of styles depending on the author’s personality, the platform’s voice, and the values that the organization (your organization, in this case) holds.
When it comes to merging writing styles, a common tactic is to have an anchor and a secondary writing style.
Anchor writing style
An anchor writing style is the key desired impact of the content.
If you want to explore an idea or experience something, use conversational writing.
When you want to show someone how to do something, use prescriptive writing.
If you want someone to think about something holistically, try philosophical writing.
When you need someone to do something, use persuasive writing.
Secondary writing style
Once you have your anchor, your secondary style will further help you cement your point and get towards desired impact.
Persuasive writing and prescriptive writing often go well together when you need someone to do something new or out of the ordinary.
Conversational writing and philosophical writing often go well together when you’re de-mystifying a new or complex topic.
Writing your stories, writing your narratives
However you choose to write, remember to stay true to your personality as an author and your organization’s voice. If you don’t, you risk alienating readers and creating negative brand impressions, both of which can be horrible for a business of any size. If you do, you have an opportunity to build a great story online that will attract customers, increase your brand image, and showcase your opinions with the world.
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