Tell Better Stories, Part 1

Don't run from the familiar. Own it.

By: Mark Settle, DEPUTY EDITOR

There are some stories we keep coming back to. These stories—their themes, characters and subject matter—often say something about who we are as people. Here's what one of our content teams learned when we revisited, and embraced, a story that had been told before.

There is a story out there, one that resounds. Your audience is earnestly seeking it because they believe it exists—or that it can exist. What may surprise you is that whatever your topic of truth is, it likely treads old ground. Amidst the clamor to be current, we can forget this, quite easily, in fact. But, the truth is that your audience wants more than for a story to be told—it may have been told many times already. They want it told the right way.

And, so, when that story told truly arrives, they recognize it. Instantly.

At iostudio, we were not the first to tell Cliff Bauman’s story. After dark memories of 9/11 pushed him towards suicide, he found hope and redemption. As Bauman’s saga unfolds, it reveals a new life beyond the horror of that tragedy, a triumph only made possible by his survival. And in the telling, we see a soldier at battle with a monster of our age: post-traumatic stress disorder.

While numerous articles had already been written about soldiers and PTSD, iostudio recognized Bauman’s story as singular, one that would resound, one waiting to be told right. Importantly, the metrics validated our intuition.

Here are four things we learned by featuring a suicide story in the National Guard’s official magazine, GX: The Guard Experience®. Each was surprising in some way. Each is applicable to every story you ever tell.

Don’t be afraid of the familiar.

Staying current is vital. (For the record, iostudio doesn’t contest this; we champion it.) But the subjects we truly care about tend to stay with us, return or resurface. That repetition makes these subjects intimate. Even defining. For GX® magazine’s audience, soldier suicide was (and is) a critical topic.

Still, when we were asked to cover Cliff Bauman’s story, we questioned the idea of featuring a suicide survivor. The magazine certainly wasn’t lacking feature options. National Guard soldiers had just won the world’s biggest tank event (which made our cover). We also had prepared an incredible feature on the 15th anniversary of 9/11 (which won a Silver ADDY). Still, we knew the issue of soldier suicide was important to our readers, and, like our military audience, GX® has a history of taking things head-on. So, we invited Bauman to write four pages in the magazine, sent a photographer to his home, and published the article online.

We were glad we did.

Within two weeks of posting "How I Found Hope After Attempting Suicide" to GXonline, the article had over 1,000 page-views. What makes those numbers particularly interesting is comparison. Remember, our cover story, "Kings of the Tank," showcased a huge (and recent) Guard win in an expansive feature. Within the same timeframe, the tank feature received just over 1,200 page views—a marginal difference.

A second metric illuminates audience reaction further: Readers remained with the Bauman story for an average of 10 minutes; for the tank article, readers stayed on the page about six minutes. While both features were, by all measures, successful, it was clear the Bauman story had struck a chord.

Takeaway: Find the chord—the subject—that resounds with your audience. Examine and outline the topics your reader truly cares about, even if they’re not hot-off-the-press. Don’t let familiarity deter you.

Your audience hears noise, but they want a signal.

When we first considered Bauman’s story, we had to acknowledge an inescapable fact: There are too many stories about soldier suicide. It is a tragic—and touchy—topic. Justifiably, it was natural to wonder whether our audience would be emotionally weary of this subject. We were hearing a lot of noise—like when a song you like is on the radio, but there’s too much fuzz to get anything out of it. So, too, were our readers. Surprisingly, this fact turned out to be in our favor.

The Noise

Stories on soldier suicide frequently take one of two paths, if not both: 1) the alarum, announcing an already known problem, or 2) the dictum, demanding the problem be dealt with a certain way. Both are emotionally taxing and form the wall of sound surrounding the topic. So, when GX® magazine took an altogether different route from the alarum-dictum approach, it got noticed. Why? Because what is happening to soldiers is not a problem for social engineers or scientific managers. It is personal—and the messenger is inseparably linked to the message. (Let’s call this the persona approach.)

The Signal

First, GX® signaled this shift in tone—visually.

The intimate images taken by photographer Shawn Hubbard—and the deft treatment from Art Director Dustin McNeil—bring the reader into Cliff Bauman’s home. Before we even enter the text, we meet Cliff in his living room. Facing the reader, he holds the boots he wore on 9/11. His hands brush across a book. From afar, he runs up the tree-covered avenue that leads to his home. We sit at his family table and break bread. The portraiture provides a gateway for intimacy,—an intimacy our readers were hungry for. We can have a real conversation because this is a real place.

More could be said about our editors’ intelligent treatment of Bauman’s story—the best proof is our aforementioned online readers’ 10 minutes spent with the text—but what we’re concerned with here is the first note—the one that says, “This is different.” We did that visually.

Takeaway: The alarum-dictum approach—announcing problems and dictating answers—is everywhere. Use persona to counter that noise and signal your authenticity. We harnessed intimate portraiture for Bauman’s feature, but there are other mediums that can be equally effective. (Have you seen our work with Instagram stories?)

Intimacy opens doors.

One of the strange benefits of the persona approach is that it appears to take a longer route, but it gets to the finish line first. By leading with trust, you allow function to follow—not the other way around.

How you achieve that trust is everything. In our case, Bauman provided unshakable authenticity. The wisdom was in having him tell his story in his home, a place void of judgment and agenda. We gave the feature four pages to allow space for the art and narrative to create an atmosphere where the reader could let their guard down and take advice.

And that was our actual finish line, our actual goal. We wanted readers to consider suicide prevention resources. But, we knew that they don’t have that type of dialogue with strangers. That is the chief advantage of the persona approach over the alarum-dictum route. We trust the man or woman by our side—not so much the authority figure announcing solutions. The irony is that often the solutions offered are the same. The difference is the messenger.

Takeaway: Create space for your messaging, paying special attention to tone and atmosphere. In fact, don’t be afraid to give them primacy. It’s an investment in establishing trust. Once your reader offers you their trust, you can offer your message, resources, et cetera. Atmosphere allows you to do that.

Learn how to listen.

To make the most of your findings—whatever they are—you will need to assess data. (That’s why we have Chris Dunleavy.)

In our case, comparing the page views and site visit duration offered a line of thought: Does our audience’s attention span online actually rest more comfortably around four pages? In GX® magazine, our larger features typically run around eight pages in print, but perhaps our online sweet spot is the four page range—long enough to create atmosphere and short enough to finish in 10 minutes.

While that doesn’t mean scrapping eight-page features—reading in print is another ballgame—it could suggest drawing shorter features to the forefront online to match our readers’ digital appetite. Or, perhaps it means breaking the single-bloc format into a progression of links. Or, telling parts of the story with video. Applications are as plentiful as your imagination.

The point is that by intelligently acting on data your users provide, you’ll start a heuristic process that will rapidly accelerate your understanding of what your audience wants.

Takeaway: Ensure you have metrics in place to provide the data you’re looking for. Ask yourself what you want that metric to tell you and discuss the results with your data analyst. Then, weaponize your data. And, do it with conviction.

We think every business has a story worth telling. How can we help you tell yours?


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Mark writes and edits copy for us here at iostudio. With degrees in English and History from Virginia Tech, he’s ready to talk with you on any topic you like—from content curation to Bergman films to military history. (He might even share with you how poetry relates to social media—something about “micro-dramas.”) Basically, he’s a resident storyteller who knows engaging content when he sees or hears it. As an editor, he works side-by-side with other writers to illuminate stories and sharpen craft. And if you know anything about Mark, you know he’s all about craft.