Tell Better Stories, Part 2

Four Ways to Elevate Your Brand

By: Mark Settle, Deputy Editor

It’s no secret that we associate stories with those who tell them. “Macbeth” is Shakespeare; “Schindler’s List” is Spielberg; “The Wall” is Pink Floyd.
The question that’s crucial to your brand is: What story is yours?

Everything you publish is an opportunity to add to—or subtract from—your brand. So, how you tell a story matters. But let’s confess something right here: Even though you know there is an art to this, the process can become plagued with second guesses. And while it’s normal to wonder if complex emotions are at odds with strategic messaging, know that the best stories use one to get to the other.

In short, your quest is to find that artful balance and shape a story that elevates your brand—in long form, short form, social media and video.

Which is a big ask.

At iostudio, we work with elite storytellers daily, and the benefits—for us, our clients and their audiences—are huge. Here are four methods our writers and videographers use to harness story and elevate brand.

Become a lens—or hire one.

Audiences are tribal. They are clued in for signs of a pretender. That makes any form of pretense a danger. The audience’s vernacular must be spoken in the right context with the right tone at the right time. In order to earn their trust and effectively tell their story, a storyteller must become a lens, so that everything is seen through the eyes of the tribe. That's persona.

Still, how does it work in practice?

Consider our client, MARSOC (U.S. Marine Corps Forces Special Operations Command). MARSOC is composed of hard-edged warriors with equally sharp minds, who know their brand. Fortunately, we have Zack Wilson, our senior producer and videographer. While Zack is not a Marine operator, he is an incredible lens. And his ability to access the meaning at the core of aesthetic—and capture the imperative—is what sets him apart as a storyteller. It’s what enables him to create with unabashed authenticity “signal” work, where a single video can tell a story of this amazing unit’s future using its past. Take a look. You’ll see past and present merged, with an overarching voice that speaks in the language of both: MARSOC: Heritage.

Takeaway: Become a lens by examining the meaning behind an audience’s aesthetic. We admit that not everyone can do it like Zack, but there is another option. If you don’t know the dialect of the tribe, play it safe and hire a lens, or an actual tribe member. The rewards of getting it right will outweigh the risks. Make it a priority.

Provide texture.

Dirt can make a difference. For iostudio, that means getting Marc Acton on the ground—or in the air. And because of that commitment, he has logged some serious miles as a writer and field editor.

While on staff with the magazine we produced for the Army National Guard, he was iostudio’s queen chess piece, traveling across the country to find bold men and women doing extraordinary things that tell the Guard’s story—stories bigger than any single soldier, while encompassing the legacy of each. From packing mules with Special Forces to landing a helicopter on a tiny island in a mountain lake, he didn’t just let his audience hear about their legacy—he let them taste it. The grind of crossing a mountain pass with an ancient beast of burden. The racked nerves of a rescue landing. These were features you couldn’t put down.

True, that was print, where one can wax eloquent in long form. Digital media occupies most of the market. And there, we have less than 10 seconds to capture the attention of our audience.

But trust us. Texture gets traction, no matter what medium you choose.

We’ll show our work. When Marc took on the Guard’s Instagram stories, he flexed the very same muscles. Why? Because social media provides access to an otherwise remote experience. Because, by nature, we feel first and reflect after, professionals use texture to convey message—on any platform. Let Marc show you how.

Takeaway: Whatever the medium, give readers and viewers some sensation, even friction. Realize an experience for them. Doing so often takes less space than your message—and captures more attention. And don’t be afraid to get your boots dirty doing it.

Embrace dimension.

Human stories are fundamentally complex. So, train your eye for disparate elements that are secretly complementary in the right setting. When this is done correctly, it illuminates. 

In September of 2016, iostudio sent me to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, to write a feature for GX magazine on the 28-mile March for the Fallen. Once there, I coordinated with event organizers to schedule interviews, survey the course and create a plan. It didn’t take me long to realize that the dimensions—on every level—were vast. Relationally, participants were marching for those who had fallen in battle, in helicopter crashes and by suicide, related to post-traumatic stress. It was hard to find the story’s center.

The answer came from an unexpected place—literature. I came to recognize this sacred setting: where figures emerge, share stories and withdraw; where journeys tread the physical and spiritual hand-in-hand; where men and women bear symbols and burdens, and exchange them like armor; where challenges, charged with meaning, are met with answers. This was a pilgrimage, where the singularity of each encounter enhanced the totality of the whole.

We can forget that stories speak best to one another. When you discover a parallel or contrast that accents your story—near or far, in your genre or another—embrace it. Strip unnecessary language and describe what you see in accessible ways. Layers of meaning add depth to your texture.

Takeaway: When a story’s center is hard to discern, adjust your angle to better understand dimension. Don’t be afraid to interweave seemingly disparate elements when they color your narrative in a complementary way.

Achieve scope.

Your audience is interested in itself, and—truth be told—that interest is merited. The details about any particular person, place, service or product are intriguing, even if familiarity dulls a little of their luster over time. Now, you may laugh at this statement, with some drab family member in mind, and say, “You just don’t know them.”

And you’re right. That is exactly what to consider: the view of an outsider.

An old professor once advised me to write down everything I noticed upon first interacting with another culture. Critics can attempt to discern the difference between observation and projection at a later date. The important question is: What do you see? Your vantage point may allow you to spot unremarked trends hiding in plain sight.

Last year, our senior associate editor, Tracy Marsh, noted a trend specific to our soldier audience and asked the million-dollar question: “Guard soldiers are always in the news for rescuing someone from certain death. Why exactly is that?”

We already knew the soldiers didn’t have the answer. (Invariably, each would respond to their own heroic action by claiming anyone else would have done the same, or simply that their “training kicked in.”) Why not take a closer look at the biology and motivation behind the trend?

We hired one of our favorite freelance writers, Matt Crossman, to do just that. The result is arguably the best feature we ever published. The brilliance behind Matt’s approach in “The Rescue Reflex” lies in his elegant execution, where he allows our audience to approach themselves as a mystery—to see and consider what makes them different biologically, psychologically and morally. Matt’s feature artfully blends science and vignette to enable readers to both feel the catharsis and understand its source. It remains a remarkable achievement in storytelling.

Now, to be sure, both Tracy as an editor and Matt as a writer are each a lens in their own right, but the power to lay down one mask and lift another—to see with new eyes—is something special. And because your audience is too close to themselves for this kind of scope, you’ll need to achieve it for them.

If you can, they’ll never forget it. After all, who else does that kind of thing, if not you?

Takeaway: Be deliberate about taking time to step outside the granular details that excite audience interest but may hide the greater trend. What do you see? If something sparks your curiosity, don’t hold back. Take your audience on a journey of self-discovery.

 

Are you too close to your own story to know how compelling it is? We can be your lens.
It’s one of the things we do, after all.


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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.