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Increase Engagement Through Storytelling

By Tom Ashford

I have a secret. Beneath my superhero mask of self-publishing I am, in fact…

…traditionally employed.

That’s right. I have a regular job. I work as a Concept Writer for an animated video company that takes complicated topics and distills them into short, concise explanations – upping the fun-factor, increasing the retention of their message in the minds of their target audience.

Usually, this is for big-name brands. Usually, what they’re trying to explain is pretty dry and boring – hence the need to increase their employees’ (or customers’) engagement.

So how do I get the attention of these disgruntled employees, these confused managers, these uninterested, browsing customers? How do I get them to care?

I tell them a story.

Stories Aren’t Just For Fiction

The fact that storytelling is important won’t come as much of a surprise to the novelists and fiction-writers amongst us. After all, without it all our books would be nothing but empty pages (or endless reams of pointless, meandering description, I suppose).

It might not be so obvious to anyone who’s in the middle of writing a non-fiction book, however. You’re informing people, giving them facts and opinions… maybe even using graphs and statistics! What does storytelling have to do with it?

Well, storytelling has everything to do with passing on information – and it always has.

Ever since the human race began we’ve relied upon stories as a form of communication. Want to warn a child about the dangers of making up lies for attention? Invent a story about a child who cries wolf one time too many. Got too many people asking you why the sun rises and sets each day? Explain it to them by telling them a story in which it’s a big orb of fire being pulled across the heavens by a chariot-driving god called Helios. Want to warn people of the dangers of ignoring climate change in as fun and violent a manner as possible? Direct the next Mad Max movie.

Sure, you could just tell a child not to lie because eventually the adults will stop believing them. You could try explaining to the men and women of ancient Greece that the sun is an interstellar nuclear reactor and the Earth is turning on its axis. And you could show somebody a thousand pages of graphs and stats and reports about how the world is getting hotter and hotter.

But that doesn’t sound anywhere near as interesting, does it? And if it doesn’t sound interesting to you, it won’t sound interesting to your audience either.

An audience needs to be engaged, otherwise they’re going to stop paying attention. And why does storytelling work so well when you’re trying to explain something, when you’re trying to pass on your valuable information?

Because people will want to know how your story ends.

So I’m writing a non-fiction book. What now?

Start by introducing a character. People like people, even if some of us don’t like to admit it. More importantly, we relate to people – particularly those in a similar situation to ourselves.

If you’re writing a self-help book, you probably do this already. You describe situations and feelings that your reader likely already experiences – that way they know that what’s written ahead will apply to them.

If you start with a character your audience can relate to, they’re going to pay attention. They’re going to want to know what happens to him or her, because in a way it’s now happening to them, too. If possible you don’t just want your readers to sympathise with the character in your educational narrative – you want your readers to empathise with them.

Let’s try an example. I’m no expert on nutritional values and my diet fluctuates from healthy to downright worrisome, so take the following content with a pinch of salt.

Tom is on his weekly supermarket run. He’s almost finished when he cuts through the biscuit aisle – suddenly he’s feeling very peckish! He picks up a packet of digestives and considers adding them to his basket, but pauses. He knows that he needs to watch his figure, and there’s a box of ‘breakfast biscuits’ right next to them on the shelf. Surely the breakfast biscuits would be a healthier alternative?

Because I introduced a character in a relatable situation, as a reader you’re more likely to care about what you’re learning. You can imagine yourself as that same person, in that same predicament. And now you’re (hopefully) wondering what the answer to the question is!

It’s a lot more engaging a method than simply presenting two tables of statistics about salt and sugar levels, and calories, and the cost of purchase. And if I’d started by writing the sentence, “Often the breakfast biscuits in your local supermarket contain less nutritional value than your average digestive biscuit,” you probably couldn’t have cared less (and maybe you still don’t, but hopefully you better understand my point).

Of course, you don’t have to literally introduce a new character into each chapter of your non-fiction book. It can be equally as effective to position your reader directly as the character using the second-person perspective. See below:

You’re almost done with your weekly supermarket run when you cut through the biscuit aisle – suddenly you’re feeling very peckish!

Etc. etc. You get the idea.

Why does engagement matter? If they weren’t interested, they wouldn’t have bought my book.

Good point. With any luck they’ve purchased your book because they have a furious passion for its subject matter, and they’re going to devour your knowledge as if it were a Chocolate Orange come Boxing Day afternoon.

It’s still worth telling them a story.

For the most part, we remember emotionally-charged events better than boring ones. That’s probably part of the reason why we can remember all the fights we had with an ex-partner, and yet so few of the good but fairly mundane moments that made up the rest of the relationship. Or maybe that’s just me.

But it is true that memory doesn’t tend to care what is or isn’t important (perhaps that’s why I forget to put the bins out so often), and that positive memories tend to contain more contextual details. It’s emotion that better helps information stick in our brains. If your readers are bored, the information will bounce right back off them.

Throw a story into your ‘how-to’ guide every now and then. Let your reader become part of that narrative – part of your explanation. It’ll spice things up, and your audience will go away with the contents of your book printed as clearly in their mind as it is on your pages.

We’re all storytellers, whether that’s telling bedtime stories to our children, boasting to our friends down the pub, or writing our latest novel. Why not use the power of storytelling in your next non-fiction book, too?

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford

Tom Ashford is a professional copywriter, author of numerous dark fantasy and sci-fi novels, and the Head of Content at the Self Publishing Formula Blog. His books include the Blackwater trilogy and the Checking Out series.

He lives in London with his wife, in an apartment that doesn’t allow pets. Find out more about Tom here.