Strong storytelling can take a product from selling $100 million worth of units to $1 billion worth, according to Gary Vaynerchuk.
Many entrepreneurs understand the importance of storytelling, yet few do it well. Amidst the ton of advice from marketing mavens, we’ve rarely gone straight to the source: Who better to learn from than a veteran who makes his living storytelling?
In typical entrepreneurial fashion, award-winning author Gordon Korman started by writing the book he wanted to read as a 12-year-old. (He was first published when he was 14.) His books have now sold over 25 million copies.
One of the first things we chatted about was the change in medium: many of today’s most interesting stories can be told through video. Is writing is still relevant to telling stories?
In short, yes. Whether it’s a B2B company creating professional collateral to distribute to prospective clients, or a lifestyle company venturing into designing a publication, or an agency building credibility and thought leadership through publications, writing still makes for engaging content.
Korman points out how movie stars frequently end up writing books and biographies. “It’s a unique experience, it’s not like seeing a movie,” Korman says of novels and non-fiction literature. “I wouldn’t say better or worse, just different. It’s a kind of storytelling that cannot be replicated in any other way.” From a business standpoint, writing is also more attractive because of its low overhead.
Ebooks, articles, and whitepapers, have very few barriers to entry compared to professionally-shot videos (which require equipment, crew, and other arrangements). This type of flexibility, in cost and time invested, makes writing a perfect medium for entrepreneurs to test their storytelling efforts in a lean way.
Video case studies may be more effective in consumer-facing services. However, entrepreneurs still need to write a script and compose a story. All mediums aside, a large part of writing is thinking (as Jeff Bezos professes) as well.
Since writing is unavoidable, what are some ways for you to improve your writing? Writing is something you get better at as you do it more often, explains Korman. The skill needs to be honed through regular practice.
“I’d watch soap operas, I’d do the dishes, I’d go to the supermarket, I’d do anything but work. It happened really slowly, but I got into the rhythm where I was able to produce,” Korman chuckles. Despite the initial roadblock, his habit enabled him to publish over 80 books in 36 years.
There’s no trick to it: write when you aren’t distracted. For Korman, it’s when his kids are at school. It could be later at night, or earlier in the morning for you. “When I was in high school, I did some of my best writing from midnight to 4am just because I didn’t need to co-ordinate with anybody else’s schedule,” Korman recalls.
There are a few other techniques up Korman’s sleeve: four or five times a year, when he is free of travel engagements, Korman takes a week off to sprint through a major chunk of a book. He spends time on the road poring through research for his next book. And while Korman still writes books for youth and young adults, he is personally progressing farther from that demographic. How does he stay in touch with his readers?
“I do a lot of appearances. School visits, library appearances, bookstore signings, I just meet kids,” explains Korman. “You have your own ongoing focus group because you’re always dealing with kids.”
Korman’s presence is enough value to draw his target markets’ attention; they will flock to the local library to see him. He doesn’t need to pound the pavement to hear from them individually. What value proposition do you offer to your target market when you ask them questions? This not only further engages your audience, it also helps you save time and effort whenever you want to validate an idea.
One crucial element to improving writing, and storytelling, is to craft compelling content. So how do we make sure our content is interesting?
“Young readers fear the unknown more than adults do,” says Korman. Adults are more prone to stick with a story, whereas kids give authors less time to prove themselves. How does Korman hook a reader with a short attention span and a tendency to quit early?
“The best option is to start with a really exciting scene, or a really funny scene,” he advises. “With some of my adventure trilogies, for example, it’s hard to start with an exciting scene because the kids have not entered that milieu yet, that environment where adventure can happen.
Korman uses flash forwards to buy time to build up his story. One story starts off with someone going overboard a ship, and the next chapter skips back to an earlier point in time. Another one begins with an unnamed character’s funeral. This adds a mystery element to the story that keeps readers guessing. One way to leverage the flash forward principle in an article is to open with a scene that is either the reader’s most desired outcome or greatest fear.
Conflict is also essential to interest. Korman’s friend, a professional diver, once told him that more misadventures happened within one Dive book than in 18 years of his diving in the real world. How can you inject conflict and tension to your writing? What problem does your product solve? What benefits, not features, does it offer? What itch does your solution scratch?
While you may not have a $100 million business—yet—Korman’s insights are crucial to your marketing efforts. The next story you write could be terrible, but you’ll be a better writer. Or, it could be the one that boosts your sales tenfold.
The most important thing to do in either case is to write it.