The best sources of inspiration for our storytelling

pedestrian mural

Photo: streetwrk.com (CC)

We work hard to deliver great stories in our marketing. That can be challenging when we juggle other priorities, or we give up after an exhausting stretch.

We need inspiration. We need divine light to guide our weary minds to a new idea, one that doesn’t feel like we’re stumbling over the same territory again.

Working in journalism for many years taught me how to develop story ideas and techniques, from drawing on my own resources to pestering colleagues, readers and community members. We all need help from time to time to overcome writer’s block, or really, creator’s block.

We have these options to try the next time we’re stymied by the next blog post, the next video, the next email blast …

1. Say “Yes” to a strange idea. Every team has someone who looks at the world in an oddball way. (Or, at least, every team should have someone who does.) I always had a reporter who would offer up the most peculiar pitches for stories, photo essays, interview subjects and angles.

My first instinct was to shoot those ideas down. Fortunately, I decided to run with some of them. And more often than not, they paid off with a good story, good photos and positive reader response.

We can’t let our habits dictate a sameness in storytelling. While consistency can be helpful in digital storytelling, we can shake things up by letting new ideas seep in from people both on the team and outside the team.

2. Look to moments of failure.

Homer: “I wonder why stories of degradation and humiliation make you more popular.”

Moe: “I dunno. They just do.”

— “Dancin’ Homer” from “The Simpsons,” 1990

Our companies aren’t perfect. Neither are our people, our products and our marketing. Admitting our mistakes and owning them can make for the most compelling stories. I’ve told a couple of stories of embarrassment and shortcomings onstage, and they forged a connection with the audience that no tale of triumph could.

Everyone fails. In my experience, I have found the companies too ashamed to tell those kinds of stories were losing out on winning the audience’s trust and affection.

3. Search the data. We have many numbers at our fingertips: site traffic, blog metrics, social media analytics, email open/click rates. They tell us what people read and share.

We can tell better stories by examining what topics and blog posts earn the most eyeballs and comments. We take the most popular topics and develop more ideas and content that will help our fans learn and grow.

This happens only if we know how to access and analyze the statistics. It’s too important to ignore: This is how our customers tell us what means the most to them.

4. Go for a walk. Being trapped in the office can dampen creativity. Going for a stroll can revive it.

The idea is to escape the usual environment, to get the blood moving and to let the mind shift gears.

I walk several times a week, but with an audiobook or podcast playing in my earbuds. That’s a mistake, because I want my mind to wander. I also take the same path each time. That’s another mistake, because changing routes can stimulate the senses and bring random creative thoughts.

(A long drive can also trigger deeper thinking. Which again means no radio, no audiobook, no distraction.)

I even found inspiration walking desk to desk, department to department, quizzing coworkers about what they do and what they’re working on at the moment.

5. Read a lot. I read plenty of nonfiction, but I need more fiction in my diet, along with more poetry. I listen to articles and audiobooks all the time. I study different points of view and contrary opinions, because I want to have as stimulating a reading list as possible.

Reading, not binge-watching. Reading, not Facebooking or Snapchatting. Reading, not playing games.

The reading habit brings our brains back online, allowing them to process new information and ideas, to make connections among disparate things. Reading builds our empathy and enhances creativity, both vital in crafting great stories for our audience.

6. Experiment with format. To stave off boredom, I’ve written in many formats over the years. These include poems, satirical works, Q&A, fiction, songs, GIF essays, lists, topics broken down by the numbers, multi-part series, scripts, in medias res beginnings, emulations of other writers, timelines and outlines.

We do this, not to indulge the writer’s ego, but to stretch our creative muscles. (I’ve done it with my talks, too, varying length, format, tone, slides and more.)

Sometimes, we’re stuck in the process, but not for lack of ideas. We find we can’t express ourselves adequately in our usual way. Changing to an unfamiliar style or format may be the only push needed to share our best stories. Shakespeare wrote sonnets and plays, comedies and dramas and tragedies and historical epics. He played with language. He grounded tales in rigid realism and others in magical realms.

Let Shakespeare inspire us to tell our stories in as many ways as possible.

7. Visit the archives. On my consulting blog, I compile an annual wrapup list with all posts grouped by subject. I’m always a little impressed by the many topics I cover over 52 weeks.

We should revisit our blog posts and email newsletters from a year ago. Or 3 years ago. We should extend the usefulness of these older stories with updates, continuations and other storytellers.

Certainly Hollywood has latched onto this mining of every creative property for all their worth. Comic book superheroes, rebooted TV shows, Broadway adaptations … we’re drowning in entertainment options that all have a familiar ring.

Why aren’t we franchising our best stories for new audiences, the ones who recently discovered our brand, our blog and our newsletter?

8. Focus on why. We can dilute the power of our stories, even if we have a strong what (narrative) and how (format). That’s because we forget the why.

Why are we telling this story? Why should the reader care?

If we can answer both questions honestly and precisely, we can be more confident in our storytelling.

Trying new approaches and new ideas can intimidate us, so we must embrace our confidence. We must make bold choices to surprise and delight our audience and our fans.

And with the right inspiration, we’ll find our storytelling comes with less work and more flow.

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Where do you find inspiration for your stories? Share your ideas in the comments below.

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About Wade Kwon

Wade Kwon is conference director for Y'all Connect. See his full bio.

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