The Words You Choose Shape the Story You Tell

By Donald Dunnington

A Word about Words and Design Thinking
“I don’t read, I fit copy,” said a certain group of graphic designers in the Acid Age of psychedelic design. You hear similar comments today from marketers and content creators who think their streams of images have replaced the need for words.

But back when fashion designers thought bell-bottoms cool, the best graphic designers read the copy and created designs that sang in harmony with words. While some fashionable types say bell bottoms are returning and the written word has died, other videographers and photographers embrace the written word. Some of the best writers in a Rowan graduate class I teach on blogging, social media and PR have studied photography and TV/ video production.

Words Complete the Picture
This is the secret great visual artists know: you can’t tell a complete story without words. Whether you’re delivering a talk, producing a video, or publishing an article, strong, clear words provide essential context to your images.

Images have to fit the words. Every magazine and newspaper editor knows—as do ad designers and Marcom managers worth the big bucks— these visual rules:

  • Choose images relevant to the story you’re telling
  • Words have to deliver on the promises made in your images
  • Like images, words must paint a picture in the reader’s mind
  • A picture may be worth a thousand words, but if your words don’t complete the picture, you’re leaving it up to readers to imagine their own story

Content Marketing and a Mind for Stories
What is it that’s made “Content Marketing” and its offspring, “Storytelling,” our go-to marketing buzz words? Why is it so important for marketers to create content that attracts viewers and wins top page rank in search engines?

Because it works. Every company, every organization of every size now feels compelled to tell their stories on websites, blogs, YouTube, podcasts, and social media. In an age where attention is the most limited resource, we’re all using stories in hopes of gaining the attention of a deeply distracted audience.

Stories work because the mind is a pattern recognizing machine. Stories reinforce the patterns we know and lead us to discover new patterns. Pattern recognition is mankind’s key to survival: it helped early peoples recognize danger, find food, water and shelter. Today stories help us navigate the complexities of modern life.

  • The mind uses stories to create memories
  • Stories provide a path to deeper learning
  • Stories trigger emotions

As a story teller, you want to aim at triggering curiosity, trust, hope, charity, love, and feelings of belonging. Others don’t hesitate to evoke negative and dangerous emotions. Stories prompting fear, envy, and anger are especially damaging. In its April 19, 2021 newsletter, Search Engine Land noted:

“In a bid to emulate the negative tone of news coverage in 2020, marketers appeared to deviate from the standard practice of staying positive and upbeat in their messaging. The result? Increased use of negative language in marketing campaigns across industries killed conversions, according to data from Unbounce’s Conversion Benchmark Report.”

While those who trade on negative feelings may find easy wins, they are destined to fail in the long game of trust. You can view the Unbounce report here. The Search Engine Land newsletter can be found here.

Thought Leadership and the ROI for Your Reader’s Attention
There’s an important ROI most businesses fail to consider: the value you give those who pay attention to your content. Either you pay closer attention to those who give attention to your content, or forever lose them and their clicks.

“In the end, all we are is our attention, there is nothing else.”

Marc Hamer, “Seed to Dust: Life, Nature and a Country Garden”

In a world where attention is scarce and engaging content is king, the most envied position for an organization is thought leader. But if your goal is to become a thought leader in your industry, you need to become just as conscientious about delivering valuable content, as you are about delivering valuable services and products.

No creator works alone. If you want your organization to be thought of as a thought leader, at some point you need thoughtful helpers. Even if you’re a naturally talented writer, you need support. You need people who can help research and craft blogs, magazine articles, talks, and by all means—if you have the patience and resources—write a book. Here’s why.

Reader Time vs. Writer Inputs
Steven Kotler offers an interesting analysis of reader ROI in his book, “The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer.” He provides this novel measure of value: how much research, interviewing, knowledge, analysis and writing the writer puts into creating the end product versus how much time the reader/viewer/listener spends absorbing the information.

By Kohler’s estimate for his own work, the time it takes to create a written piece, versus the time to read it, breaks down like this:

  • Blog article: Creation 3 days—Reading 3 minutes
  • Magazine article: Creation 4 months—Reading 20 minutes
  • Book: Creation up to 15 years—Reading 5 hours

The ROI in Content Density
So why not just read free blogs rather than buy books? “Condensed knowledge,” Kotler says. “If you go on a blog bender and spend five hours reading my blogs, at three and a half minutes per blog, you’ll manage to slog through about eighty-six of them—thus you’re trading those five hours for 257 days’ worth of my effort.”

But those who spent the same five hours reading his book would have gained insights and knowledge created over 5,475 days. His recommendation: If you want to think and write like a thought leader, read more books.

Words, Facts, and Content Density in Talks
Kotler gives speeches every month. He says you can spend an hour listening to him speak, and you’ll get the information you’d find in two of his blogs, plus 20 pages each from two of his books. He calculates you get a total of 70 pages of his best work for an hour of your time. But the content density just doesn’t compare to what you’d get reading the written words.

He calculates that in the time allotted to give a typical speech, he can provide just one or two facts from each of those pages he pulls from his writing. But the book reader gets four to eight facts per page—up to eight times the density you get in a speech (or a documentary or other video presentation). “While talks and documentaries are great for igniting curiosity, neither approaches the information density of books.”

Kotler says, “Books are the most radically condensed form of knowledge on the planet.” He estimates that for every hour you spend with one of his books you get “about three years of my life. You just can’t beat numbers like that.”

More Benefits for Book Readers
Kotler cites studies that show reading books:

  • Improves long-term concentration
  • Reduces stress
  • Prevents or slows cognitive decline
  • Increases empathy
  • Improves sleep
  • Increases intelligence

“If you combine these benefits,” he says,“with the information density books provide, we start to see why everyone from tech titans like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, and Elon Musk to cultural icons like Oprah Winfrey, Mark Cuban, and Warren Buffett credit their success to their incredible passion for books.”

Your ROI from Reading this Blog
Reading and research for this article took two hours. Writing the initial draft, rewriting the second draft, editing, adding new content and further reorganizing in a third draft, and then a fourth edit to “tighten up” (cut 1,000 words): 12 hours over the course of four days. With a bit more time for final proofing and revisions, we’re at 15 hours (900 minutes) for this 1,500-word article.

At an average speed of 250 words per minute, it took you six minutes to read this blog. So the six minutes you invested gave you access to a work that the author invested 900 minutes to create, an ROI for readers of 150%.

Marketing and Content Creation are Long Games of Attraction
Beyond time, was there tangible value in our exchange? The fact that you’ve read this far suggests you enjoyed some reading pleasure and perhaps edification. For the creator, I’ve learned to value the writing for itself. It’s like teaching: the teacher learns more than the student; the giver gains more than the receiver. You reading all the way to the end is the bonus—the gift of an engaged reader.

You reading proves the purpose of creative stories. It’s a demonstration of the powers of attraction and attention. Thank you for your attention. Now go pay attention to your own readers, viewers, and listeners with stories—with words—they’ll value and remember.