How many times have you heard advice on becoming a great storyteller?
And how many times have you wished that advice translated more easily to content marketing?
You’re not alone. I often get questions about how to transform marketing content into great stories.
Earlier this week, I talked with a team of content marketers who feel passionate about creating engaging content marketing for the medical device company where they work.
But they told me that they struggle to create compelling customer stories that include the details their product marketing colleagues request. The product team routinely sends four-slide decks filled with product features and technical specifications they want to see in the content.
The unspoken secondary part of their request: Make it exciting.
I told the content team they need a “pope in the pool.”
Read that sentence again to make sure you didn’t misunderstand – you need a pope in the pool.
The content exposition problem
Storytellers often need to relay specific details to help people understand what’s going on. This exposition (if handled poorly) risks boring the audience and causing them to tune out or skip ahead.
For example, consider what happens when Clark Kent meets his father, Jor-El, in Man of Steel. Jor-El launches into a nearly five-minute speech filled with information Clark doesn’t need at that moment. The writers use the speech to (theoretically) help the audience understand Superman’s background, the history of his home planet, and the motivations of the story’s central villain. It’s all relevant. But the way it’s relayed makes it dull.
Another kind of exposition no-no happens in the movie Big Hero 6. During an argument between two siblings, one yells, “What would mom and dad say?” The other answers, “I don’t know! They died when I was 3, remember?”
Oof. Is the storyteller suggesting that the other character doesn’t remember that their parents died? That’s poor exposition because it asks characters to spout information that other characters already know, causing the audience to question the story.
What it means to put a pope in the pool
In his book on writing, Save the Cat, Blake Snyder describes the “pope in the pool” technique, which takes its name from a scene in a script called The Plot To Kill the Pope. Snyder admired the writer’s choice to have the pope’s staff convey information to him (and the audience) as he swims laps in a pool.
The scene exploits the dissonance between how people expect to see a pope (on a balcony in ceremonial garb) and how the movie shows the pope (in a pool wearing a bathing suit). The audience feels intrigued enough not to mind the stream of facts and background information.
Steven Spielberg uses this technique brilliantly in Jurassic Park, a movie that requires the audience to understand some details of DNA replication. The director could have shown the characters staring at a dinosaur egg while one of the scientists in the park explained how DNA replication occurs. But some of the characters are experts who already understand the concepts. So that kind of scene would have insulted the audience’s and the characters’ intelligence (and probably bored them, too).
Instead, Spielberg pulls a great storyteller move. He shows the expert characters testing one of the rides (built for kids) in which an animated creature explains DNA replication. The experts bicker and fidget with the ride and make fun of the information. The scene sets these characters up as true experts and creates an entertaining and informative experience.
Can you put the pope in B2B content?
I use the pope-in-the-pool technique in my presentations whenever I need to deliver a litany of research results. Wrapping the research findings into entertaining anecdotes or side stories helps the audience absorb the data while the stories keep their interest (I hope).
And I teach my clients to do it, too.
My clients at the medical device company had a compelling story to work with. An ex-army veteran (who is now CIO) developed the company’s portable refrigeration unit.
But the content team struggled to develop a way to insert technical information without taking the reader out of the story.
The typical approach to a customer story would get weighed down by details in exposition like this:
While working in a previous role, Sam Smith, CIO for ABC Company, sought refrigeration devices that could withstand extreme environments. The technical specs he wanted were:
- Ability to withstand temperatures from -4 to 120 Degrees Fahrenheit
- 48-hour temperature duration using only internal batteries (no ice required)
- Safety alarms to indicate deviation in temperature
Our brand ultimately provided Sam with a refrigeration device he could depend on.
Instead, rather than use bullet points and a laundry list of specs, the content team could reveal exposition like this:
During his 11 months as an active medic in California, Sam Smith heard the state’s residents brag that it’s possible to ski at breakfast and surf at lunchtime. He never believed it – until the day he was asked to transport vital organs from a snowy mountaintop to the middle of the Mojave Desert. The temperature outside hovered near zero when he loaded the precious cargo into the refrigerated unit. By the time he arrived at the destination just a few hours later, the outdoor temp had hit 118 degrees. Despite the lack of skis or a surfboard, Sam finally understood the Californians’ claim. But even more impressive than the state’s varied climates? Not one safety alarm on the refrigerator unit sounded during the journey. Despite the dramatic swing in outdoor temperature, the interior temp didn’t shift more than 2.5 degrees.
Make the technique work in your content
The details of the stories you tell will vary. But you can steal the idea of wrapping information in an engaging, contextual element of the story.
Admittedly, it’s easier to throw your pope into the pool when you have an evocative story from the start. The medical device team had the CIO’s anecdote about his time in California. But what if they hadn’t?
That’s where imagination comes in. The next time you need to convey brand or product information, imagine adding something unique. Draw from a character’s history. Create a fun distraction for characters in the story (think Selena Gomez explaining synthesized collateralized debt obligation was using the game of Blackjack as a metaphor in the movie The Big Short).
You may not get to control what information must go into a particular story you’re telling. But you can control the way it goes in. Just remember, information doesn’t make a story memorable. The feeling the story evokes makes information memorable.
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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute