My story does not have a traditional start.
I studied art history, transferred into anthropology (mostly cultural—studying living people), and earned a graduate degree in English.
Personal life impacted the professional, and the traditional academic track didn’t happen.
I built a business based on experience that values narrative.
In art, narrative fills in the context and gives a piece its value. In anthropology, narrative translates and refines difficult to understand qualitative research. In a literature grad program, narrative is what engages and communicates. In business, it doesn’t always matter what you do, how you do it, or why you do it. What often matters more is your ability to tell the story in a clear and compelling way.
So, as you read this, and you’re trying to figure out what to include in this month/week/quarter’s newsletter, use these methods to weave narrative into your newsletter.
Participant Observation to Know Your Audience
At the heart of every narrative is knowing your audience. But, how do you write to a client if you don’t know enough about them? So, before writing your next newsletter, get out of your office and get to know people like your ideal client.
- Visit restaurants or coffee shops your ideal client frequents
- Try out an activity your ideal client enjoys
- Read books or articles they read
- Watch a movie or tv show they binge
If you’re out actively observing people, engage, but don’t be the center of attention, be honest about why you’re trying a place or activity if someone asks, and, if it doesn’t make people uncomfortable, take notes about what people are saying, doing, enjoying, and disliking.
If it’s hard to take notes (say your ideal client likes rock climbing), jot down observations as soon as you get to your car. For exercises that engage with content, write down what sticks out to you and do online research to see what people like your ideal client are saying about it. Once you’ve collected your data, you know your audience and have content leads.
Use Context to Create Meaning
If you’re not a contemporary art lover, you might not understand why Former President Barack Obama chose Kehinde Wiley to painting his official portraitor why Michelle Obama chose Amy Sherald to paint her official portrait. You might not even appreciate the styles. But quick research tells you the why, and makes these portraits meaningful. The same is true for newsletter content.
Which of these is more memorable in a recommended products section:
- Treat yourself to these comfy and cute spring pajamas.
- These super comfy sleep shorts with sunglasses print remind me that summer is around the corner, and my week-long family vacation (this is my first one since starting my business, wowza!) will be here before I know it!
I’m betting you said number two.
Instead of just describing and recommending (like one), number two uses a narrative to frame the recommendation.
You get a description to set the stage, a why it matters: they’re a reminder of good things during a busy and tough season.
You also get what the writer is looking forward to: a family vacation, and an extra narrative detail that it’s the first vacation since starting a thriving business. In this one sentence, you’ve not only recommended a product, you’ve used personal context to create a compelling why, update the client on future plans, and connected over something easily shared—looking forward to rest.
Give Your Content a Story Arc
What draws us to books, tv shows, and movies we watch is narrative arc. A narrative has a beginning, middle, and end. It builds excitement and/or suspense. It has a goal of where to leave the reader or viewer emotionally. Your newsletter can do this too.
- Bookend your newsletter. This common writing technique involves using some kind of narrative introduction—a personal story, a compelling quotation, a hilarious meme—and coming back to at the end. You should spend just as much time crafting your closing as you did your introduction.
- Use mini narrative arcs in product recommendations. The second example in the context section does this well. You have a beginning: introducing the product, a middle: pajamas as a reminder of upcoming rest, and an end: the anticipated vacation will be there before you know it.
- Choose to make your audience the hero in your story. Donald Miller over at StoryBrand deep dives this concept. The bottom line is, we all want to be a hero. So, use your newsletter’s arc to empower your audience to solve their own problems.
Narrative is the most compelling when it is authentic and personal. Use your (or your client’s) life experience to inform your content, write in the clearest version of the author’s voice, and use narrative to create an easy roadmap for your newsletter subscriber.