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What professional bullshit barometers can teach us about a good narrative

Jess Ogilvie
Written By
Jess Ogilvie
What professional bullshit barometers can teach us about a good narrative
Artwork by Sophie Standing, Animation by Louise Pau

Politicians rely on them. PR people live for them. Journalists see through weak ones a mile away.

It’s your narrative. Good ones build brands and bad ones can break them. But they can be tricky nuts to crack, especially if you’re in the unenviable position of crafting one via committee.

Since we all cottoned onto the concept of content marketing, there’s a deluge of frameworks about what a story is and why you need to tell one. But I’m not here to boil the ocean. I’m here to shine a little light on our friends in the press, because I think we can learn a thing or three from them. Journalists call a spade a spade, they ask good questions and they’re excellent bullshit barometers. 

Crack the headline

I've been privy to my share of convoluted press releases - the ones that mean well, but are built with too many cooks in the kitchen. So much so, the end result makes you question what it is you’re actually announcing. The release heads out and (all going to plan) appears in the news in the form of a story and, in my experience, creates a mini epiphany of sorts. Those clever journalists unpick the frankenstein release and translate the jargon into simple language you understand without reading it twice.

Thinking about news headlines is part of Amazon’s product development process. Teams must think of the news headline as the first step in their process, along with supporting visuals. (Side note from the book of No Shit Sherlock: The better the visuals, the more powerful your story). You have to articulate the problem you are solving in the most succinct way. And when you look at it with that lens, you become the Marie Kondo of words. You’re forced to get to the point quickly, leaving the meaningful ones to introduce your story.

Take a step back

Beyond the headline, what makes news stories a good reference point for brand communicators is that journalists need to assume the reader doesn’t have any background. They’re that person on your Zoom call who annoyingly asks everyone to just ‘take a step back.’ The process of stepping back means you set the scene quickly, in simple terms, and then move onto the fundamentals - who, what, when, where, why and how. 

For your narrative to be meaningful, you need to start before where you think the start is.

What is the broader context your audience needs to know about in order to understand the problem you are solving and why should they care? Don’t assume they already know this.

Draw to a close 

All narratives have some sort of beginning, middle and end. A good story has a hero, some trouble and a resolution. A good news story does the same - the journalist wraps up the different pieces, sometimes with a quote, or an indication of possible endings. 

The lesson here is to make sure you end your pitch deck, your ad, your thought leadership piece - whatever it is - with a bang not a fizz. You caught your audience’s attention, now tell them where to go next and ideally, help them do the action you want them to take, I.e. Fund your business idea, buy your product, support your campaign.  

Narratives can be tricky. Whether you’re staring at a blank page or version 16 of your draft, embrace your inner journalist. Start with the end in mind - what problem are you solving, and for who? Take time to explain the broad context of your story and end by guiding your audience to a conclusion, or the next step.