The Power of Personal Narrative

One morning many years ago I was sitting in my low cubicle getting ready to start the day. I was working for a small FinTech startup in San Francisco’s Financial District, and the view from our office on the seventh floor was of the fog rolling by, meandering away before the sun could burn it off. This was my favorite atmosphere to write in.

Just a few minutes after I got settled in, my intern (the amazingly talented Claire Murdough) walked in looking like she had something on her mind. Normally she was pretty cheerful, with the sunny demeanor you’d expect from someone born and raised in California. I rushed through the typical morning small talk so I could ask her what was wrong. Uncomfortably, she blurted out, “I’m bored by our content.”

Okay, I thought. That’s not good. She had joined us just a few months prior and was proving to be one of the greatest writers I ever met. She was also new to the world of personal finance, something I considered a strength. We needed a break from the echo chamber we lived in, and her voice served as a window to the thoughts of our readers and users.

I tapped on the shoulder of the coworker who sat next to me and who ran our blog. He was not a morning person and had his headphones on, but I knew he’d want to hear what she had to say. “Have a minute,” I asked him. When he turned around, I asked Claire to explain herself.

Facing the Truth About What Readers Really Want

This occurred at a time when content was just starting to take off. Blogs were no longer just ways for people to journal to the world; they were playing a key role in customer acquisition for many companies. For me, it was an exciting time to be a writer.

Content strategy perfect aligned with my three intellectual loves: writing, psychology, and strategy. I wanted to shout from the rooftops that there was finally a way for English majors to get paid to write, and to get paid well to write — better than a traditional newsroom, anyhow.

The problem was, this was also a time when it was commonly believed that people wouldn’t want to read a blog post longer than 800 words. That meant getting to the point quickly, especially if you were covering topics as serious as personal finance, which is what we were working on. The short word count could lead to some very dry content, and Claire had taken notice.

She’d also been doing research on her own and presented to us this article from social media tool Buffer. Buffer was already becoming known for its own content, and they decided to experiment with story to see if it might take them to the next level.

For the experiment, the writers at Buffer ran two versions of the same article, one with a standard introduction and the other starting with a story. Starting with a story required writing a longer article and running the risk of losing the reader before they could get to the meat of the content. So, which article won?

The one with the story — by a landslide. The story version of the article had 296 percent more people scrolling all the way to the bottom of the page, and 520 percent more time on the page. People weren’t bouncing when the article told a story before diving in, and they weren’t deterred by the extra length. They were sticking around.

These results were shocking to us, but we couldn’t deny that we were intrigued. So, when Claire asked if we could try to do the same for our blog, we quickly said yes.

Learning to Find an Empathetic Starting Point

Before we could start incorporating story into our content, we had to think about the best way to do so. Although we had plenty to draw from in our own experiences with the topic at hand, we wanted to make sure we were continuing to handle our work with care. People on the other side needed help, after all, and we didn’t take their problems lightly.

So, we thought back to advertising giant David Ogilvy. He was the first person to talk about creating user personas, and he believed in knowing everything about your customer, down to the most minute details such as what kind of jeans they wore and what kind of soda they drank. But we couldn’t create such personas. Our startup made a tool to help people pay off debt, from credit cards to student loans to mortgages and more, and people with debt spanned all ages and backgrounds.

Luckily, we realized there was something our users all had in common: an emotion tied to the debt they were carrying. We knew from talking to our users over phone, email, and social media that their debt made them angry, scared, and frustrated. They even felt stuck in one place, as though they were digging themselves out of a hole. Thanks to our student loans, we felt the same way and had no problem meeting our users where they were emotionally.

In other words, we could use Ogilvy’s method but using empathetic touch points instead. “What keeps our users up at night,” we pondered, “and how can we use content to solve it?”

From then on, with every assignment we were given, we’d dig into empathy. How might someone searching for answers on this particular subject feel? What kind of effect was it having on their lives? Could we think of a time when we felt the same? Once we conjured up the right emotion and a story we experienced to match, we got writing.

Then, we’d weave that narrative throughout the meat of the post, using it to illustrate the financial advice we were explaining and aiming to make it more understandable, more relatable, and, ultimately, more doable.

Realizing the Power in Showing Your Flaws

I’d be lying if I said this method of writing wasn’t scary at times. We were trying to show our readers that we were experts, after all, so we could help them work on their financial problems and show them that our product was credible and trustworthy. But starting with these stories, or personal narratives, meant sometimes sharing our flaws. Wouldn’t they lose faith in us as experts?

Quite the opposite.

Once we got away from doling out strict advice and started to share our personal experiences along with tips to help, our content performance went way up. Traffic to our site increased, engagement on our site increased, and people started talking about us more on social media. Perhaps most surprisingly of all, people started to call our office.

Now, we were an internet startup which means our phone was mostly a tool to call out, not to receive calls in. We performed user interviews, but they were always the result of us reaching out to them. The first time a reader called us, we were shocked.

I answered the phone that day because I was one of the few people in the office not wearing headphones all the time. It was a good thing, too, because the woman on the line was looking for me. She’d just read one of my articles, she said, and she needed help.

“I’m divorced,” she said. “And my son is about to go to college … and I have $20,000 in debt. What should I do?” I told her that I sympathized with her, but I wasn’t a CFP and not legally allowed to give her direct money advice. “But you know what I need to do,” she said. “I read your article. You get me.”

Apparently, in reading one of my articles, my story was so tangible and relatable to her that she saw herself in it, and she saw herself in me. The only difference was, she saw me as the wiser version who would know what to do. I again told her that I wasn’t allowed to give her one-on-one money advice, and I gave her a few resources for finding nonprofit financial counselors.

Calls like hers kept coming. After all the work trying to show our credibility to the world, we received it as soon as we started to show our flaws. People didn’t want preachy experts it turned out — they wanted smart people who looked like them and felt like them to point them in the right direction.

Nothing Connects Us More Than Stories

Working in personal finance means constantly hearing words like “credibility” and “trust” — and for good reason! When you want to help people with their money problems, you damn well better know what you’re talking about. Unfortunately, to some, that means directly telling people they know what they’re talking about.

How well does that ever work in the real world?

If someone feels the need to tell you that they’re honest, you might immediately assume they’re hiding something. If someone lays out their credentials, you might start to wonder what they’re trying to prove. It can sound like protesting too much and have the opposite of the intended effect.

When we stopped acting like we were experts and starting sharing stories along with the facts, people began to connect with us. They trusted us, they felt validated by us, and the advice we gave was easier to swallow because it wasn’t coming down from on high.

Ultimately, this is what I learned after adding personal narrative to our blog posts:

Most of us want to feel validated before we want advice. It’s a relief to find out that we’re not the only ones thinking what we’re thinking or going through what we’re going through. And, until we feel validated, it’s hard to hear advice because we might feel as though other people don’t fully understand our situation. So, we might hear the advice, but it doesn’t hit home.

In the end, stories connect us while advice separates us. Stories say, “I’ve got you — I know what you’re going through and I’m here to say there’s a way out.” Advice says, “I’m smarter than you, and you should listen to what I have to say.” Which would you rather encounter when you’re looking for help?

Stories are everything because connection is everything. If readers aren’t connecting to what we’re writing, then what’s the point? But, if we can find the empathetic core in any topic, then we’ll be able to not just connect with our readers but to fully understand what they need. If we fulfill those needs, they’ll be grateful — and we’ll get to create work we’re proud of.

Photo by Matt Botsford on Unsplash