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My professional life has been about writing small. Between 2005 and 2013, I made a living writing and editing news summaries for publications like Congressional Quarterly, Slate and SmartBrief. It is intense, demanding work. You have to absorb vast amounts of information, distill it into two or three sentences in a matter of minutes, and do it over and over without ever adding or distorting anything.
I must have missed that rush, because four years after I left to begin a career in content marketing, I started a microfiction account on Twitter. Every day I write three self-contained stories in less than 280 characters apiece. They can be funny or sad, tranquil or terrifying, but they have to accomplish that goal quickly and get out. Whenever I figure out how to get 600 characters worth of story into a 280 character package, I feel like I’ve jumped the Grand Canyon on a unicycle.
Since July of 2017, I’ve written over 4,700 of these stories. I’ve never missed a day. I’ve gone viral several times, built one of the largest Twitter fiction communities on the platform, and even put out a book of some of the best stories. More importantly, the account gave my life a focal point that wasn’t about my family or my job — a thing I desperately needed even before the pandemic shrunk my world down to my home office.
But nothing we do happens in isolation. My hobby ended up making me better at my day job, often by reminding me of the lessons I learned working at places like SmartBrief. Storytelling is the heart of all good marketing, so if you’re struggling to connect with your audience, maybe you need to strip your story down to its core.
Here are four lessons you can take away from my parallel career in microfiction.
Ask what your story is really about
Writing short isn’t about knowing the fastest way to say something. It’s about only saying what you need to say.
In marketing, you’re lucky if you get a person to remember one thing. But many campaigns flounder by trying to communicate too much at once. I’ve tried a few times to write stories about people with magical powers being frustrated by the limits of their abilities. Those stories never worked because their conflicts were too big for the space.
I turned that around by writing about someone who became happier by accepting that they couldn’t do everything by themselves, which is what I’d wanted to show all along. If you take away everything that a story doesn’t need, what remains can reach incredible velocity.
Remember that feelings beat features
Darth Vader telling Luke Skywalker the truth about his parentage is one of the most-referenced plot points of all time. And people constantly misquote it. That’s because people are bad at remembering logistics and great at remembering feelings. What people remember about that story is the feeling of realizing the relationship between the two speakers.
I started with that emotional goal and built the story backward from there. Great marketers often do the same thing. When your goal is to invoke a feeling rather than rattle off a list of product benefits, it’s easier to tell when your marketing is pulling its weight.
Get your audience to tell half the story
Is your campaign about a product? Is it about a customer case study? Maybe an economic or societal trend? Those are fine formulas, but they all ignore something important. A story only happens in the mind of the person experiencing it. That means your audience brings themselves into your work, whether you ask them to or not.
Sometimes, that can get you in trouble, such as when you fail to notice a cultural bias in your work. But you can also make it work for you by inviting your audience to become your co-creator, letting them build a deeper connection with your story.
My most popular story is about vampires going door-to-door looking for recruits. But the story doesn’t work because of the premise; it works because it implicitly asks the reader what they would do in the same scenario.
People who know a little something about vampire lore are flattered that they’ve spotted a trap, while the rest of the readers get a little shiver when they realize what they could’ve walked into. If you find a way to get your audience to project themselves into your marketing, they’re far more likely to take your message to heart.
Let experimentation set you free
You’d think writing this many stories would give me a sixth sense for which stories will go viral. But that’s not the case. A story idea I love might underperform, and I’ll have to test a couple of different iterations before finding one that works.
Sometimes I’m completely surprised by a hit. But that’s OK! Running a lot of low-cost experiments, failing fast, and doubling down on what works frees you from the burden of having to pretend you’re omniscient.
One benefit of writing short is that you’ll never spend too much time on ideas that don’t work. And there are always more stories to tell.
Jesse Stanchak is a former SmartBrief editor and the author of “The Tyranny of Sand and Other Tiny Stories: The Best of @MicroFlashFic.”