In 2014, an eccentric tipster named John B. McLemore contacted a public radio reporter and implored him to investigate a murder, which he claimed was being covered up by local police. The reporter, Brian Reed, finally agreed to look into the alleged crime in a small town in rural Alabama, and soon found the tip to be bogus (the victim was alive and well). Reed could’ve just left it there and gone back to New York. But he didn’t.
Instead, the makers of Serial and This American Life decided to pivot from the unsolved murders/true crime format of their latest spinoff, and devote an entire season of the radio show, S-Town, to McLemore himself. It’s a deep dive into the life of a brilliant and anxiety-ridden clockmaker who cares for his dementia-plagued mother, and more than a dozen dogs on a sprawling farm in the middle of the woods.
The result? A seven-episode podcast that makes the most compelling case for long form narrative journalism that we’ve seen in years.
Brand journalism can learn a valuable lesson from S-Town: sometimes, zooming in and going deep into one topic, with a human lens, packs the hardest punch. Of course, the idea that good, strategic storytelling is the key to crafting a brand’s identity and solidifying its message is not new. But often, companies forego the stories that are rich and deep in favor of broad, sweeping, “catch all” pieces that touch upon multiple industries, regions and trends, with little detail or lasting impact. Casting too wide a net with every piece, rather than doing a deep dive on one subject, weakens both the story and the message.
Here are three things to remember when crafting a brand’s narrative:
1. Stop looking at the big picture.
If you stare at the New York City skyline, you’ll see a bunch of gleaming buildings of all shapes and sizes, towering over the river. You’ve probably seen that same view a thousand times. But what if you were to put a quarter in an old city viewfinder, and zoom in? You might catch an extraordinary detail, like an intricate design in a stained glass window pane, or an office worker eating lunch alone in a cubicle. If you watch a while longer, you’ll likely have a better sense of life in a particular area or building, than you would if you hadn’t bothered to take a closer look.
It’s simple – you actually learn more about the big picture when you zoom in.
In the case of S-Town, by focusing on McLemore’s life and putting a human face on meth use, poverty and bigotry, listeners ultimately come away with a deeper understanding of life in Woodstock, Alabama.
Regardless of the audience, a good story is a good story, and focusing on one subject will have more of a lasting impact. If you try to talk about everything, you end up talking about nothing.
2. Don’t be afraid to go long.
We live in a fast-paced world, where most people are consuming content in many different forms on their smartphones. But that doesn’t mean they’re not reading. A Pew study found cellphone users spend more time on average with longer articles. The study found high levels of engagement among readers of longer news stories, with users spending an average of 123 seconds scrolling, clicking and reading stories that were 1,000 words or more, compared with 57 seconds for stories under 1,000 words. But perhaps most interesting is that the study found that despite the fact that the vast majority of articles today are short, people still choose to “spend their time in more immersive stories,” according to an article in The Atlantic. At a time when we’re inundated with fake news and clickbait headlines that disappointingly, lead to a few paragraphs of fluff, people are craving something deeper.
The entertainment world is no different. Take Wonder Woman, a triumphant, female-led, and female-directed Hollywood blockbuster that continues to break records around the world. It’s also a rare big-budget film that tells a compelling story that almost wasn’t told. Director Patty Jenkins had to fight for a character-building battle scene in the middle of the film’s second act, undoubtedly because studio executives thought it was too long for today’s viewers. A writer at Vox points out that the disappearing second act is one of Hollywood’s biggest problems: blockbusters skip from a setup to climax and abandon the middle section. If there’s no time for character development, the story falls apart. Jenkins got her way, and the storyline is stronger as a result. We root for the protagonist because we understand the obstacles she faced.
Storytelling is an art. Brands that don’t bother to build a narrative by telling engaging and immersive stories leave us with lightweight content that is fleeting and easily forgotten.
3. Empathy is the end goal.
Why do we tell stories? To entertain, inform and ultimately, to better understand each other. If I tell you a story about myself, it’s because I want you to know me better. It’s the same for brands – how do they make a lasting impression on consumers, and win their loyalty and trust? By tackling big issues in creative ways and telling real stories through a human lens.
S-Town takes us on an emotional roller coaster with McLemore, who is at once hilarious, shockingly smart, and devastatingly sad. As his story unfolds, a sensitive, albeit, complex, portrait of an often-stereotyped place in the rural south, emerges. The readers have learned something, and they’ll remember it.
When he’s accused of bordering on the voyeuristic, the reporter, Reed, defends S-Town this way: “Trying to understand another person is a worthwhile thing to do.”
In the end, S-Town is a lesson in empathy at a time when the world is in turmoil. People are complicated. But the more we peel back the layers, the closer we come to understanding each other, and ultimately, understanding ourselves.