Tell Me A (Back)Story

My business writing career taught me to write content for a specific audience. With a few fun exceptions, I write user assistance tools that help people integrate software into the workplace. I design information solutions that lie in the intersection of adult learner theory, information mapping processes, and just-in-time learning methodologies, among others. It’s a very structured and specific writing style.

I write answers to questions I anticipate people will ask.

Mixing backstory with your content puts a personal face on your work that people want to hear.

Mixing backstory with your content puts a personal face on your work.

These people, my readers, don’t want to know about the bells and whistles of the software they are using. They don’t care about how the software differentiates itself in the marketplace. And don’t even think about forcing them to wade through a discussion of the myriad of decisions I made to craft their help system or training program. They only want to read the answer to the burning question that keeps them from completing their job right now.

Backstory Defined

Over the last few years, as the blogging world has matured and the social media world erupted, there is a new type of content out there: backstory. Strictly speaking, backstory is not the content, but is the behind-the-scenes look at how the content author did her job. Backstory is not new, but is more visible than ever before.

Previously, backstory was defined as the untold story that explains how a set of characters arrived at the start of a novel, movie, or other storytelling format. For example, George Lucas wrote a backstory for himself that explained his characters before the openning scene of Star Wars (Episode 4: A New Hope) that he later turned into episodes 1, 2, and 3 of that series. In other words, he knew that Luke and Leia were siblings before he started writing the first movie.

In blogs and other social media tools, we start to see how people create their content. Bloggers tell the story about how they find their stories and write their posts. For example, Brian Williams writes in The Daily Nightly about how they put together the NBC Nightly News. Sometimes, the backstory becomes the introduction to the content, other times, it stands separate from the content. Think about the blogs you read, and start sorting the posts into categories of backstory and content. (If you don’t read any blogs, pick a couple from the right column and get started!) You can do the same things with podcasts and other types of communications. For example, we learned the backstory on how Prego created extra chunky spaghetti sauce from Malcolm Gladwell in his TED presentation.

Backstory as Content

In today’s world, the backstory is becoming content. As communications become more informal, and as self-publishing technologies allows anyone with ideas and time to create and distribute content, people are devouring both content and backstory. There is something voyeuristic about hearing the details of how a favorite author got a story idea from a conversation in the doctor’s office waiting room, or how one blogger set out to meet another blogger in a different city and ended up getting lost. Backstory takes content and puts a personal face on it.

As a content creator, you must decide if your audience wants only content or both content and backstory. If you provide both, you must also find the sweet spot to the balance between content and backstory so you don’t dilute your main message and lose your focus. Whatever format you publish within, your audience expects content and not just to hear your autobiography. Tell them enough backstory to bring your content to life and build a personal relationship with them that goes beyond the value of your content. That is how you build customer loyalty and create buzz around your content.

Audience Segmentation

I’m struggling to find a way to share the backstory with my audience. The key I’ve found to solving this challenge involves segmenting my audience. For example, I won’t be mixing backstory topics into my help systems or training programs going out to the software users (one audience segment). However, I can share backstory on my design and development process with my client’s staff who sell and distribute the content I produce (another audience segment). Sometimes, the reasons why I include a topic, or how I created a graphic, or how I decided on a teaching metaphor can help my client’s staff to talk enthusiastically about the help system or training program to their customers and users. For my situation, the backstory audience is a segment of the total content audience that I can reach through a client blog. You may find that audience segmentation helps you to define your backstory strategy as well.

Last word: Identify who wants to hear your backstory and find the balance between your content and your backstory to build better customer relationships.

About author:

Charlene is the information strategist behind Crow Information Design.

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