William Faulkner once said writers could improve their skills by studying other writers (and a bit of osmosis): “Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it is good, you’ll find out.”
In a recent discussion in CMI’s LinkedIn group, Tamilore Sonaike offered what she thoughtwas an unpopular opinion – that content marketers should read more fiction. Many group members chimed in to support her take.
Why is reading fiction so important for marketers? Well, when you think about it, a lot of marketing relies on writing. “All marketing is content,” as the adage goes (blog posts, email nurture campaigns, landing pages, ad copy, and even video scripts).
Like novelists, marketers have a lot to gain from exposure to a range of literature: “Marketing is all about empathy and storytelling, and great stories are proven to make us more empathetic and creative,” Joe Lazauskas wrote in a blog for Contently.
But different kinds of literature offer different benefits – and some genres are more effective than others in helping you develop specific skills.
Here’s what to add to your reading list to improve your marketing chops.
Fiction has the power to transport. You inhabit characters’ minds, experiencing firsthand their joys and sorrows. As avid readers know, it’s a deeply empathetic exercise.
Exercise is a good word for the experience. Like training a muscle, reading literary fiction has been shown to improve one’s theory of mind – “the human capacity to comprehend that other people hold beliefs and desires and that these may differ from one’s own beliefs and desires.” Put simply, theory of mind is the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.
For marketers, the ability to imaginatively empathize with customers is a huge creative and competitive advantage. Yet as marketing has become more data-driven, marketers have grown more distant from their customers as human beings.
That’s why some researchers argue that redeveloping a sense of empathy is more critical than ever to marketing success. Reading fiction, it seems, could be a way to break old habits and unlock more effective, empathetic marketing.
A 2018 Journal of Consumer Research study found that when designers were prompted to envision how end users would feel, their work was more creative and innovative, while still practical.
Even though the study focused on product design, it has direct implications for marketers, according to co-author Kelly Herd. “[I]t could even help more for people who are experts and tend to be very fixated in their own thinking,” she wrote.
The type of fiction matters, according to the research. Reading literary fiction is more effective at building empathy than reading popular fiction. Folks who read excerpts from PEN or National Book Award-winning novels performed better on theory-of-mind tasks than those who read excerpts from Amazon bestsellers. (Nonfiction did not seem to make much difference.)
Check out these recent award-winning literary fiction lists for your next empathy-boosting read:
The best content marketing writing is clear and evocative. “Good writing has an aliveness that keeps the reader reading from one paragraph to the next,” writes William Zinsser in On Writing Well, the classic guide to writing nonfiction. “It’s a question of using the English language in a way that will achieve the greatest clarity and strength,” he says.
Yet so much content marketing writing is the opposite of clear and strong. It’s riddled with jargon and tired clichés. When readers encounter content that sounds like all the other marketing writing they have read, their eyes glaze over. So much for surprising and delighting your customers.
Mastering the English language is essential for crafting copy and content that captures your reader’s attention. And there’s no better teacher of linguistic mastery than poetry. Just ask messaging guru Jeffrey Pease, who credits his success working with Fortune 100 brands to the poetic power of songwriting.
As he shares on the Fenwick blog: “Spending almost two years writing songs … honed a feel for brevity and clarity and the lightning that can occur when you take wild creativity and channel it into a sharp structure,” he said. “It became the core of what I brought to my role – a messaging structure and a bit of poetry to inhabit it.”
From poetry, marketers can learn to use language more deliberately, engaging their readers with clear, concise, and interesting word choices.
The Poetry Foundation publishes, archives, and celebrates the best poetry in the English language. Its editors curate new featured poems every day.
Certain stories resonate across centuries. Just look at the sheer volume of movies retelling Shakespearean plays and other classics. (Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice alone has over 15 cinematic, including a Bollywood version packed with dance numbers.) Many other films do not directly adapt classic literature but adopt familiar frameworks, such as the hero’s journey.
These tales persist because they’re emotionally satisfying – they build tension and release it, though not always in the ways readers expect. The ancient Greeks understood this well.
In Poetics, Aristotle defines “tragedy” (what we might just call “drama”) as “an imitation of an action that is serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude … through pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions.” We get our word for emotional release – catharsis – from the Greek word for “purgation” or “purification.” An engaging story heightens the readers’ anxiety, then resolves it.
By reading classic texts, content marketers can learn important lessons in storytelling structure. Whether you’re writing a blog post, customer story, or video script, create tension, suspense, or anxiety to pull your audience along on their way to a satisfying resolution.
And this ending needs to be appropriate, not necessarily happy. As scholar Rebecca Williams, “(A) happy ending is more about whether an ending fits with what came before and whether it does that justice or not.”
There are far too many classic literature recommendations than I can list. These are good starting points:
For content marketers, reading has many benefits, including enhancing empathy, elevating written communication, and improving storytelling abilities – all core to telling stories that will engage your audiences.
Both modern and classic literature offer enduring lessons to put into practice. And practice is key: Not all techniques may translate perfectly from the page. But, as Faulkner said, “If it is good, you’ll find out.”
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