Whatever happened to Cinderella's shoe? Who knows? It didn't go viral. Put another way: Story generation and the way we develop content has changed, and you must change with it.

Once upon a time, every brand and entrepreneur had a story to tell. The story line largely followed the same format. As in an elementary school English assignment, storytellers would introduce readers to the big five: characters, setting, plot, conflict, and resolution. Every story ended the same, too: "And they all lived happily ever after as leaders in the industry."

But frequently, the heart of the story—the meat that would resonate with consumers—was lost in the telling. Awareness might have been the key goal, but relevance and engagement with the target audience were often elusive. We just didn't dive that deep. And we couldn't. We were telling the story through 30-second broadcast spots or—when PR was employed—through earned media with word count restraints and editorial gatekeepers.

Today, the art of storytelling remains critical to any brand strategy, but how you tell the story, and the tools you use, has evolved—and to our benefit. Advertising, earned media, video, e-newsletters, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter, blogging—you name it, you must consider it.

However, just as a surgeon may have hundreds of tools at his disposal but may not take every one into each surgery, these channels are tools to be used strategically, depending on a company's objectives and the message it wants to communicate. A challenge? Of course. But therein also lies the fun.

We can no longer view how we deliver our stories and messages through a single lens. Stories must be translatable across multiple channels and crafted in a way that cuts through the clutter. Creativity is king, and the telling must be compelling, it must evoke feeling, and it must be emotionally satisfying. Your audience—prospects, customers, the media, investors, or others—will be part of the dialogue.

Engage them, make it memorable, and they can be your best brand advocates through every share, like, and tweet.

If you can capture the imagination of the audience, the viral potential that is central to digital channels allows the conversation to be direct—brand to consumer, consumer to brand—and ongoing. The reach can be tremendous.

So, how do you develop the right story, delivered at the right time, to the right audience, through the right channels? The answers: with forethought and careful planning. So, before you take pen to paper, ask yourself the following four questions.

1. Do I have the right people?

The shift in tools requires that, in addition to the writers, your experts in digital have to be in the first meeting. With the need for sharable, translatable messaging, PR should also be front and center. Integration across departments will ensure the story is both compelling and consistent.

2. What do I want this story to be?

A fact-based history is likely to elicit a much different emotional response than a playful employee anecdote would, and the scope of the story will also affect how it should or can be told. A single instance of a customer experience may serve as a reminder of the overarching story, or it may become the keystone in an ongoing campaign. Consider how the story will fit into your current messaging and brand strategy.

3. What is the best way to tell the story?

Brands and communicators have an incredible suite of tools at their fingertips, but it is crucial that the medium fit the message. In the case of complicated content, for example, using video footage or an infographic may help simplify the explanation. Video can more easily demonstrate your product or establish a relationship with a prospect, while infographics can turn complex data into an easy-to-digest narrative that is more engaging and understandable.

4. How does my audience want to interact with this story, and what tools will I use to push this information out into the market?

In addition to the best medium for the message, consider the best medium for your audience. Do they want a quick highlight with a deeper story available? Do they want to offer suggestion and opinions?

For certain audiences, tweeting a quick quip and an accompanying link might work best. For others, an e-newsletter could be the ticket. A combination of advertising to prep the story and Facebook to continue the dialogue might accelerate the conversation, or an inspirational photograph shared on Instagram may best illustrate who and what your company represents.

* * *

The most skilled storytellers have taken time to hone their craft; likewise, as your team sits down to develop a story, it will take patience and careful consideration to find the right words. Whatever you do, be open to all of the possibilities. To repeat: story generation and the way we develop content has changed, and you must change with it.

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How to Tell Your Brand's Story: Four Questions You Must Answer

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image of Beth McKenna
Beth McKenna is vice-president at Cookerly Public Relations. With an extensive background in marketing and particular focus on strategic analysis, planning, and issues management, Beth has experience across multiple industries, from technology and professional services to food & beverage.