How to structure your content effectively

January 4, 2016Uncategorized

By Luke Telford, Head of Editorial

We know that storytelling plays an important role in content marketing. We also know that you need to make different content for social media and for search (and you can view our masterclass on the topic here).

But once you’ve found a strong story to tell and a way to position it for different channels, how do you get people to actually read what you write? How do you convince a visitor to your site or a trade show prospect who picks up a white paper to stay with your content long enough to digest and act on its messages?

Structure is the key

Structure is valuable when producing content. It can help you articulate your thoughts and ideas, and make it simpler for readers to process the information you present them.

Each content format has its own elements of discipline and craft. But there is a simple method of structuring information that will help you convey your ideas effectively in any medium, from white papers and blog posts to podcasts, video and infographics.

1. Settle on a defining message

The Pyramid Principle is a well-known and effective way to structure a good idea so it’s easy for others to understand and digest.

The first step is to translate the goal for your piece of content into a single compelling idea, assertion or consideration for the audience. This sets their expectations for the content and also serves as an umbrella concept to guide them through the piece. Every component should serve to support this central idea.

Ideally, this central concept will serve as the headline of your piece. For a good example, take a look atthis KellyOCG paper on changing management practices. Its title presents a progressive and provocative idea in an incisive three words.

2. Create supporting pillars

A good idea rarely communicates everything you need it to in a single headline or sentence. Any effective piece of content needs smaller, more digestible elements to support and strengthen its central concept. As the next step, break your primary idea down into a handful of supporting or component points.

Each of these should offer the reader a different and essential perspective on the central thrust of the paper. Use these as sub-headings to break down and structure the content so its component parts are simple to review and digest.

For longer pieces, such as white papers and annual reports, these sections could also form the basis for a table of contents. This makes it simple for a reader to quickly gauge the basic themes in a piece of content to decide whether they’d like to explore it.

Take as an example this Deloitte white paper about the relationship between technology and education. By establishing the white paper’s key arguments clearly and concisely, the table of contents offers readers a quick outline of the piece’s purpose and in the process builds their trust in its ideas and conclusions.

3. Show the audience what you mean

Once you’ve built a compelling structure under your central idea, it’s time to put some flesh on the bones of your content. Remember – every component of a good piece works to support its central premise. This extends right down to the separate lines – every sentence needs to support the idea you’ve laid out in the respective sub-heading.

This American Life presenter Ira Glass describes a similar process at work in creating a compelling podcast episode. He says an anecdote is one of the most powerful tools because it creates narrative momentum and implies a pay-off in the form of an explanation or moment of reflection.

Written content needs to work in a similar way, with each sentence elaborating on or reinforcing a series of assertions the writer has made. Rather than a moment of reflection, it’s essential to offer the reader evidence to illustrate the relevance of each statement, in the form of research findings or real-world case studies. It’s not enough to offer a series of unsupported assertions – following an argument with proof makes it more authoritative and powerful.

4. Present a course of action

Every effective piece of content marketing should encourage the reader to act, and this is something you can easily account for with structure. Use the final section of the white paper, article or podcast episode to summarise key points and offer a series of steps for the reader to put them into practice.

Consider this recent podcast episode King Content produced for Lenovo. In the episode, presenter Mark Pesce slowly uncovers the story behind the series of cyberattacks that sent hosting provider Distribute.IT out of business. The suspense builds slowly over the course of the episode and the pay-off comes in the form of a simple but compelling step for technology decision-makers to take with their own organisations.

Similarly, this PwC white paper presents readers with three simple directions to help them improve business processes with new technology. In the process, it turns a dry and complex topic into something that seems manageable and simple – it empowers the reader and positions the author as an authority.

Keep it simple

In addition to these basic structural steps, here are a few additional things to help you use structure to make life simpler for your reader, listener or viewer:

– Avoid repetition: If you’ve structured a piece correctly, you should only need to use each idea or statistic once. Repetition only serves to confuse readers.
– Use recent research and insight: Ideally, you’ll have your own independent research to support the paper’s argument. Otherwise, make sure you use references that are recent and relevant to your argument.
– Don’t complicate things: A good structure should leave only just enough word count to cover key points. Your piece of content will need to handle its assertions and ideas simply and concisely, so avoid jargon and complex language.

In short, a good structure helps you make messages easier to articulate and share, so that you can keep prospects reading once you’ve caught their attention.

Have any questions? Ask our strategists here.

One Comment

  • Alison de Lorm says:

    Great article, Luke, that walks the talk – clearly puts into practice the very points you are proposing.