The problem with context in storytelling (and life)

Estimated read time: 4 minutes

Content is king, relevance is queen and distribution runs the day-to-day. And context writes the paychecks. Or something like that. Enough #buzzwords.

But really, context is important and is typically what makes our content marketing stories relevant. I’ve remembered this discussion in traditional and content marketing newsrooms over and over:

“What’s the context? Why should people care?”

Those are exactly the questions storytellers and content marketers should ask to make things as audience-centric as possible. They are certainly better than questions like this:

“What’s our message? Which 49 people need to approve this before we can publish it.” (These are just slowing down the content creation process and typically water down things too much anyway.)

Context in stories can be created by:

  • Adding a bigger picture view to a personal story.

  • Adding stats and trends.
  • Explaining what people can do to avoid negative situations or create positive experiences for themselves.
  • Anything really that explains why something specific is important to our readers.

But sometimes context needs its own context. Two examples:

  • Social media publication times
  • Things people say

Related reading:
Being authentic is part of the age of context

Context is more helpful than just saying “do this”

Content marketing terms explained

Context and social media publication times

I read studies all the time that tell me when the best time is to tweet, Facebook or Instagram. I appreciate the effort the analysts have put into these studies but they usually miss context. While this one specific time might be the best time to post, there are plenty of other times that are also good, plus tweeting once a week isn’t effective at all. Even if it’s a rock star tweet.

I saw a study that said the people are most engaged on Instagram overnight, but brands are publishing during the day – likely because that’s when people work. No doubt! So the recommendation was to now publish later. But people are engaging with those posts even though they were published hours ago. Why do we need to change at all. And: Did that even add valuable context?

Website traffic is similar. Analysts share at what times visitors are most engaged and conclude that those are the times we should be publishing things. My blog usually sees most traffic around 10 a.m. CDT and the day varies. But I hardly ever publish at that time.

All these things are true but they don’t always matter. People will still read the content even if it was published earlier.

Context and things people say and do

Every once in a while people will say things like this to others: “You said this.” That statement is then applied to a different situation. Dare I say it’s now out of context? And while many of those statements are technically true, contextually speaking they aren’t quite right. (I wouldn’t call them lies, however, unless it’s done intentional.)

coffee and bloggingHere’s a harmless example: People have said to me: “Oh, you don’t drink coffee.”  But I’m drinking a cup of coffee while filing this blog post even. Why? Because I ran out of tea and there were clean coffee cups. #dadlife So, it all depends and depends on the context of the situation. They were right to the degree that I drink a lot less coffee than let’s say 10 years ago.

How do we help people with context?

The No. 1 trick to help keep context accurate is to listen to our audiences. Did they receive the message correctly? If not, adjust it quickly. Elaborate. Explain. Use better words – ones they understand.

The No. 2 trick is to not be defensive about it. It’s not about being right or wrong. It’s about applying the correct context to the situation. Let’s take the coffee example. I could say: “Oh wow. Why would you ever think that. I’ve been drinking coffee forever.” But that’s not necessary. I can just say: “I can see why you’d think that. I drink a lot less coffee than I used to, but I still drink it here and there.”

Let’s make context work for us and remember that when the wrong context is applied to a situation we might be experiencing the wrong story. Just work on figuring it out, explain and find the correct context again.

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