If Marketing is Storytelling Then Learn from a NYT #1 Bestseller

Guest: Chris Bohjalian Bestselling novelist, chrisbohjalian.com

Marketers are mini-authors in the sense that they seek to spark emotional connections with audiences through storytelling. Ideally, every element of a marketing campaign needs to feel near and dear to the consumer. As the array of platforms on which marketers can make impressions expands, it’s essential to maintain a voice that is consistent, adaptable, and—above all—genuine. In order to hit these points, we need to understand the anatomy of a good story. [Show notes by Jay Tellini.]

That’s where #1 New York Times bestselling author Chris Bohjalian comes in. Character-driven anecdotes dominate Bohjalian’s work, as his descriptive prowess has made him a master of sentimental narration. The wordsmith’s writing style affirms the tenderness that so many brands try to articulate in their ad campaigns.

In Part I of his conversation with Drew Neisser, Bohjalian shares insights for telling a rich and personal story. The author explains how he manages to draw dedicated crowds both in his books and on his social media channels, offering unique advice from a perspective that’s fresh to many marketers. You can listen to the episode here.

Here are some standout questions and answers from the interview:


Drew: Can you talk a little bit about your writing routine?

Chris: Being precise, being careful, being thoughtful, and being responsible—really trying to understand what you want to say, whether it’s a whole report about Listerine antiseptic or some marketing research on Clorets, the breath deodorant. I was writing between 5 and 7 a.m. in the morning before going to work at Thompson and then Monday and Tuesday nights when I came home from work. When I left advertising once and for all in my early 30s, I continued to start writing at about 5:00 in the morning because that was my habit. And then we had an infant baby girl and it was important to get as much writing in as I could before it was time to help get her up and out the door to daycare and then to preschool and then to elementary school. These days I don’t start at 5:00 in the morning anymore, I probably start at about six but I’m at my desk until at least 11 or 11:30 until noon or 12:30.

Drew: What are your writing goals for the day?

The goal is to write a thousand words a day. I don’t always write a thousand words. But as Jodi Picoult observed, it is a whole lot easier to edit garbage than a blank page. And so it’s important to get something down on paper. Every 50 or so pages I print out what I have and then I edit by hand using a fountain pen because fountain pens are messy and it forces me to think more slowly. To really find that right synonym for “red,” whether it’s burgundy or claret. I always also write with the understanding that the first draft isn’t the final draft. My books will usually go through seven or eight or nine drafts. I never know where my books are going. I depend on my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story. 

Drew: Storytelling has jumped from the domain of novelists like yourself into brand marketing, and social media has leapt from my world into your world of bookselling. Can you tell me about your storytelling techniques?

Chris: Sure. First of all, I think novels are changing and I believe they are changing because we are in the midst of a wonderful renaissance in television drama (The Sopranos, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Handmaid’s Tale). Certainly television drama at its finest impacts the way that I write today. And that gets to my second point; the digital world has changed our attention spans and our expectations. I think it’s utterly fascinating that when we think of Les Miserables, we think it begins with Jean Valjean stealing the candlesticks. That’s how the musical begins. That’s how the movie begins. The reality is that Jean Valjean steals the candlesticks on page 104 of my edition of the novel. The first 103 pages is a lengthy discussion of the goodness of the archbishop. That novel has 60 pages about the sewers of Paris. Thanks to the Sopranos and Breaking Bad and Mad Men, we’ve got a very different craving for narrative drive and storytelling, which is why when my books work, and heaven knows they do not always work, they are in part about dread and they are in part about a narrative drive that must begin from page one. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want characters that are deep and real, because heaven knows that I do. But you want to meet those characters quickly. You want to feel their pain quickly and understand why you’re going to be emotionally invested in that story quickly.

Meet the Guest

Chris Bohjalian is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of 20 books.  His work has been translated into over 30 languages and three times become movies.

His new book, The Flight Attendant, lands March 13, 2018.

His books have been chosen as Best Books of the Year by The Washington Post, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Hartford Courant, The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, Kirkus Reviews, Bookpage, and Salon.

His awards include the ANCA Freedom Award for his work educating Americans about the Armenian Genocide; the ANCA Arts and Letters Award for The Sandcastle Girls, as well as the Saint Mesrob Mashdots Medal; the New England Society Book Award for The Night Strangers; the New England Book Award; Russia’s Soglasie (Concord) Award for The Sandcastle Girls; a Boston Public Library Literary Light; a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award for Trans-Sister Radio; a Best Lifestyle Column for Idyll Banter from the Vermont Press Association; and the Anahid Literary Award.

He is a Fellow of the Vermont Academy of Arts and Sciences.

He has written for a wide variety of magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, The Washington PostCosmopolitan, Reader’s Digest, and The Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. He was a weekly columnist in Vermont for The Burlington Free Press from 1992 through 2015.

You can learn more about Chris on his website.

What You'll Learn

  • Insights into the mind of a master storyteller.
  • Tips for delivering a genuine brand message.
  • Creative writing advice to electrify your social media strategy.
  • How NOT to talk like a salesman.

Quotes from Chris Bohjalian

  • When I'm posting on Instagram or when I'm posting on Facebook it's not about buying my book…[It’s about] the kinds of things that they can't get elsewhere because I'm the only human being who can share.
  • The great thing about the social networks is authors are no longer just photographs on the dust jacket of a book. We're real people.
  • I depend on my characters to take me by the hand and lead me through the dark of the story.
  • You want to meet characters quickly. You want to feel their pain quickly and understand why you're going to be emotionally invested in that story.

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