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Storytelling: The superhero of communications

In the first of three blogs, Craig Melcher, our Digital Content Manager, opens the book on the most enduring and powerful form of digital content.


‘Storytelling’ was once an innocent word, belonging to the bedtime ritual between parents and children or legend-sharing rituals within indigenous cultures. Then around five years ago the marketing world got its mitts on it, turned it into an ‘essential engagement tool’, and it became the topic of every agency blog, brand summit and industry podcast.

But rather than do its run as a marketing trend and fodder for buzzword bingo, storytelling is now flourishing through digital channels. Stories have become the online content people gravitate to, share and talk about – and the volume, quality and variety have mushroomed.

Aside from how successfully the most dominant modern story forms – films and books – perform online, the telling of stories has found other, more innovative forms. Major news websites have helped lead the way, using HTML5 and other web innovations to combine text, video, photography, graphics and audio into rich, interactive stories like the Guardian’s Firestorm, SBS’s The Other 9/11 and Baptism by Fire from the New York Times.

For our ears, on the back of last year’s record success of Serial (and, long before that, its progenitor This American Life), documentary and interview-style podcast series like Radiolab, Outlook, SBS True Stories, Love + Radio, Porchlight and StoryCorps have built huge audiences. Live event podcasts like Risk! and The Moth are getting big download numbers by featuring everything from story slams to people sharing personal tales onstage.

For our eyes, the web’s visual strengths make it a photographer’s playground, and professionals and amateurs alike are publishing potent photo essays, not only on Instagram but also platforms like Exposure.

For lovers of written stories, the movement has led to sites such as Longform, Wattpad, Medium and dozens more, as well as waves of online learning and collaboration options like Figment, LitLift, The Story Emporium and truckloads more.

The arc and the oxytocin

What caused all this? It turns out we humans have a thing for stories. They are how we connect to each other, generate empathy for people we don’t know, and are moved to do something for them. We’re hard-wired to tell and listen to stories.

We can explain why this happens through some basic science and basic story structure. At its most stripped-down*, the arc of a story has three stages:
1. Exposition – when a main character is introduced along with details like setting, time, situation and, importantly, what that character wants.
2. Crisis – when something happens to the character that gets in the way of what they want.
3. Resolution – when the enemy is beaten, the disaster averted, the solution found, or the first kiss finally happens.


* In books and courses by the thousands, the universal dramatic structure has been pursued, dissected, analysed, prescribed and over-complicated. But if you want one good read that truly explains the ‘why’ of humankind’s need for stories, I recommend John Yorke’s Into the Woods.

Now the science bit (your brain on stories). We all have four main ‘happy chemicals’, or hormones that act as neurotransmitters in our brains:
Dopamine – to motivate us. Released when you realise you have a 5pm deadline on the report you thought was due next week.
Seratonin – to make us feel valued. Released when someone compliments you on that stylish belt.
Oxytocin – the all-powerful social bonding chemical. Between mum and baby, it facilitates childbirth and promotes breastfeeding. Between two partners, it triggers feelings from warm and fuzzy to sexual. Between two strangers, it fosters generosity.
Endorphins – the euphoria chemical. Released via all sorts of triggers: through laughter, as response to pain and stress (the athlete’s high), favourite aromas (hello, bacon), and of course chocolate – amongst many others.

So where does the brain science meet the story arc?

1. Exposition: When we’re introduced to a main character, we connect with them to at least a small degree – and our brain releases oxytocin. The more we connect or identify with them – maybe they remind you of someone close, or their situation is one you’ve experienced, or they’re from your town – the more we go on their journey with them, and the more oxytocin we produce.
2. Crisis: As something bad happens to our character, our oxytocin levels increase. And the more we relate to them, the greater the oxytocin surge.
3. Resolution: The moment our character saves the planet and gets the boy, or just finds health and happiness, our oxytocin levels drop and our brain produces endorphins.

That’s why we’re all story junkies. And it’s why civilisations told stories before they could print. They’re the most effective vehicle of communication we have because of their power to move and connect us. Stories are how we entertain, educate and inspire. The yarns we tell in pubs, office kitchens and taxi cabs prove that storytelling is the original form of social media.

‘You’re never going to kill storytelling, because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.’
– Margaret Atwood

And when you combine the enduring power of the story with the nearly unlimited ability of web channels to reach people, build niche audiences and let them spread content, you get the boom in storytelling explained above, times a thousand.

What does this mean for Macmillan?

Consider our organisational ambition: To reach and improve the lives of everyone living with cancer, and inspire millions of others to do the same. So how do we inspire them? What’s the mechanism that moves them to seek help and information when they’re affected by cancer, or to give us their money, time and other support? Chances are, it will be someone’s story that plays a key role, motivating them to action.

We’re in an enviable position in that we represent the human side of cancer. (As sometimes said, we are the care, not the cure.) The stories of the people we help and the people who help us are the most vivid, compelling and authentic ways we can communicate to our audiences. A principle of our brand is ‘For and by real people’, meaning we allow them to tell their stories and, in doing so, we’re able to express what we do, the need for our services and the impact we can make.


Across our website, we use stories to give weight to a message and lend personal voices to information. On our story hub you’ll find a wide range of stories covering various challenges people have faced along their cancer journeys. Many of these were produced as part of Macmillan’s ongoing Not Alone brand campaign. We’re always adding more stories and finding more places to use them, working with content-producing teams to plan the most effective story content.

A story for another day

In our next instalment on storytelling, we’ll take a closer look at how Macmillan and other charities are telling personal stories and building broader narratives, and the techniques, content and measurement needed to do it well.

Further reading

The Science of Generosity (Paul Zak), Psychology Today

The Three-Act Structure, The Elements of Cinema

This post makes for some easy reading

This month’s blog post is a collaborative effort from our digital interns Sam Russell and Donald Lam, who explore readability and its place at Macmillan.

In the past few years, readability has become an important feature of digital content. We spoke to Abigail Howse, our Quality and Improvement Officer, who looks after readability at Macmillan. She helped us come up with some useful information on the subject.

Why is readability so important?

Readability is the ease with which a written text can be understood by a reader. It is especially important to Macmillan because we are one of the biggest providers of cancer information in the UK.

Interestingly, the average reading age in the UK is not quite as high as one might expect. A survey in 2011 found that 43% of adults have a literacy rate of aged 14 or younger and 15% under age 11.

Image of UK literacy rates according to media findings

With these statistics in mind, it’s even more important that we make sure anyone affected by cancer, whatever their reading age, can get the support they need from our website.

As part of our content strategy, we are working to lower the reading age of our content even further, from 13 to 11 years old.

How exactly is readability measured?

There are two widely used methods of checking the reading age of content.

The ‘Flesch Reading Ease’ test estimates readability using a calculation of the number of words, sentences and syllables in a piece of text. The scale is measured out of 100 (the higher it is, the more readable it is). Macmillan aims for between 70-90 (age 11-12).

The ‘Flesch-Kincaid grade level’ uses the same technique to estimate what US school grade would be able to read the content. Macmillan aims for grade 6 or 7 (age 11-12).

Surprisingly, it is in fact possible to generate this information in Microsoft Word by following these instructions. There are also many online tools that will check your content for you. The average reading age of Macmillan’s cancer information pages is currently 14 years old.

Okay, so how do I lower the reading age of my content?

Abigail suggested a variety of different simple techniques to increase the readability of digital content. Words, sentences and paragraphs can all be simplified to make a piece of online text more readable.

11-year old boy struggling to read


  • Choose your words carefully. Avoid using idiomatic expressions such as give it a shot/drop us a line – instead use language that is literal. Get rid of redundant words and pick the simplest word to ensure you aren’t excluding anyone. ‘I felt a bit under the weather’ should be changed to ‘I felt unwell.’ However, complicated technical words, such as ‘chemotherapy’, are sometimes necessary.
  • Structure your sentences well. Make each sentence as simple as possible without changing its meaning. Try to make sure your sentences don’t stray too far beyond twenty words. It is best to only make one point per sentence. Passive clauses should be avoided or, avoid passive clauses.
  • Split up your content. Use paragraphs between topics and bullet points, when appropriate, to improve clarity. Images are another great way to break up large amounts of text in a way that is appealing to a reader.

After applying these techniques, someone of a low literacy rate should have the same opportunity to understand a piece of text as someone with a much higher literacy rate.

Who else cares about readability?

Readability is a really hot topic. So hot in fact, that new technologies specifically developed to enhance readability are being developed.

Most notably, Asymmetrica Labs has created an algorithm to improve readability. Asymmetrica inserts spaces into website text in order to break up sentences into simpler chunks. It is a free browser extension for Chrome, Safari, and Firefox, and reformats the text without affecting the site’s overall design.

Other technologies, such as Readability, turn any web page into a simpler format, making it easier to read on your desktop, phone, or tablet.

It won’t be long before complicated words, convoluted sentences and complex layouts are a thing of the past in the digital world.

I’m still reading!

If you have read this far, you probably know enough about readability to guess the answer to a simple question. Which section of this blog post is the most readable?

The answer…the ‘How exactly is readability measured?’ section, with a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 7.2. And the least readable?…the ‘Who else cares about readability?’ section, with a Flesch-Kincaid grade level of 11.4.

So that’s everything you need to know about readability in a nut shell. Readability isn’t about compromising on quality, it’s about getting your content read and read widely. This mightn’t be your main priority if your audience is very niche, but if, like the Macmillan website, your aim is to reach out and support as many people as possible, it’s definitely something to consider.

Is using plain English the same as dumbing down?

Why do people write things like emails, leaflets or reports? Easy – because they have something to tell others. And by using plain English, they can communicate that message as clearly as possible.

But let’s face it, there will always be people who say that using plain English is ‘dumbing down.’ Or they might think that it’s not right for their audience. But you’d struggle to find a professional writer who thinks these arguments hold any water.

Plain English is always best.


You might ask – what about writing for people like doctors or lawyers? Won’t they find plain English a bit patronising?

It’s certainly true that some sectors are very jargon-ridden (the healthcare sector is a particular culprit). But this is nothing more than a bad habit. A habit that needs to be kicked.

The organisation NICE, which provides guidance and advice to improve health and social care, is firmly on the side of plain English. It says:

‘Plain English gets your message across more quickly, more easily and more directly.

‘Here at NICE we have an important responsibility to communicate complex and technical information to a wide audience.

‘Our audience includes patients and carers, policy makers, commissioners and local authorities, as well as healthcare professionals.’

So that’s pretty much everyone, then – from the woman on the street to the people running the country.

There really are no exceptions.

Even in the jargonny world of legal writing, people have published books encouraging plain English. In his book Lifting the Fog of Legalese, Professor Joseph Kimble writes:

‘I think no reform would more fundamentally improve our profession than learning to express ourselves in plain language.’

That’s quite a big statement – ‘no reform would more fundamentally improve our profession’. It only goes to show – using plain English is a big deal. It matters.

And then there are all the literary greats of the twentieth century who championed plain English, like George Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut and Mark Twain.

So if anyone ever tells you that using plain English is dumbing down or not right for their audience, please tell them that’s just not true.

No one is too clever for plain English.

And if all else fails, you can always quote the ancient Greek Hippocrates – a man regarded as a genius for over two-thousand years – who simply said:

‘The chief virtue that language can have is clearness.’


Fountain pen on a paper

Being kind to writers and editors

September is Be Kind to Writers and Editors month, I know you’re probably frantically thinking about all the ways you can show your editors and writers some love. So to help you, Libby and Rebecca from the editorial team have pulled together some tips for working with your editorial team to make sure that they feel appreciated the whole year through.

It’s brilliant being an editor. If you’re someone who loves words: written, spoken, on a screen, on a poster, in a book then there are few finer callings. We’re nuts about grammar, so if you see a ‘hilarious’ grammar joke*, why not send it on to your nearest editor? We’ll appreciate it, even if nobody else does.

We care about communication. Our job is to make sure that everyone can understand your ideas. That’s why we make the suggestions that we do, so don’t take them personally and we promise to do the same.

Since we’re Digital folk, we love thinking about new ways of doing things. If you’ve seen something great on your travels across the web then tell us about it. Talk to us about your digital ideas and we’ll do our best to make them a reality.

These practical tips will make you and your editor friends for life:

  • Track changes in a document. This means we can see what you’ve changed and your reasons for doing so. It makes it easier for us to make a decision if we understand the rationale.
  • Get your assets ready and help us to find them. Send them as attachments instead of pasted into the body of the email or in a Word document. Or even better…
  • Save the originals in a folder that I can easily access. In fact, save everything to do with an editorial project in one place. You’d be surprised how much time it saves us. Speaking of which…
  • Be clear about your deadlines from the start (which is when you should involve us in your projects by the way) we all like to be able to plan our time.
  • ‘This is just a five minute job’ is hardly ever the case. So, when you can, please give us notice about small amends too. Little tweaks can be more complicated than they seem. Why not ask your editor what it takes to make the changes? They’ll be happy to explain, and then you can decide together how important it is.

So that’s our wishlist for BK2W&EM. We’d also like to say a huge thanks to the writers we work with. The copywriters, the people who put together our patient information and for all our stakeholders who put their creativity into words to inform, engage and inspire. You’re brilliant.

Let us know in the comments if you have a tip for working with writers and editors, or tell us about a great book you’ve read recently. We’re interested in those too.

*The past present and future walked into a bar. It was tense.

Word up with Selfridges

The copywriting team is getting pretty excited about the new Selfridges campaign. Why? Because it’s all about our favourite thing the magic of words.

Words Words Words is a brand new store-wide initiative which touches every aspect of Selfridges. From window displays through to an exciting programme of in-store events, it’s a celebration of the power of the written word.

From 12 January – 1 March the UltraLounge on the Lower Ground floor of Selfridges London will be transformed into a library and become the focal point of the campaign.

There are so many things going on. If you want to discover what your handwriting says about you you can visit the handwriting analysis session. Alternatively, if you want to discuss your favourite pieces of literature you can take part in the Penguin Book Club.

Not only that, there’s also a massive wooden rollercoaster installation which dispenses 30,000 unique 2012 fortunes.

It’s fantastic to see a high street shop engage with customers in such an fascinating way.

If you want to get involved you can see the full programme of events here: http://style.selfridges.com/whats-on/words-words-words-takes-over-selfridges.

Spread the word.

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