The Big Short: How Storytelling Clarifies Business & Financial Information

If you’ve seen – or heard of – The Big Short, the recent blockbuster about the collapse of the housing industry with Steve Carrell, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, you know that the film depicted outliers in high-finance unpacking the root issues of the 2008 financial crisis.  Even more telling than the film’s plot itself showing how the bubble burst:  the clever “sidebars” featuring explanatory blurbs in hilarious style.

A key take-away for anyone developing content for the legal or financial industry is to use storytelling as an effective explanatory device for copywriting.  A recent Fast Company article articulated how much more our brains are engaged by storytelling than the cold, hard facts, and pointed to numerous studies that confirm it.  Consider how these scenarios could play out:

  • Need to convey the emotional and financial complexity of estate planning? Draw on a hard-luck tale using a 1st-person accounting and show the unfortunate outcome to survivors of the failure to plan. Imagine the impact of that compared to a list of bullet points about probate costs.
  • Want to illustrate the circumstances in which a reverse mortgage can be advantageous? Spin a yarn about an independent senior enjoying the flexibility and autonomy of aging well in place. Contrast this saga with a chart of retirement asset expenditures.

Some cautionary measures, however, will ensure that your attempts at storytelling enhance – rather than disguise or confuse – your financial copywriting or legal marketing message:

  1. Don’t just plop the same boring copy into a forced “narrated” tome.  You need to do a wholesale revision on the presentation to make it into a successful story.  Carefully decide where the story begins and ends, and what the main message should be.
  2. Play with the placement of the story as part of your article/post/message. It may be most impactful to jump right into a scene and then make the point. Or it may be best to set the stage with some introductory points which the story illustrates.
  3. Remember that storytelling is a different type of writing. It may take some time to develop your skills at enlivening your prosaic content in this manner.  There are some great resources online to hone these skills.
  4. Help readers draw conclusions. Just depicting a scenario may not drive home the key points.  You need to help the reader tie up “the moral of the story” with the important takeaways.

While Hollywood still clearly has some lessons to learn (#OscarsSoWhite, anyone?), there are a few tricks of the trade that have value in creating compelling content.