How We Content:

Rules of Storytelling at FMG Suite and Sister Companies

This document seeks to codify some concrete rules for how we make content of all kinds, particularly how we can see each piece of content as communicating a story. Here we have outlined some standards we can aspire to while writing and creating content for FMG Suite, Agency Revolution, and other future brands.

Audience Types

In general, there are three types of readers we address — implicitly or explicitly — when we engage in storytelling:

  1. Actual Audiences
    • These are the people who actually end up reading our content. This audience is almost impossible to perfectly identify or know.
  2. Authorial Audiences
    • This is the hypothetical/ideal audience we sometimes imagine when creating a video, writing an article, composing an email, etc. For our content, we often assume this audience will approach our content with some foreknowledge or context.
  3. Narrative Audiences
    • This is an imaginary audience that the narrator (not author) wishes they were speaking to.

For our purposes, numbers 1 and 2 are the most useful, but #3 is an interesting thing to play with. Specifically, when we assign a narrator (for example, Jane Bond). Just as an author has an audience, so does the narrator.

Often, our consideration of an abstract audience can serve as a good starting point. When speaking about an actual/target audience though, we write for both our primary and secondary readers:

Primary Audience: Our Subscribers

  • These are the Financial Advisors or Insurance Agents that use our products.
  • Our content must please this audience before it gets to our secondary audience.
  • We can measure this audience’s reaction to content via CAP polling.

Secondary Audience: Subscribers’ Clients and Prospects

  • These are the visitors to a Financial Advisor’s or Insurance Agent’s website. These are the people that receive, consume, and share the content we create.
  • This is our authorial (or perhaps actual) audience.
  • We can measure this audience’s reaction to content via Mechanical Turk.

7 Golden Questions

We’ve developed a way of ranking our content for quality using the 7 Golden Questions. All new content will ideally rank high in these seven areas:

  1. Interesting to our subscribers’ clients
    • We should not cover topics that our subscribers’ clients wouldn’t find interesting in relation to their relationship to the advisor or agent. This means covering topics that our advisors and agents want to talk to their clients about.
  2. Portrays our subscribers as smart
    • Our content should cover financial and insurance topics at a level that makes them the expert in these matters. At no point should our content make the advisor or agent look stupid.
  3. Provide an “Aha!” moment for the audience
    • If at all possible, all content pieces should, even when covering the most basic of topics, impart some new or surprising information. Make the content worth it to consume.
  4. Consistent with these ideals: readable, engaging, and concise
    • We should not bloviate, meander, or otherwise be boring. Entertain!
  5. Good grammatical hygiene
    • This one is a no-brainer. Our content should strive to be perfect. Mistakes, whether unsourced stats, typos, or incomplete sentences reflect badly not only on us, but on our subscribers, too.
  6. Evoke emotion
    • Emotion is a great driver to action, and where appropriate, and when possible, we should leverage emotional connection to drive our subscriber’s clients to take action (with them!).
  7. Gut check
    • At the end of the day, we should not only be proud of our content, or advisors and agents should be proud of the content. They should be proud to have our content representing them. If we don’t feel like we’ve hit this mark, we should consider revising the piece until we do.

6 Steps to Writing FMG Suite Content

  1. Creative Direction
    • Check the “story” in Jira for the creative direction or other crucial info that guides the purpose or thesis statement of the piece. This will often help you establish your research and writing goals.
  2. Art Direction
    • Check in on the art direction. This can help communicate your message in narrative ways that words alone just can’t. Depending on the project, design may drive the copy, the copy may drive design, or they might both come together simultaneously through collaboration.
  3. Research
    • Before beginning any external research, begin by checking the existing content in our library. It can save a ton of time to re-use sources we’ve already vetted for similar pieces on the same topic. Different types of content (scripts, infographics, interactives, etc.) definitely have a rough formula. Keep this in mind for step 4.
    • Define your scope/research boundaries. With what we write, it can be easy to find an interesting fact or premise and then 10 minutes later you’ve fallen into the deepest recesses of the internet.
    • Writing a preliminary thesis statement can be an effective means of setting your research boundaries. Finally, don’t be afraid to only use as much of the time allotted to research as you need. If it takes all of the allotted hours, that’s great! But often times, you’ll find what you need a fraction of that time.

Evaluating Sources: Is it CRAAP?

Current: Always strive for the most current sources. Within the last 2 years is our goal.

Reliable: Some questions to ask: Is the content primarily fact, or opinion? Is the information balanced, or biased? Does the author provide references for quotations and data?

Authoritative: Is the publisher or sponsor of the site reputable? Are there spelling, grammar, or typographical errors? Can this source be seen as undeniably authoritative by our subscribers?

Accurate: Is the info you’re quoting actually true? Some light fact checking can establish. Does the author support their claims with evidence? Is the information balanced and unbiased?

Purpose: What’s the goal of the source (to persuade, to sell something, to inform)? Is the domain (.edu, .org, .com, .gov) reputable? Does the author’s purpose contradict our values?

  1. Write a Draft
    • Remember the existing content you discovered during research? Use that as a template. Imitating an existing content piece is a good place to start. Once you have a first draft ready, get some eyes on it. All of us do this, from the newest content creator to the most seasoned.
  2. Get feedback and edit
    • Collaboration is an essential component of our creative process. Our goal is for every piece to be the best it can be, so we put our egos aside and work together to iterate, edit, and improve. In the end, each piece we make is owned by all of us.
  3. Finalize
    • Once all your edits are in, the piece has been proofread, and the team is on board, you’re done. Time to move on to the next project!

Empathy: A Key Value

The degree to which a reader can identify with the spirit of a narrative informs the success with which the story can teach, inform, delight, entertain, or whatever other goal an author may have in mind. The more our audience feels that a specific content piece is about them, affects them, addresses them, etc. the more of an emotional impact we’ll have.

It’s been proven that when writing prompts an affective response, it can help with content retention, a desire to share with others, and trust in the source of that emotion. Some narrative theorists have gone as far as to suggest that a sort of narrative transaction takes place between reader and author: through the texts affective moves, it comes to constitute the identity of the reader. It becomes part of them in a way that only good storytelling can.

This is good news for us, as well as for our advisors and agents. By prioritizing empathy in our content, we forge trust not only between us and our subscribers, but also between our subscribers and their clients and prospects.

Persuading With Storytelling

Because of storytelling’s roots as a communal, cultural practice (it not only predates writing, but is ingrained in notable cultural events like religious and national holidays and major artistic endeavors like film and television), it is a powerful tool when persuading a person to action.

Rather than telling a prospective client that they should be putting money in X investment, or waiting until Y year to withdraw from their 401(k), a story illustrating these concepts is much more powerful. An audience is far more receptive to a lesson illustrated by a fictional Jack or Sally (look how successful Sally was by following this investing lesson), than to a command (wait until you’re exactly 70 ½ to begin withdrawing from your 401(k), because I said so).

That’s not to say that in order to tell a story you must invoke fictional or non-fictional people. Stories can also be told about objects and concepts like websites, customer experiences, etc. The goal is not to abstract these concepts, but to ground them in shared experiences.

How We Content: Design Process

Clarify goals, personas, and target demographic.

Through a creative brief, we identify the goal of the project. By getting as much insight as we can beforehand and understanding what the problem is that we are solving, we can brainstorm solutions to the problem. We have a kickoff meeting with team members and help identify the message or goal of the project, and discuss what success will look like for the project, and begin to establish creative direction and art direction.

Define project scope.

Scope can vary greatly depending on a project’s complexity or goals. We are fairly dialed in on estimating projects we’ve done before. New projects or content types are often more unpredictable and have larger scopes, as we develop a process or new tech to support our designs. We use the Agile process, which helps the whole team organize accordingly and stay true to the project’s defined scope.

Research designs, styles, code, etc.

Spend some time researching possible solutions that already exist, design styles, code framework, etc. Especially useful for things like interactives, where researching what technologies and code libraries are available can help make time more efficient and gives us a better understanding of what will be feasible for the project in our time frame. By researching the designs that are out there, it helps us get a better idea of what is possible, helps us communicate what  ideas we have in mind through a moodboard of examples, and allows us to see what is out there so we can stand out.

Ex) Article Facelift Research / Design Meeting Notes
Ex) Ideas for what to include in interactive template

Use a grid to establish visual rhythm, make sketches, wireframes, blockframes, and sitemaps.

After identifying goals, researching possible solutions, and deciding on the best direction for a piece, we then jump to pen and paper. One of the first steps is Art Direction, which involves design inspiration and design research. The art direction is discussed with designers and writers in order to, as a group, define the final design of the project.

Ex) Email art direction

Create one or more visual designs.

Next comes the hands-on process. Content we make can be in the form of a landing page, a flyer, a highly-designed infographic, or even a motion graphics video. This usually is a collaboration between designers, copywriters, content strategists, and other stakeholders.

When a project involves coding, we code in an MVP process (Minimum Viable Product). With that method we start coding the general skeleton of the project, and slowly build on details, assets, and animations. In this way we can start getting a feel for the copy and design, while minimizing the risk of the scope increasing out of control (scope creep).

For projects that require coding, an extra design pass will be done to ensure that the coded version still has the intended effect, and to ensure that it is user-interaction friendly.

Ex) Pre-retirement checklist

Test thoroughly, and iterate to improve.

Once the piece is ready to go, we always check it for quality. The piece is combed through by one or more people outside the process to ensure fresh eyes can catch typos, bugs, and ways the piece can be improved from the users point of view. Improvements are implemented before the project wraps up.

For testing feedback, we tend to use InVision for design/copy changes, and Google Docs for coding QA/Browser testing changes.

Ideally we strive to always have a bit of outside testing go through our projects as well. In order to get started, we had to make assumptions about what the best solution to a problem would be. This is the step where we test that assumption. This can be user-testing a landing page, looking for page scrolls or clicks, sending out surveys, or getting feedback via internal interviews. Once the results are in we review the feedback for trends that we can implement.

Ex) QA/BT Code – 4th of July interactive

Deployment time: ship, share, and celebrate.

All done? Proofed, packaged, and ready to go? Let’s rock n’ roll! Deploying a piece of content can involve delivering a project to a department like the dev team, the marketing team, or the content team, pushing a webpage or website live, or ordering a print job.

For testing feedback, we tend to use InVision for design/copy changes, and Google Docs for coding QA/Browser testing changes.


Our hope is that by continuing to observe these content creation guidelines, the following will be more likely to happen:

  1. Our subscribers’ clients and prospects will come to enjoy and trust our content.
  2. Our subscribers will put trust us and engage with our content, affirming our reputation.
  3. Our content will continue to be highly relevant, shareable, and likely to generate leads.
  4. Our team will be proud of what we make, proud of the service we provide, and happy to work together to make such cool stuff.

Let’s do this!

General Storytelling or Narrative Theory & Structures

When diving into the structure of storytelling, a consideration of one’s audience is perhaps one of the best places to begin. In general, there are three types of readers an author addresses implicitly or explicitly when engaging in storytelling:

  1. Actual audiences- The people who actually end up reading a piece. This is almost impossible to completely know.
  2. Authorial audiences- The hypothetical ideal audience the author imagines when laying out a piece. This is also a group the author has assumed will read their work with some sort of foreknowledge (historical, political, cultural, etc.) Often a best guess at what the “Actual Audience” will be.
  3. Narrative audiences- An imaginary audience for whom the narrator (not author) wishes they were speaking too.

For our purposes, numbers 1 and 2 are the most useful, but #3 is an interesting thing to play with when we assign a narrator (like Jane Bond, or Gumshoe). I mostly like this because it increases the “realness” of the narrator. Just as an author has an audience, so does the narrator.

I think this brings up questions of how an audience experiences what we write in all cases, but especially when it comes to storytelling. There’s a large body of work that shows that for an audience to experience a work as the author intended, they have to be a member of the authorial audience.

The only issue I have here, is that often the “authorial audience” can be a bit fuzzy around the edges. Defining the audience for a piece beyond basic demographics could be helpful.

All of which is to say, attention to the relationship among all the above audiences can help us to understand the tone we want to take, but also why certain pieces (or portions thereof) simply don’t work.

The Reader’s Identification

The degree to to which the reader can identify with the spirit of a narrative establishes the affective response to the text. In short, the more our audience feels this is about them, effects them, addresses them, etc. the more of an emotional impact we’ll have.

It’s been proven that when writing prompts an affective response, it can help with content retention, a desire to share with others, and enduring trust in the source of that emotion. Some narrative theorists have gone as far as to suggest that a sort of narrative transaction takes place between reader and author: through the texts affective moves, it comes to constitute the identity of the reader. It becomes part of them in a way that only good storytelling can.

Notes on World Building

Narrative worldmaking is made possible by the active, ongoing participation of the reader. Despite an author’s words, reactions to a text by a reader show that they cooperate in the world making process by making interpretive choices at key stages. A good example of this is when two people read the same text. If they are asked to describe key details, they will most often describe them in different ways but with enough similarity to show a shared interpretation.

As authors, we can harness this to our advantage. Narration is the process by which we cue readers to start constructing, inhabiting, and gauging the communicative purposes of our narative world. The “reception” to a piece critics often speak of? Thats the how readers either do, or do not, respond to those cues.

One element I always have to keep in mind, is that readers use our textual blueprint, coupled with their prior familiarity with other texts and the full range of their lived or imagined experiences, to draw provisional inferences about what they read. In short, an author’s control over what the reader feels as they read is both an illusion and central to our work.

A Judgement of Three

Many texts agree that readers tend to engage in 3 different types of judgement: Interpretive, ethical, and aesthetic. The stories that have been endured the longest always make sure to provide something in these 3 categories for the reader to judge. This suggests not only a litmus test for solid storytelling, but perhaps a need on the readers part that we can fulfill.

Storytelling for Change

Storytelling, at its heart, is a culturally communicative practice. Over time, systems of norms shape what sorts of stories are crafted and told. However, the telling of stories can also provide a scaffold for a normative shift. Stories are the bones upon which humanity builds its cultures.

Storytelling is a powerful tool to reinforce the dominant norms of the past (patriarchal societies, classist structures, states of inequality, etc.) but also a catalyst for change (yes we can, I have a dream, The only thing to fear, is fear itself, etc.)