What true crime can teach communicators about storytelling

As a society, we’re hooked on true crime. Books, TV series, documentaries, podcasts, movies – we’re not too picky about the medium. In fact, as we’re writing this blog post, 13 of the top 25 Apple podcasts are of the true crime genre. 

Our fascination with true crime is nothing new. The sensationalism has always gripped us. But, aside from the obvious shock value, what is it about true crime stories that keep us coming back for more?

We found a few key storytelling elements that many true crime stories have in common. 

1. Narrative proximity
Ultimately, narrative proximity is relevance and relatability to the audience. If someone or something is physically, culturally or experientially close to us, it tends to resonate with us more. Regardless of the story you are telling, you can always find a way to work in this element and make a connection with your target audience. 

True crime manifestation: In 2018, “Making a Murderer” was the most popular Netflix Original in Wisconsin. Not a surprise since Steven Avery’s story takes place in Manitowoc, Wisconsin.

2. Vivid detail
While a broad narrative can communicate a story, we become truly engaged when we have details to connect us to specific moments. This can include names, settings and even dialogue. In the end, it comes down to taking the facts and explaining them in a way that allows the reader/listener to visualize what you’re saying.

True crime manifestation: We are Crime Junkies! We both love the “Crime Junkie” podcast. Ashley and Britt take the information from police reports, media coverage, firsthand accounts and more to weave intriguing stories for their listeners.

3. Emotion
Strong emotions coming through in a story are more compelling. It doesn’t matter if those emotions are positive or negative, as long as it’s relevant to your story and sparks the reader with a feeling. Emotion is often linked to narrative proximity – something will often resonate more with us emotionally if it is somehow relevant to us as an audience.

True crime manifestation: Madeleine McCann disappeared in 2007 while her family was on holiday in Portugal. Pictures of the 3-year-old girl appeared around the globe, bringing a face to every parent’s greatest fear.

4. Something unanticipated
We like to be surprised and learn new things. Those unanticipated points in the story draw us in and keep us engaged. Oftentimes, these unanticipated points are the shock value we associate with true crime stories.

True crime manifestation
Elizabeth Holmes, the former CEO of the now defunct startup Theranos and once the darling of Silicon Valley, took everyone by surprise every time she spoke. Holmes became known for her distinct deep voice, which was completely unexpected. Many speculate the voice was now a strategy to level the playing field among her male peers.

5. What comes next? 
The best stories always have an interesting ending. A truly compelling story leaves us in suspense and ultimately wanting more.

True crime manifestation: When Sarah Koenig’s first season of “Serial” debuted in 2014, reviewing the case of Adnan Syed, a new generation of true crime enthusiasts was born. Did he or didn’t he? That was the question the audience was left grappling with following the final episode. And we’re still not satisfied. “Serial” spawned additional investigate podcasts and documentaries, and reinvigorated interest in Syed’s case and the quest for justice.

Whether you’re new to true crime or you’re a longtime fan of the genre, it’s the storytelling that pulls you in and keeps you coming back for more. And while we as communicators might not be hosting the latest true crime podcast, we can incorporate these elements of compelling storytelling into our own work. No matter the topic, these elements can serve as principles to not only get but also keep your audience’s attention. 

Check out the true crime stories we’re currently binging!

Ashley’s picks:
• “Mindhunter” (Netflix)
• “True Detective” (HBO)
• “Root of Evil” podcast 

Skylar’s picks:
• “Crime Junkie” podcast
• “Up and Vanished” podcast
• “Serial” podcast

For more on this topic, check out episode seven of The Branigan Communications Podcast!