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A Step-By-Step Guide to Using AI for Ethos-Driven Storytelling
It's not just about content ... it's about making connections
Creating stories that resonate with a specific audience isn't just an art; it’s a strategic process that can be honed and perfected over time … now with the power of generative AI.
As a teacher, I've witnessed the power of story-telling first-hand with my students. Their journey from novice writers to creators provides invaluable insights into the art of building community through narratives.
But these insights aren't just for the classroom—they're for anyone looking to captivate an audience online, from bloggers to technical writers.
In this post, I will peel back the curtain on ethos-driven story-telling. I’ll share a step-by-step guide that synthesizes classroom strategies with online engagement tactics … a process that can be used by anyone (not just students).
To those who may be new to the concept of ethos-driven storytelling, let me offer a bit of clarity. Ethos refers to the character or spirit of a person, culture, or community as manifested in its beliefs and aspirations.
When we speak of ethos in storytelling, we're talking about crafting narratives that embody the values and principles of the teller and resonate deeply with the audience. This isn't just about creating characters and plots but about building a narrative that speaks to the shared experiences and values of a community.
Whether you're looking to inspire, educate, or entertain, the process begins with understanding your audience and aligning your narrative with their values.
Let’s explore how to craft stories that do more than just tell … using AI.
If you want to understand your own ethos, you need to understand the audience it attracts.
Ethos in Storytelling
Ethos is the credibility or ethical appeal we establish with our audience. That’s the textbook definition, anyway. But for digital writers, it is much more than this. It is your persona, or how you project yourself to your audience. When you tell a personal story online, think of yourself as a character. How are you portraying yourself to your audience?
Dare I bring in politics as an example? One can argue that politics today is not about policy, but about persona. We vote for politicians with personas that match our values … and build an identity and community around that persona. And the stories these politicians tell embody these values to make those communities stronger.
That is often how it works online. As you build content, audiences will naturally gravitate towards an ethos that aligns with their values, creating a bond of trust and understanding.
So if you want to understand your own ethos, you need to understand the audience it attracts.
In the classroom, I help students engage AI writing tools to refine their understanding of audience. We approach our readers as "users" — a concept borrowed from UX design — to make our writing both accessible and appealing. This has led to the creation of detailed personas, akin to character cards, which serve as tangible guides for our storytelling efforts.
This instructional methodology isn't confined to academia; it's a powerful tool for all writers seeking to connect with specific audiences, especially in the microstories that populate platforms like Substack. Through the exercises I've developed, students have crafted microessays and Substack posts that are not just narratives but bridges to their readers' worlds.
Narrowing in on one person or specific reader can help you and others create a community around your content. Here's how we can cultivate this connection:
Develop a persona that embodies a potential reader.
Pinpoint shared values between you and that specific reader.
Craft stories that emanate these shared values and test them with online audiences.
Even if you only have one reader, think about that person … there are thousands of people out their like that person. That’s your audience … and AI can help you find them.
Step 1: Persona Creation – Crafting Your Reader's Profile
Creating personas isn't just a task; it's an act of empathy. When we construct a persona, we're taking the time to understand our readers' desires, challenges, and environments. It's a foundational step that goes beyond mere demographics to capture the essence of the people who will be reading your content and personal stories.
Begin by gathering information about your reader, or just start imagining a person you would like to be writing for. Consider demographics, behaviors, attitudes, cultural attributes, pain points, and goals. But remember, the key to a successful persona is in the details—specifically, the quirks that make them human and relatable.
Here are the most common categories found on personas:
Demographics: Who is your reader in terms of age, occupation, education?
Contextual Data: Where might your reader be as they engage with your stories?
Behavior: What actions is your reader likely taking while interacting with your content?
Attitudinal: How does your reader feel about the topics you cover?
Key Attributes: What cultural or personal attributes define your reader?
Pain Points: What problems does your reader face that you could address?
Goals: What is your reader hoping to achieve by reading your stories?
Trust: What sources does your reader trust, and how can you align with them?
You don’t have to use all of them! Pick and choose the most useful.
Here is an example for Dolby created by Bolt | Peters. Notice how these experts focus on the most relevant categories and details for their business, creating two very distinct kind of customers.
Now this can be difficult, especially if you don’t know who you audience is yet (or don’t have one). That’s where AI can help. You just need to put all the contextual elements into a structured prompt designed for creating personas.
Simply cut and paste into ChatGPT, but be sure to add any notes, ideas or contents at the end of the prompt.
[ROLE] You are a writing consultant helping new writers develop an audience online, specifically on Substack. [GOAL] We want our writers to have clearer idea of a specific, niche audiences they write to. [PERSONA CATEGORIES] Every persona should have the following categories. Demographic - What groups the user belongs to Contextual data - Where is the interaction with the app happening Behavior - What is the user doing when interacting with the app Attitudinal - How the user feels when interacting with the app Key attributes - What makes the person culturally different Pain points - What causes them trouble or annoys them Goals - What are they trying to achieve Trust - who or what do they trust [TASK] I need you to sketch out 3 unique personas potential readers for my Substack blog. Avoid stereotypes and include at least one quirk. Column 1 (Category) - Label category Column 2 (Description) - Fill out a description of that category as it applies to that persona Column 3 (Notes) - Add notes about what the tech writer might consider when thinking about that persona in that category ### -past here anything about your Substack: notes, name, about page, sample blog post, etc.-
Step 2: Pinpointing Shared Values With Your Persona
Historically, stories have served to reinforce the cultural values of a community. Consider how ancient epics and philosophical tales weren't just narratives; they were mechanisms for imparting societal values and expectations.
Homer's epics reflected the collective ideals of ancient Greek culture, just as Plato’s allegories were designed to challenge and expand the perspectives of his contemporaries. Homer didn’t just tell stories; he sculpted a community's aspirations through the epic deeds of Odysseus. This wasn't about showcasing personal flair but about reflecting the virtues of the society—the essence of ethos-driven storytelling.
Similarly, Plato used narratives not just to showcase his own musings but to engage and elevate his society. His Allegory of the Cave wasn’t mere fancy—it was a didactic tool, prompting his students to reevaluate their worldviews. This approach to storytelling is driven by ethos - the guiding beliefs or ideals of a community.
Here is an example from today. Imagine you are a food blogger with a focus on sustainable eating. Your ethos centers around environmental stewardship, health, and cultural appreciation through cuisine. In your newsletter, you decide to share a personal story that illuminates these values.
You might tell a story about cooking with your grandmother, who wasted no food in the kitchen, and how that helped you appreciate the connection between sustainability and age-old culinary traditions.
This anecdote builds ethos and connection with readers who respect cooking traditions (not just environmentalism). It's not just about food; it's about the interconnectedness of their values and their lifestyle, which resonates with the audience on a deeper level.
Creating stories that resonate with a community starts with self-awareness. Identifying one's values and finding the audience that shares those values is critical. For instance, a story based on the value of sustainability can attract an audience that values environmental preservation and activism.
This is easiest to do once you have a persona in hand.
Aligning Values with Personas: Look for overlaps between your values and those suggested by the personas. This intersection is where your story will resonate the most. Consider what these personas care about, where they spend their time, and how they interact with content.
Using Personas as a Guide: With each persona, brainstorm potential narratives that could resonate with that character. Use the detailed categories of the personas to guide the construction of your story, ensuring it aligns with the audience's values, behaviors, and context.
Adapting Personas into Storytelling: Use personas to inform how you frame your story's settings, characters, and conflicts. The more your story feels tailored to the audience represented by your personas, the more likely it is to establish a connection based on shared values.
Need a little help from AI on this one. Here is a prompt.
Fill in the [VALUE] prompt block. Cut and paste the entire prompt into ChatGPT and see what it comes up with. Remember you can continue the conversation if you don’t like the examples or want to dig deeper into one of them.
[ROLE] You are an expert rhetorician who analyzes online audiences to better understand how online writers can build community around their content. [GOAL] Our goal is to create a good ethos-driven story. What are my values? What kinds of people share my values? Which of my values might bridge gaps? Then think about how I might connect people with those values. [VALUE] -fill in the blank- is important to me because -fill in the blank-. [TASK] Now give me a list of values that I can use to better connect with story-telling. Also provide your top 3 story ideas. ### <example> Value: Sustainability Your audience is interested in: - preserving the environment - educating people - making social change They value: - caring attitudes - environment success - practical action </example> <example> Value: Conservationism Your audience is interested in: - Wildlife conservation - preserving the environment - educating people They value: - caring attitudes - environment success - practical action </example>
Okay. Maybe you are not sure what your values are? First year students certainly aren’t. That’s the power of writing microessays every week. Plunk one of your microessays into this prompt, and AI will give you some ideas about what values and audiences might fit your writing.
You can use this prompt on a story that you’ve read to look for different values and audiences that specifically apply … or use it on your own story to get a better sense of what values you are displaying (and what potential audiences there might be).
[ROLE] You are an expert rhetorician with a background in psychology and sociology. You also have experience with online marketing. [GOAL] You will analyze effective online stories and help student writers identify what values are implicitly communicated in the story to make a connection with a specific audience. [TASK] Read the article and provide the top 3 possible ethical values that shape the story and what kind of audience or audiences those might best connect with. Be as specific as possible. ### -Paste article or story here-
Step 3: Iterate Your Storytelling
The journey from concept to community engagement is one of continual refinement and response to feedback. Ethos-driven storytelling is not a static art; it is dynamic, growing with each interaction you have with your audience … and with your AI.
If you’ve structured your AI conversations in the ideation process, then you can continue to use those conversations to develop ideas or even get feedback on your story drafts.
Once you’ve settled on a value and persona in the previous prompts, you can simply switch tasks by adding something like this into your next chat box.
[TASK] Pretend you are -persona-. What do you like about this story? What don’t you like? What would make it more engaging?
Or you can simply get some more ideas.
[TASK] List 10 story ideas for -value- that might appeal to -persona-.
Don’t just leave your AI chat or delete it … leverage the work you’ve already done to structure and refine the conversation.
Of course, it is no good, if you don’t eventually send your story out to a real audience. Once your narrative has been refined with AI's insights, the next crucial phase begins: engaging with the living, breathing community for which your story was intended.
This is where you release your microstories into the wild, observe the interactions, and gather feedback from your readers. Whether it's through comments, shares, or direct messages, this feedback is gold. It tells you what resonates, what falls flat, and where the heart of your story truly beats.
The process doesn't end there; it cycles back to the drawing board, armed with fresh, audience-driven insights that you can feed back into your AI or persona.
Each iteration is an opportunity to deepen the connection, to align your narrative more closely with the shared values and experiences of your audience.
You can take this feedback, reflect on it with AI, and let it guide the evolution of your storytelling.
This dynamic back-and-forth, the conversation between writer and reader, is where your stories learn to breathe, grow, and ultimately, thrive … and now it can include AI in the process.
It's a dance of creation and response, each step informed by the one before, each story a bridge to a more engaged and invested community.
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