PR Tactics editor John Elsasser tapped me to write an article for their latest issue. At more than 800 words, it’s considered blasphemously long for a blog post. But I'm not sure if it’ll be posted online or not so I posted it below. Check out PR Tactics print edition if you prefer the more nostalgic approach to content consumption.
We spend countless hours choosing the best message, format and medium to reach our audiences when the most powerful communication device is the one we seem to use the least – storytelling.
Stories make our messages easier to remember and have been used throughout history to help explain concepts more effectively, according to “A Whole New Mind” by Daniel Pink.
Starbucks is built on story. The ubiquitous barista was almost named Pequod Coffee Company after the boat in “Moby Dick.” Starbucks’ founders felt the name would evoke the romance of the high seas.
Thankfully naming consultants were quick to point out that consumers would not stand in line to drink a cup of Pequod. The owners instead settled on Starbuck, the first mate on the Pequod. And today there are more than 13,168 locations in 40 countries worldwide.
A Mix of Fact and Emotion
In "The Elements of Persuasion,"Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman define a story as “a fact, wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take an action that transforms our world.”
The use of fact and emotion in a story is critical – particularly in public relations. A message focusing just on emotion can be easily dismissed. At the same time, isolated facts are not remembered easily by an audience. In a world cluttered with messages competing for audience time and attention, stories and our messages require both elements to be effective.
What’s the Story?
So how do you write a story? Whether it’s three sentences or three volumes in length, stories need to have a basic structure – a beginning, middle and end.
An Appetizing Beginning: Every story must quickly grab reader attention with an interesting hook. This whets their appetite and draws them into the story. And while some basic facts should be established, they should be chosen carefully to slowly reveal the story.
The Meaty Middle: Once the reader is engaged, serve up the story’s main course to keep them satisfied. Any initial problems established or assertions made will play out in full.
End with Dessert, Not Desert: Once a reader is engaged, don’t end the story without the best part. An ending brings resolution to the story. Good or bad the ending leaves the reader with distinct feelings and usually a call to action.
Starting with these basic elements, creativity is the only limit to how you tell your story. And there are some ways to help make storytelling second nature.
Learn by Doing
Telling your own story is great practice for doing it on the job. StoryCorps is an organization that encourages you to tell your story. Considered to be the largest oral history project of its kind, StoryCorps transports sound booths across the country with the goal of recording people’s stories in an audio format. Some of the stories are rebroadcast on NPR and all of them wind up in the Library of Congress.
Stories (Don’t) Write Themselves
Images, audio and video are easier than ever to create and can easily be added to a story to increase audience engagement. But be selective and creative about using these elements to enhance a story.
Before you give an executive some screen time or add a grip and grin photo of the company founder shaking hands with the CEO, ask the question – “does it improve the message?” If audio/visual elements don’t make a message easier to understand, and more memorable, they distract the audience. Even worse, you’re wasting everyone’s time.
Less is More
While images, audio and video can enhance your story; an effective story relies on top-notch writing. Writing more frequently helps improve skills; writing with fewer words makes the end result more efficient and effective.
There are several unconventional online approaches to whittling down the word count. One Word posts one word each day and gives you 60 seconds to write about it. The photo sharing site Flickr is home to The Six Word Story Group where members submit photos with captions no longer than six words. The end result must tell a story.
Make a (Power) Point
Anyone still skeptical about the power of storytelling in business should visit SlideShare. The site is YouTube for PowerPoint presentations and it serves up endless examples of good (and really bad) approaches to storytelling through the de facto software for business presentations. As an example, SlideShare has more than 400 presentations on storytelling alone and the site will inspire your use of PowerPoint.
Taking these steps will make storytelling second nature. And as we are continually challenged to gain the attention of time-starved audiences, this proven device will help us meet this challenge.
In the case of Starbucks, the story of its naming is part of the foundation on which the coffee company has built its success. Not bad for a cup of Pequod.