Sorting through some documents at my Dad’s house this week, I came across my training record from when I undertook my initial journalism course in Sheffield more years ago than I care to remember (OK, 1995), writes Simon Burch.
Happily, unlike many of my school reports, the results and summary were glowing, predicting I had a bright future in journalism ahead of me and also identifying that I “found story-making easy” although I “should discipline myself to ensuring all angles are covered”.
Some 28 years later, and despite a change in career, story-making is still second nature and is at the heart of the work that I do, generating news articles and blogs for PR clients and setting up media opportunities, all the while creating stories to help them spread the word about themselves and their products or services.
This is what we do as a company and since we’ve built a decent business doing it for 13 years, I have to confess I can’t think of another way to go about our work.
The change in media platforms, the different ways to sell a message and the rise in owned media – especially social media – means there are so many ways for public relations professionals to raise their clients’ profiles but story-telling will always remain the most potent method of doing so.
This is no accident. When any of us tell stories, we tap into a human activity that has enabled us to communicate for many thousands of years, sharing our thoughts, feelings and knowledge by encasing them in simple narratives involving characters and events.
This harks back to campfire gossip, the “he says, she says” stuff that we still continue to enjoy and which was vital to us understanding the social world within our tribe and the threats and opportunities outside of it.
Even the way we even perceive the world is in the form of a story. This is instinctive, and Shakespeare knew it too. “All the world’s a stage and all the men and women merely players,” he wrote. “They have their exits and their entrances: And one man in his time plays many parts.”
Psychologists understand that these are more than just fancy words. It is now believed that although the world we see feels real to us, it is in fact just an illusion created by our brains to make order out of what is essentially chaos.
In the jumble of perceived colours, sounds, unconscious emotions and other information picked up by our senses, our brains act as sieves, curating what it feels is important and turning it into a stream of information that comes through to us and interpreted it as a live story in which we are the hero of the tale surrounded by a cast of other characters (instinctively characterised as good and bad) whose actions shape our experiences of life.
We tell ourselves stories – often made-up – to justify the decisions we make, the things we do and support out own world-view and when we communicate with others we share our thoughts in a recognisable story form.
Although everyone’s story filter is different, we all recognise the same general character types and the same basic plots. Using these devices to bring order our stories allows us to share information, wisdom and experiences in ways that everyone can understand.
So humans are all natural storytellers and story receivers – we all see stories all the time – but why is this important for companies?
Because storytelling is so ingrained into the human experience that it’s a mistake not to use it. An engaging, recognisable story can reach the parts a series of facts, a simple sales message or even a promotional video simply can’t reach, and when you’re trying to use a news platform to promote your brand – a central tenet of a good PR campaign – it makes sense to turn it into the kind of story that news coverage is built upon.
Journalists write stories for a living, drawing on real-life events to weave narratives, and their content is greedily consumed by a public hungry to know the next new thing, person or event.
Companies can harness this by understanding the kind of stories their target audience are into and then creating a narrative that will draw them in and keep them hooked.
Remember that your audience are human beings and respond to human stories, so bring people into your marketing communications and tell their tale.
How did your founders set up the company and what hurdles they had to overcome along the way – the more challenging the better. Few people think about this stuff, but a bit of digging might surprise you.
Understand a story is about change – moving from one state to another with something happening in between, ideally through someone overcoming adversity or being inspired.
Remember that no company operates in a vacuum, and everything that happens is affected by events in the wider community, the economy, or the world that other people are likely to know about.
And remember that the best stories are simple – with a beginning, a middle and an end.
And so, tell the story of how a new product was made, developed and brought to market – and why. Tell the stories of the people in your company – the ambitious apprentice taking the first step in their career or the new-starter who has joined the firm to make a difference.
There is no need to pay an expensive influencer – your staff are your company’s best ambassadors, so tap into their stories to present a human face to your firm.
Tell the story about your product changed a customer’s life by helping them to achieve an aim or ambition – or simply to improve their family’s situation. Explain how your values shape how you source your goods, influence your packaging, guide your sales strategy or even affect what good causes you choose to help as a company.
Look at news websites or trade titles serving your industry to see what their journalists report on. Do you have a similar story you could send them? What’s the next big thing happening in your sector and can you help them to understand what it’s all about?
Like all journalists, I believe that everyone has a story to tell and I’ve spent the past 28 years proving it. Although you may not yet find story-making second nature – or easy – by knowing where to look and what questions to ask, story-telling for your company will soon be as natural as doing it for yourself.