To Inject Storytelling in Business Communications, Read the Masters

Dr. Janis Forman
Dr. Janis Forman

How many times in the last 48 hours have you read or heard the phrase "content is king"? Maybe people think that if you chant it enough times it'll be true. But we know in our hearts that it's not true—some content is king, but not all of it. There's just too much of it out there.

So let's be more specific: Great stories, well told, are king. A flat announcement of a product or service, or a dry speech from a CEO, will hardly cause a ripple, but the same information presented in the form of a human story with an arc—whether it's text, audio or images—is more likely to connect with audiences, hold attention and be shared, according to Dr. Janis Forman, author of "Storytelling in Business: The Authentic and Fluid Organization."

In researching her book, Dr. Forman, who is the founder and director of the Management Communication Program at the Anderson School of Management at UCLA, interviewed CEOs, corporate communications and digital media experts and filmmakers to find common threads in great storytelling. She will share insights from her book in her keynote address at PR News' June 18 Content Marketing Boot Camp in New York, and offers a sneak preview in the following Q&A.

PR News: Why do storytelling techniques work so well in business communications? Where does that underlying power come from?

Janis Forman: As researchers in neurology and child psychology tell us, we are hard-wired for stories. People crave narrative, and storytelling has powerful roots in childhood, evoking strong emotions and powerful memories.

PR News: For a business communicator who has never thought of herself or himself as a storyteller, what recommendations can you make to find inspiration, besides reading your own book, “Storytelling in Business”?

Dr. Forman: Read great storytellers. My current favorites are Pat Barker, a British novelist who’s written a trilogy about World War I. I was especially moved by “Regeneration” (one of the three novels) because it shows the dilemma of a middle-aged doctor turned psychiatrist working to restore the health of shell-shocked young soldiers so that they could return to the trenches. Barker is a genius at bringing us into the human details of this powerful story. Then there’s another Britisher—Hilary Mantel—whose “Wolf Hall” and “Bring Up the Bodies” evoke the sights, sounds and even the smells of England during the reign of Henry VIII. Immerse yourself in great literature.

PR News: In their media relations efforts in particular, how can PR professionals use storytelling techniques to engage the attention of journalists?

Dr. Forman: It’s all about the subject matter—say something unexpected and compelling to the audience—and the craft (the language, the pacing and sequencing of the narrative, significant details that evoke the five senses). Without exception these are the qualities singled out by the filmmakers and the corporate communication professionals interviewed for the book.

"Storytelling in Business" author Janis Forman will keynote PR News' Content Marketing Boot Camp on June 18 at the Yale Club in NYC. Register now to learn from content marketing experts from Marriott International, ESPN, Waggener Edstrom Worldwide, BuzzFeed and more.

Follow Steve Goldstein: @SGoldsteinAI