Once Upon a Time: Be a Master Storyteller

You know your key messages. You are armed with studies and data. But you’ve had a hard time connecting with your audience on your communications effort. What’s missing? A really good story.

The best speakers and spokesperson give themselves permission to tell it from the heart. The best public relations campaigns show how the product impacts people. Data is everywhere, so using it alone is not enough. As we get further into the social networking and multimedia messaging, the need for good stories is crucial in making any communications effort fly.

Audiences, no matter how big or small, love to walk away from a speech, or watching an interview feeling like they know you and who you are. Taking the time to carefully add a couple of vignettes that illustrate your point, can win over your audience.

Finding the Right Stories
Not all stories are created equal. It is crucial to dissect each potential story to come up with the right ones for your goals. The right stories basically help frame your message. They help your target audience “get it” where they are. If you select a story that seems good to you, without an understanding of what’s important to your target, you will miss the mark and could do more damage than good. That’s why it’s so important to understand your target—their lives and their values. What is it that they embrace? What is it that they fear? If you don’t understand what they need to hear to support your cause, buy your product or believe you in a crisis, your story selection may be counter to your goals.

I was working on a campaign recently with a client, and asked them for stories to help fortify the messages we’d developed. They promptly provided three great stories, including one television news clip. Unfortunately, two of the initial stories had major flaws in terms of the way their target audience would frame them. So we went back and developed new stories that would work.

It is just as important to test the stories in the same way that you test the messages. Unfortunately, we tend to work in communications silos with people who are often just like us. We aren’t really prepared for how the masses in our target will hear those stories. So, let’s say that you will be working with three or four sound stories that may illustrate your point. But when you test them, they miss the mark. What do you do? Sometimes the messages are not as smart as you think. Or sometimes, some aspects of the message are off for that target group. Be prepared to discard that story and get new ones. Or be prepared to re-frame the story, highlighting the things that would be important to those who are listening.

Where Do We Find Stories?
If you are really doing your job as a communicator, you have tapped into ways to find the stories. They almost never show up with a bow on them in your office. You have to be prepared to get out into the field or have the field help you mine for stories. New media has also been important in helping to bring stories to the surface. When I am looking for stories or if I am taking the pulse of a group on an issue, I send a group e-mail out. I also use blogs and social networking groups to identify stories and storytellers. 

Stories That Work
It is important to think not so much about the story you want to tell, but the story that your target audience needs to hear to make a decision. Sometimes they are the same example, yet we need to be strategic about highlighting the parts of the story that matter to your audience. When selecting stories, I am looking for people to be the focus. The stories we repeat and the stories we forward to our friends, hit a chord with us because of the people. We love stories of resilience, and of bravery.

We love “but for the grace of” stories, where we can see ourselves, but are so glad it isn’t us. We love stories that show us—but better. We want to know that whatever this issue, product or resolution, it will make us better, smarter, richer, safer and healthier. The trick is determining what their view of all those things is. That’s why there is no one story that fits all, unless your communications are very narrow and targeted. I use the “Joe the Plumber” example from the 2008 Presidential campaign. To some voters, Joe the Plumber was a great example of chasing the American Dream. To others, Joe hit flat.

In cases where communities were trying to secure funding to improve schools and education, we know that intergenerational stories work better with senior citizens than stories about what kids don’t have in schools. So it has been important to include a “what’s in it for me angle in stories.”

Bringing Stories to Life
If your campaign is going to use stories, you also need to bring them to life, especially if you are asking media to do a story. You improve your odds of getting a great story if you have lined up people who have a great story to tell—before the reporter needs them. An important part of the strategy of using stories is to identify real people who can talk and tell their truth. Don’t use people who are not available or not willing to tell their stories. Also look for new spins on old stories. Using the same old hook is…well, the same old hook.

Also try to vet these people before you offer them up to the media. You do not want any surprises. You also don’t want people who are not articulate or passionate about your cause or product. Also think carefully about who you use for each story. Like it or not, readers want to be able to relate to the people in the story.  They need to be likable, sympathetic, articulate (but not arrogant) and believable. Target audiences all have an idea of what that person looks like and sounds like.

This was excerpted from PR News' Media Training Guidebook 2009 Edition. The article was written by Andrea Collier King, who has been writing and speaking about health and health policy issues for the past 20 years. To order this guidebook or find out more information about it, please go to www.prnewsonline.com/store.