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What PR People Can Learn From "Serial"

PR agency professionals like to talk about storytelling, and we’re good at identifying and shaping a narrative. But, let’s face it, much of the content about brand storytelling doesn’t always make for a great story.

Enter “Serial,” the podcast. If you’re one of its five million listeners, or even among those tired of hearing about it from obsessed friends, you know what I mean. Within a few weeks of its debut, “Serial” shattered the iTunes record for fastest podcast and it’s still going strong.

What makes “Serial” so compelling? It starts with the narrative itself. It’s based on a 15-year-old murder of a high-school student which may have been improperly investigated and prosecuted, and which in many ways remains a mystery, so there’s a natural fascination. There’s also the Rashomon-like appeal of multiple points of view. But its success is also due to its structure, its serialized nature (a little more than bite-sized, but still leaving us wanting more), and perhaps most importantly, the skill and voice of narrator Sarah Koenig.

Here are the storytelling takeaways from “Serial” that I find most relevant to professional communicators.

It’s messy. Because it’s based on real events, and the re-investigation of the murder is happening in something close to real time, “Serial” lacks the neat packaging of branded content or the structure of actual reporting. It’s full of blind alleys, minor digressions, and details that don’t necessarily advance the story. But that rawness is what makes a story both fascinating and real.

It’s authentic. Koenig breaks the wall between listener and journalist and actually lets you in, without losing her journalist cred. She admits mistakes, makes dryly humorous references to her own reporting, and is utterly transparent. It’s a refreshing change from traditional journalism, but without the typical POV of a blogger or journalist advocate. In many ways, Koenig is as torn, confused, and malleable in her point of view as we are.

It’s personal. Few forms of media are as intimate as the spoken word. Listening to Koenig’s narration makes me feel like I could be sitting at a cafe with her, completely looped in and sharing her every frustration or triumph. Yes, podcasts have been around for over a decade, but audio is still an underutilized medium. The success of “Serial,” and the way it leverages the medium to draw out the story, will definitely influence a new generation of podcasters. As communicators, even if we don’t opt for a podcast, we can strive for the tone, narrative style, and personality that convey immediacy and intimacy.

It respects the audience. At times, “Serial” is work. There’s a very strong main narrative thread, but it’s nearly impossible to keep track of the many secondary characters and their relationships to one another, and we can’t begin to absorb the reams of documentation that Koenig has accessed. A marketing narrative with this amount of detail would be very risky, but it’s a lesson in not underestimating the intelligence of the audience. The story actually asks for a commitment from us, and we’re happy to give it.

It has stories within the story. Part of the addictive quality of “Serial” comes with the stories within the main narrative. Many detours and personalities are explored in such a way as to offer their own arc, much as a TV series brings in a guest character for a few episodes without losing the main dramatic thread. Each episode brings us not only fresh information, but a new point of view.

It’s multidimensional and multimedia. Want to find out more about how cell phone tower technology works? Interested in mapping the stops that figure into Jay’s testimony? The “Serial” website, with its maps, links, images, and other graphics, is ideally designed to add depth to the story and foster a community of listeners. The more it gives us, the more we want, and that’s part of what makes it an influential cultural phenomenon and such a terrific story.

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