How To Beat Five Storytelling Roadblocks

Most PR pros know that throwing facts and figures at a business audience won’t necessarily win them over. A great story, on the other hand, is more persuasive and more memorable.

At a time when we have more data than we can possibly use and people connect on social platforms, storytelling is an ideal tool for PR and marketing.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Entertainment options are everywhere, and crafting a business story designed to promote a product or service doesn’t always measure up. People are busy, overwhelmed, and even cynical.

On the PR agency side, we serve many masters. Sometimes we communicate through journalists who have their own story priorities. Clients, on the other hand, may have different ideas about what makes a great story. When considerations collide, storytelling suffers. Here are some ways to overcome common roadblocks along the way.

Forget the chronology

There’s a natural impulse to start at the beginning and tell a chronological narrative, especially if it’s about a new company or product. But that can be complicated, lengthy, and boring. When speaking or writing to promote a business, pretend you’re making a 30-second video. Start with a pivotal time in the business. It might be the point where a founder set out to solve a common problem, like how to be well-dressed without spending a fortune (Rent The Runway), or the “new” idea that software should be available 24/7 (Salesforce.com). Everything revolves around those high-impact moments that are usually obvious only in retrospect. Start in the middle, then fill in the blanks.

Leave the rough edges

There’s a real tendency to sugarcoat anything negative or embarrassing when it comes to business storytelling. One reason I love working with high-growth tech entrepreneurs is that they tend to be more open about setbacks than larger companies. Reluctance to open the kimono is understandable; most businesses aren’t wild about revealing weakness, miscalculations, or mistakes. Yet these are the very developments that make a narrative more compelling and real. There’s power in admitting you’re not perfect, in  part because it’s not expected, and everyone can identify.

Remember, it’s not always about you

Mediocre stories are about businesses; great stories are about people. Every story needs a hero. The most interesting and authentic heroes could be a low-level employee in an organization, or the customer. Intuit and Hubspot are two brands that do a great job celebrating their core customer, small businesses, in their storytelling. Slack’s Variety Pack podcast does something similar, by championing the end users of its product — workers themselves.

Don’t confuse emotion with hyped language

I see this in written content all the time. Maybe the story isn’t so exciting, so the writer throws in lots of empty adjectives to try to spice it up. It usually has the perverse effect of making things even less interesting because there’s no substance. It’s far better to be straightforward with the language. Mark Twain famously wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” When it comes to adjectives and “action verbs,” less is definitely more, and a more precise word will beat a vague one anytime.

Break the cliché habit

A great story will focus on high-stakes moments, like early failures, internal or external conflicts, or business threats. But what if those moments are already well known? What if they just don’t exist? Change the point of view, or try an analogy. Take software testing as an example. It’s a commodity, but like everything else, there’s an art to it. As one engineer put it, “Writing (software) tests is like sex: the more you do it, the better you get at it and the better it feels.” Now, there’s an interesting opener.

5 Ways To Nail Your Brand Story

Business storytelling has become a buzzword in PR and marketing, because, when done well, it works. But what some communicators don’t realize is that a storytelling approach can work throughout the marketing journey, from prospecting for customers to closing the deal. I recently refreshed my skills and point of view at a workshop sponsored by Engage, and the session offered food for thought. Here are some quick takeaways and observations based on experience with storytelling for B2B brands.

It’s not about you

This runs counter to the typical PR approach used widely by tech startups and entrepreneurial companies. New companies naturally want to make the brand story all about them, and a colorful narrative about a bootstrapped business can be a powerful media pitch in a PR campaign. But the overarching brand story shouldn’t be about the company. If we consider the most powerful archetype to be Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey,” that hero is invariably the customer. Remember, the customer doesn’t know what you do and probably doesn’t care. The goal of the brand story is to reach and engage her where she lives and works.

Tell, don’t sell

PR professionals know this intuitively. Most of us have been trained to engage journalists with the lure of a good story, not a commercial message. But when we take the story directly to customers and prospects in the form of email or content marketing, it often loses that nuance. Marketers want to make sure they take advantage of the time and budget invested in tactics like newsletters, collateral, and paid content, so marketing becomes selling. But that approach will shut down communications. Jeff Loehr of Engage likens the hard-sell storytelling approach to a marriage proposal at a first meeting. It’s bound to be a turnoff. The goal instead is to strike up a conversation that might develop into something deeper and better.

What’s at stake?

If the hero-customer’s most compelling dilemma is pedestrian, it won’t be powerful. Maybe your prospect is a small business owner who is unhappy with her IT services — a common problem, but one that’s not very interesting. On the other hand, if she runs a wealth management business with access to confidential client information, but her creaky IT infrastructure leaves her business at risk, that’s a more potent story. The point is not to use fear-mongering in storytelling, but to create a credible narrative where the stakes are reasonably high.

Appeal to emotions, not just intellect

To go back to the hero myth, he/she is called on a journey of adventure, undergoes trials, and is transformed in the process. To be compelling, the stakes must be high and the journey must be fraught with real risk or conflict. Take my favorite political ad, MJ Hegar’s Doors. Hegar is an Air Force veteran who’s running a longshot campaign to win a House seat in Texas, and whose video story went viral earlier this year. What’s compelling about the video is that she’s not running on the issues; rather, she’s running on her story. Hegar weaves an irresistible tale about achievement, rejection, and resilience. And, yes, this one’s about her own personal narrative, because her “product offering” is herself, but as a constituent of the incumbent. And I guarantee you that the “door” that slams in her face because of her gender is something that every woman understands.

Make them see it

People don’t read much anymore. So, most marketers are looking for striking images, video, and illustration to hold the viewer’s attention and add impact to the message. We must go beyond the talking head video to feature a customer discussing their pain points or sharing an experience about a business pivot.

Yet visuals don’t always have to be super-slick to be memorable. I recently heard best-selling novelist Judy Blundell speak at a gathering of fans. Her new book is set on the North Fork of Long Island, a narrow strip of beachfront whose location and relationship to the more glamorous fork to its south is key to the novel’s plot. If you want to learn about storytelling, talk to a novelist. Judy explained that she’d been traveling on her book tour. To help non-New Yorkers understand the geography in the novel she used — wait for it — “a sophisticated visual aid,” her two fingers, separated to represent each skinny slice of Long Island’s East End. It’s what I remember about her talk, and it still makes me smile.

The Thai Cave Rescue And The Power Of Storytelling

Until they were located, I’d no idea that 12 boys and their coach were trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand. But once the news broke, I was hooked. And I wasn’t alone. The national fascination tells us something about PR, storytelling, and ourselves.

Why was the plight of the stranded Thai boys so compelling? As many noted, there are children in danger everywhere, from Syria to Syracuse. Some journalists questioned the news judgment that placed a higher priority on the cave rescue than those who were lost when a tourist boat capsized right off the Thailand coast. Others invoked the migrant children separated from their families at the border here.

“One of the jarring things about the Thai cave story: 41 people died when a boat capsized in Thailand on Thursday evening and nobody really cared. It’s a pretty clear illustration of how we latch onto stories that are gripping while ignoring worse human suffering that lacks drama.”

The heroes’ journey – and long odds

So, how were the Thai students different? In the Poynter Institute blog, writer Roy Peter Clark offers a compelling analysis of our collective fascination. While his post points out how the cave narrative conforms to some storytelling archetypes (and primal fears), it also notes the many ways in which it departs from classic storytelling. For example, for most of us the cave story didn’t offer either proximity or “prominence” – the involvement of well-known personalities (though I’d argue that Elon Musk lent some celebrity cachet to the whole thing.) The lack of proximity actually worked against it. In fact, a frustrating aspect of the unfolding news story was the number of inaccurate and conflicting reports; even major news networks got it wrong, presumably due to the geographical and time zone challenges.

But overall, the Thai cave rescue did involve a powerful archetype. People now say that it was simply a “good news” story, but we didn’t know how things would turn out. In essence, it was a typical adventure tale — but with a twist. At the point where most stories would have ended well – the boys’ being discovered by British divers after nine days of searching – the cave narrative was just beginning. When we realized the rescue would be risky, complicated, and perhaps impossible, everything changed. At that point it became a classic hero’s journey  – with the heroes being not the lost boys, but the teams of rescuers who risked their lives to bring the kids to safety. Shades of baby Jessica in the well.

That’s not all. Ultimately, our fascination with the Thai cave rescue may come down to those intangibles that are scarce in today’s media and social environment. The first is hope against long odds. A human David was up against a Goliath of immense and terrifying natural power. In the face of worsening conditions and sudden setbacks —  imminent downpours, declining oxygen levels inside the cave, and the death of an experienced volunteer, we weren’t confident of the outcome, but were hoping to see light at the end of a tunnel.

The other part of the cave story was that it instantly brought about something else we’ve been missing — a sense of unity. Let’s face it, each day brings divisive political reports, real and fake outrage over news events and social media reaction, and unrelenting punditry about the state of our disunion. As we waited for news out of Chiang Rai, for once, for a few days at least, we were all rooting for the same team.

How Data-Driven Storytelling Drives PR

 

For many B2B technology brands, data is not only a business asset, but a PR tool. No one should underestimate the power of data for storytelling. What we call a “data bureau” – the ongoing release of fresh and relevant information as part of a B2B program – can generate strong media interest in the absence of hard news. The data is often derived inexpensively from behavior surveys or flash polls, or it may already exist within the company’s own research unit.

Yet it can yield real insights for inclusion in a thought leadership program for key executives or a brand PR campaign. Sometimes it’s just another way to add a new dimension to an existing storyline.

Whatever the case, B2B businesses are in an excellent position to use data-driven storytelling as part of a PR strategy. Here are some compelling reasons why tech PRs should embrace the trend.

5 reasons to embrace data-driven PR

Data-driven pitches win points with journalists

Journalists look for pitches that are backed up by data in the form of charts, graphs, tables, or interactive infographics. It offers a clear story map and lends credibility to the pitch. In the last few years, as the news industry has been in flux, data-driven journalism has become the standard, as journalists forage for interesting data to either find a new story or support a current one. “Data-driven journalism is the future. Journalists need to be data-savvy,” said Tim Berners-Lee, founder of the World Wide WebSince there are now fewer journalists hustling to cover more beats and sift through more pitches, a tech PR team can win media relations points by offering readily packaged data-driven stories. Even better, media contacts will come to welcome and expect more relevant data-driven stories about your company over time — which amounts to a fruitful media partnership.

Data-driven stories support truth in media

“Good data journalism helps to combat information asymmetry,” said Tom Fries, Bertelsmann FoundationSince PR and journalists (as well as publishers and social platforms) are on the front lines of the war against false news, they value data-based storytelling. Although survey data can be poorly executed or even misleading, statistics add immediate credence to media stories. Once again, a B2B PR team can help journalists by supplying a consistent stream of reliable, compelling data-driven story premises.

Data-driven PR drives marketing engagement

data-driven PR in Tech B2B
Infographic from a 2017 article in MarTech Advisor

The overall PR/marketing trend is toward more content, and specifically more visual content. Given the documented power of visuals in the attention economy, it makes sense that data tables and infographics get shared and clicked more than plain text stories. Infographics also offer SEO opportunities for both the news outlet and the sponsor. Social sharing of graphics generates targeted referral traffic and earns links from niche-relevant websites. In other words, data-driven storytelling produces leads.

Data makes great thought leadership

B2B tech enterprise firms have a natural advantage in harvesting data for storytelling. For example, a marketing intelligence platform has built-in tools for generating incisive data-driven stories. An enterprise cyber-security firm should routinely conduct research surveys into business leaders’ security priorities and concerns – their packaged results not only inform the company’s R&D, but also can populate the company’s data bureau of thought leadership, with each media placement underscoring its expertise. The data-driven stories can be repurposed into various white papers, blog posts, and webinars, thus elevating the brand’s reputation as an industry authority.

In lockstep with the business and PR trends

In an increasing personalized marketing arena, data-driven PR stories can help create relevant content for highly targeted prospects. The well-documented trend toward individualized marketing using the ABM model demands more tailored content. Certainly marketing data analysis can help identify the targets. On the other end, rich visual content driven by data can help convert the lead. A PR team can design research surveys designed to generate content that appeals to high-value customers or partners. For example, if a new marketing software wants to attract more upwardly mobile marketing managers, it may design a survey on how millennials feel about location-based ads.

A good tech PR team should be asking what narratives are compelling, and what kind of data is needed to support it. They may even be sitting on existing data research that simply hasn’t been mined for relevant story ideas. Your next winning concept may be in a research study or consumer survey spreadsheet, and all you need to do it find it.

The 7 Plots For PR Storytelling

In explaining why his company is looking for a PR agency, a prospect recently mentioned that a flagship product was “born out of frustration” with the industry’s failings. Never mind the category; the words “born out of frustration” instantly piqued my interest.

It’s something we can all identify with, and that simple beginning signaled a good story to come. The rest of the conversation made me think of the challenges – and opportunities – that classic storytelling techniques offer for communicators as the craft of public relations evolves.

PR Professionals and Storytelling Archetypes

Most of the narratives we in PR and marketing create for brands fall into a category right out of Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots. They range from the familiar David vs. Goliath story to the rags-to-riches myth and variations on my favorite — the archetypal Hero’s Journey.

The issue for many public relations professionals is that most are trained into an “earned media” mindset. We place enormous energy into identifying, shaping, and pitching the story so that someone else will want to tell it – usually a journalist. But with the growth of brand journalism and the influx of professional journalists into PR and communications, we need to not only find those stories, but to tell them at a high level. So, like the archetypal hero who sets off on a journey or quest, we must rise to the challenge. Here are some ways that the basic storytelling plots can help.

Overcoming the monster. This one goes back to ancient Greece but it still thrives today. Look no further than Avengers: Age of Ultron or just about any other superhero film. But in business, this is typically about conflict: a small company looking to upend a behemoth; a company founder beset by personal or professional demons; or an everyman who musters the will to fight the establishment. It can be an ordinary Joe or the brilliant misfit who struggles to carve his own path, like Steve Jobs when he took his company back after Pixar.

The “frustration” line that triggered my thought is what Kevin Rogers calls the “rebel yell” statement, – a story about being fed up and wanting to make change.  This works into the “monster” archetype as well as the quest, below.

The quest. This one’s arguably the most common story. It has given birth to many variations, often as an entrepreneur’s journey, bedeviled by setbacks and fraught with personal sacrifice. Think of every startup company you’ve ever heard of.

The voyage and return. This archetype is the hero who undergoes an unexpected experience or falls down a rabbit hole but succeeds in returning home, like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. And as with Dorothy, the experience is transformative. The protagonist is changed as a result.

Rags to riches. This overlaps with “the quest” but is typically about the fruits of success and the story that follows. Serial entrepreneurs and socially minded CEOs like Richard Branson or Howard Schultz who leverage their business success to write new chapters for their business and/or new ventures belong in this category.

Comedy. Comedy can translate into an irreverent company culture or an upstart attitude of irony. It doesn’t take itself too seriously. Brands who’ve embraced this archetype range from the friendly, yet sophisticated Warby Parker, to insurance providers like Geico and Progressive, who are willing to poke fun at their own industries.

Tragedy. A tragedy story is tough unless it has an upbeat or transformative ending. Which leads us to…

Rebirth.  This is every business that has weathered a reputation crisis, economic downturn or other near-death experience. It can be self-inflicted or driven by external forces, but it’s usually some of both. Lego – a beloved brand that faced bankruptcy just 10 years ago – General Motors, and Yahoo (as a work-in-progress) have benefited by crafting a narrative involving a triumphant return or rebirth and engaging customers to root for their success. Who doesn’t love a good comeback story?

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.

7 Common PR Storytelling Sins

Most of the stories that PR and marketing professionals tell on behalf of the brands they represent fall into one of the classic story categories. Christopher Booker’s Seven Basic Plots, which has been adapted by major advertising creative directors like TBWA’s Rob Schwartz, outlines some of the most common. They range from the ever-powerful David vs Goliath archetype to the rags-to-riches myth and variations on the classic Hero’s Journey.

But the obstacle – and the opportunity – for many public relations professionals is that we’ve spent years with an “earned media” mindset. We’re trained to identify, shape, and pitch the story, but for a long time, we’ve relied on traditional journalists to actually tell it.  Now, with the rise of brand journalism and the soaring number of journalists entering PR and communications, we need to not only shape the stories, but tell them at a high level.

So, like the archetypal hero who sets out on a nearly impossible journey, we must rise to meet the challenge of a changing business. Here are some of the most common obstacles to great PR storytelling.

It ignores the customer. I’d argue that nearly every memorable marketing or PR story is a form of Hero’s Journey. This is a good thing, because the archetype is powerful and inclusive. The problem is, many PRs feel obligated to make the brand (read: the client) the hero of the tale. This is risky. Sometimes the customer is also the brand, as in the case of the entrepreneur who sees a gap in a market and starts a company that flourishes – and, yes, this is the point where the Hero’s Journey morphs into rags-to-riches!

That’s a perfect setup for a great story, because it’s both brand-centric and aspirational for the customer. But not every company fits that mold. When it doesn’t, communicators can look outside the company for the story arc — to employees, community, and, of course, customers.

It lacks conflict or drama. Without conflict, striving, searching, or suspense, there’s simply no compelling story to tell. Bolting on these elements doesn’t typically result in a great narrative, however; these ingredients need to feel organic to the situation. This is where the real research, in the form of interviews, history, and data analysis, comes in. Shaping a story about a beer brand that brings back a classic IPA is nice. But the tale of how the master brewer spent two years reverse-engineering a lost recipe with historical documents, extensive taste-testing, and interviews with longtime fans is a better one.

It’s boring or facile. A story can fall short not just because it lacks drama, but because it’s overly predictable or self-serving. Average Guy can’t find a decent car insurance policy for his son until he discovers Geico/Progressive/Fill-in-the-blank. Not so compelling, is it? But if the guy’s son suffers from a disability that makes learning to drive or getting insurance coverage difficult, a story is born.

It’s safe. It’s tough to get larger brands to take small risks with storytelling because it can involve admitting that not every product, strategy, or corporate culture was ideal to start. Yet the narrative will be far more relevant if it starts with a problem or need, and the company or hero customer/employee struggles to correct it, because that rings true. It’s classic storytelling.

It’s not edited. By this I don’t mean line editing, although writing quality is a common issue in professional storytelling, and excellent writing should be a given. But by editing, I refer to the sense that every fact or nuance is in the story offers valuable context or moves the narrative forward. If the brand’s history or the CEO’s background doesn’t tell the reader something new and valuable, it doesn’t belong in the narrative.

It’s overly commercial. We’ve all been there. But the good news is that brand marketers today are likely to be sophisticated about storytelling techniques and more willing to let branding take a back seat to the narrative flow, or to take risks with satire or humor. Look no further than the Old Spice campaign, and its many imitators and one-uppers.

It doesn’t grab the reader/viewer. The story doesn’t have to be super-short or boast a sensational link-bait headline, but it must reach out to the reader at the outset, pull him in, and make the journey worthwhile.

Storytelling Lessons From The Great Gatsby

“Gatsby’s in the zeitgeist once again,” someone recently said. It’s true that this great American novel of passion, illusion, recklessness and deceit, which chronicles the Jazz Age, is full of life and resonance today, and not just because Leonardo will portray Gatsby in the new movie.

Published nearly a century ago and filmed five times (not counting the latest Baz Luhrman version), Gatsby the character entered the vernacular long ago. You know who you mean if you say someone is “Gatsby-esque” or had a love for someone like Daisy Buchanan.

Its major set-pieces– lavish, champagne filled parties; hushed brushes with unsavory organized crime figures;  joyrides in expensive cars – are still the stuff of celebrities and wanna-be celebrities today.

What did F. Scott Fitzgerald know about the timelessness of these themes and what they say about culture today?  Money and power are so worth attaining that maintaining an illusion in order to do so can become a full-time occupation.

So, if you want to tell a story that endures, how do you start? What are your inspirations? Can it even be planned?  Of course not, but you can emulate what great artists and chroniclers of their time, such as Fitzgerald, have done.

Be an observer of the culture around you. Capture interesting conversations and people. This is easy to do in an era where everything you wear, eat and talk about is immediately saved for posterity on a social media site.

Learn to tell a story by listening to others who do it well. This includes classic storytellers like Fitzgerald as well as journalists like Malcolm Gladwell and Susan Orlean, and even TV writers like Vince Gilligan.

Keep it simple. The brain gets overwhelmed when trying to process too much information.

Be mindful of your openings and closings. Make sure to begin and end your tales with the strongest material you’ve got.

Fitzgerald said it well: “My whole theory of writing I can sum up in one sentence. An author ought to write for the youth of his own generation, the critics of the next, and the schoolmasters of ever afterward.”
Got any advice for creating something that will last? Let us know in the comments section.