Public relations and marketing are both about storytelling. Good design is about storytelling. Promoting, persuading, and publicizing also come down to storytelling. When I want to convince someone to take an action, I’m asking him to participate in the story that I’m offering. There’s no trickery involved. It’s not sleight of hand. And yet, when a story is well told, there’s a bit of magic.
Unfortunately, what once came so naturally to many is now hard for most. A lot of people simply don’t know how to tell a story. In our fast-paced, 140-characters-or-less, give-it-to-me-like-I’m-a-5-year-old world, people want a blurb, not a book. They want the Cliff’s Notes version and for us to hurry up to the ending. Everyone pretends like they don’t have enough time for a good story, but the truth is they absolutely do. And you can tell a story that slows them down — without wasting their time.
Follow the Universal Format
Every story (and you can test me on this one) consists of four parts. If you can remember these four parts, congratulations, you found your story.
Somebody – Every story has a “somebody.” In PR, it might be your client. It might be the customer. Regardless, all stories start with a person or a group of people.
First and foremost, your story must connect with the human experience. Even in a highly technical B2B enterprise company, stories do not start with a piece of equipment. The story starts with a person and meets him at his point of need.
Wanted – People are complex in their needs. It’s practically our defining feature as a species. We want stuff that we don’t have. We want stuff that we didn’t even know we wanted just a day ago. We want stuff that may not even be practical, logical, or healthy for us. And we spend a good portion of our lives thinking and obsessing over what we want. Exhausting, isn’t it?
When selling a product, the “wanted” portion of your story is often not the product itself. It’s what the product offers. I don’t want water; I want to no longer be thirsty. I don’t want a new car; I want to get to work in one piece. I don’t want a trip to Disneyland; I want an experience that brings my family together.
But – Your somebody wants something… but he can’t have it. Not yet. Here’s where a lot of PR people abandon the story. They are too anxious to offer the solution. But that’s not good storytelling. First, there’s a bit of adventure, an ounce of risk, a journey that must be taken in order for the somebody to get what he wants. Luke Skywalker wants to save Princess Leia. But no one would care about this story if she were just down the street, sitting on a couch, waiting for Luke to come over. Instead, our hero must face a few challenges.
If your client is offering a new way to process invoices, first, show the customer the treacherous path of manual AP invoice processing—the potential for error and liability. While it may not sound as exciting as an interstellar space battle, for anyone working late hours, dealing with a mountain of paperwork and longing to go home, your client might have the story this person aches to hear.
So – Finally, what must your somebody do in order to get what he wants? Please, try your best to not use the words “click here” as the story’s resolution. The story shouldn’t merely send the person somewhere else. We want to sell them on the narrative right then and there.
Every piece of content, even if it sends someone to a mailing list or to sign up for an ebook, must have an actionable conclusion — an opportunity to change how the somebody sees his work, a decision to do something new, a step into unknown territory, or a chance to be part of a movement.
Be Familiar with the Genre and Offer a Variation
Every story can fit into a genre, a familiar subject with a well-trodden path. Every genre has built-in expectations. For instance, in a love story, the “wanted” section is almost always another person. Romeo wants Juliet, but she’s from a rival family, so they must marry in secret, and so on. Be familiar with the genre of your story. Are you telling a story about increased efficiency or safety? Is it the time-honored tale of affordable alternatives or an epic on innovation? Each genre has its tropes.
The goal is to offer a variation on the genre. Give your audience something it didn’t expect. Insert a twist. Romeo and Juliet follows the path of a Shakespearean comedy, and then it takes a tragic turn. Luke Skywalker thinks he’s fighting an evil tyrant, but (spoiler alert) it’s actually his father.
Tell your story, and then find a new angle. It’s a little bit of magic that makes the story worthwhile.