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Storytelling in PR: five steps to a happy ending

Integrated PR - 18th June 2015

As a way of explaining your business, storytelling can be a very effective approach. Properly told, a business story can create colour and interest in a way your audience will appreciate and remember. Whether winning over sceptical journalists, wooing customers or motivating employees, good storytelling can be a powerful asset. However, as every parent knows, a story can easily fall flat. Here, we set out five golden rules for telling your corporate story.

All news stories are fundamentally about people, and storytelling is a great way of emphasising human interest. Tales of how adversity was overcome or a breakthrough achieved can be both engaging and memorable (which is the reason that storytelling was used to hand down knowledge before literacy was widespread). In a PR context, explaining the human angle can transform something dry or abstract into a tale that has meaning for the wider world and merits media coverage.

Some of the most successful businesses have made their story a central part of their success. Some are well-known: Virgin’s global empire is based on the buccaneering tale of Richard Branson as a ‘David versus Goliath’ entrepreneur; Innocent Drinks created a multimillion pounds enterprise with the help of talent, a lot of fruit and a story about values. Andreas Panayiotou of The Ability Group left school without qualifications and found success as an amateur boxer – his greater success as a property magnate owes much to the disciplines he learned in the boxing ring.

Of course, some situations lend themselves to storytelling more readily than others. However, with a little effort, it is often possible to identify a story that lifts something from the mundane to the memorable. For example, if you want to promote a new product or service, is there an interesting tale of what inspired it, how it came about or how it has changed people’s lives for the better? A little creative investigation may yield some hidden marketing gold.

How, then, should you tell your story? In many respects, a business story is similar to regular fiction. It needs a protagonist and a beginning, middle and end. It should explain a ‘journey’, in which obstacles were overcome and a positive outcome arrived at. It should be concise and told with conviction.

However, there are five further rules that any business storyteller should observe:

1.            Start at the end. A bedtime story can begin with ‘Once upon a time…’, but a business tale needs to cut to the chase. Your audience has a finite attention span, so grab their attention with a summarised outcome before taking them back to the beginning. For example, “Montezuma’s Chocolates is today one of the UK’s top organic chocolate companies, but ten years ago its husband-and-wife founders were exhausted City lawyers desperate for something better to do with their lives.”

2.            Show why it matters. A business story is a call to action, not mere entertainment. If you want the audience to change their behaviour in some way, show how the story will alter their lives or improve their business. Think of the business outcome you want before crafting a story that takes you there.

3.            Highlight the drama. A story without tension or novelty is listless and unremarkable. Emphasise the challenges that were faced along the way, and how life would be worse had things gone differently.

4.            Include the extraordinary. A story’s magic ingredient is showing how the odds were overcome. Whether it was luck, persistence, a chance meeting or exceptional risk-taking, a story needs something extraordinary. Using that element to inspire the audience works even better: if listeners think, “Hey, that could happen to me!” the chances are they will remember your tale.

5.            Fit your story to the culture. Stories speak to our values, and values differ around the world. To engage your listeners, a story must be something they can relate to and believe in. For example, some groups (like journalists) are instinctively resistant to being sold to. Recognise when a listener’s defences are up and their default position is scepticism; if necessary, dial down your rhetoric and focus on the common ground you can identify. (Or, if you prefer, don’t sell a Hollywood ending to people who prefer films by Mike Leigh.)