What is storytelling anyway?
Neil Gaiman could tell you a thing or two about storytelling.
I’ve just finished reading his book Anansi Boys, a book that’s difficult to categorise neatly into a single genre, but falls somewhere in between fantasy, science-fiction and thriller. The book draws on both mythology and modern life. It has a main character and a supporting cast, plots and subplots, themes, stark imagery, and draws heavily on symbology. It’s complex and emotional. It has a beginning and a middle and an end. I won’t give away any spoilers, but it’s a fantastic book.
Neil Gaiman is a consummate storyteller. So is J.K Rowling. So was Roald Dahl.
When you think about it like that, co-opting the term “story teller” for the Public Relations industry seems just a little but cheeky. Especially as it seems to be most commonly used as a synonym for content marketer, which was one of last year’s buzzwords. Writing non-fiction, especially in the corporate realm, does not involve quite the same level or world-building as the authors above have achieved.
Nonetheless, it got me thinking. What can we learn about writing from the world’s most talented fiction writers?
A story is nothing without strong, compelling characters. Who are the main characters in the stories you’re telling? Do you have charismatic senior executives you can draw on like Richard Branson at Virgin? Or are your most important characters the brand ambassadors, like Jennifer Aniston is for L’Oreal? You may even choose to make your customers the most visible character in your campaign, like Starbucks do on their Instagram page.
Whatever story you plan to tell, figure out the characters you need to propel it to the forefront of your audiences’ minds.
While your campaigns will vary in terms of content, it’s wise to have an ongoing themes. For example, Coca Cola releases new ads all the time, but they all have similar themes. The Coca Cola #TasteTheFeeling campaign that’s out at the moment has different components but one core theme: We’re part of your family’s happiest memories. A solid theme allows the different elements of your campaign to build on each other, so that ultimately, the sum is greater than its parts.
Imagery and symbology
Despite tons of evidence that engaging photos and infographics increase click-through rates dramatically, most companies continue to use the same selection of boring stock photos and bland corporate shots to illustrate their stories. If you’re looking for an easy way to go head-and-shoulders above your competition, invest extra time and energy into creating eye-catching, memorable shots to go with your campaign. [Yes, I know, I’m not quite following my own advice here]
Even in writing, whether it’s a press release, a byline or a white paper, strong imagery can create a lasting impression. Use imaginative analogies to paint pictures of the problems you’re customers and clients face – and how you’re solving them.
Know what to leave out
Storytelling is an art. It’s about choices. In many ways, it’s easier to write 1,000 words on a topic than it is to write 250. Learn to be brutal. Weed out unnecessary words, sentences and paragraphs. Readers can sense it when you’re waffling and it will cause them to close the page. Each point must justify its own existence.
So, while I remain skeptical about PR practitioners redefining themselves as “storytellers”, there are lessons to be learnt here. What would you add to the list? Let me know in the comments.
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