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Note to self: Remember the Power of Stories

In Time magazine at the end of 2015 James Murdoch wrote about the importance of stories. He lists examples of transformative story-telling both in the US and in Bollywood. But on a darker note he mentions how the ISIS (Daesh) story of blood-soaked vengeance against western oppressors has motivated individuals all over the world to unspeakable acts of violence.

James Murdoch

We agree with him that stories matter. They matter much more than most people realise. We struggle every session to persuade serious, clever people to tell stories about their own organisations, products or services. Somehow the facts and numbers come more easily but telling stories seems frivolous.

Here is my guide to crafting stories with impact.  These are not stories to be written in a novel, although there are some similarities, but stories that are crafted to become part of presentations or media messages.

What is a story?

Most people understand that if you are talking about a new product or service a client example is a good idea although they are often ridiculously difficult to come-by. Occasionally, organisations go to a lot of trouble to collect ‘signed off’ case studies. These are undoubtedly highly valuable. But they are certainly not the only sort of story that can be of use in business. As a simple short-cut a hypothetical case study works pretty well. So does an anecdote from a person’s own life. Anecdotes about my own mother have been very useful for a number of clients, how she reacts to call centres, the difficulties she has with pin numbers etc.

Beginning, middle and end

Good ‘stories’ need a beginning, a middle and an end. Simply to state ‘we helped a client save a million pounds, dollar or euros’ is the most basic of example. In the aid world to say ‘we helped a Syrian refugee family’ or a ‘subsistence farmer in Ethiopia’ tells the audience or the journalist very little. But it doesn’t take much to turn these simple statements into a story that has impact.

Create people we care about

The first step is to create characters an audience can identify with. You don’t need a great deal of detail. Just a bit of humanity will immediately give your story more impact. If your Syrian refugee is a young widow or your client an ex-serviceman making his way as a civilian, suddenly the story comes to life.

Add colour and tangible detail

The next ‘trick’ is to add the odd bit of detail that creates a picture. Let us take our widow in Syria. A few words can paint a picture of the horror of her life; sheltering in what was once a school, making a camp for her three children in the corner of an old classroom.

Any detail that creates a picture will give a story more impact.

Add drama or tension

Finally, it will help your story if there is drama or tension. Some dilemma where a happy ending is not assured. If our ex-serviceman was thinking of giving up his business and signing on, if coming to your bank for a loan was his last ditch attempt to stay afloat, suddenly we have some dramatic tension.

We never suggest making-up these stories.  We don’t have to. They always exist. It is just hard persuading people that stories not facts are the thing that will change the mind of an audience or spur them into action.

 

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3 Stories the UK’s Pro-EU lobby should tell

The Pro-EU lobby in the UK lacks a great story

We’re less than three weeks into the shadow UK-EU referendum campaign and already companies and business groups have started drip feeding negative warnings about vague threats to jobs and growth into the public debate.

Airbus, JCB and Vodafone are just three of the big names adding their two cents but precisely, who these warnings are aimed at is beyond me given that negative campaigning went down like a lead balloon in Scotland.

None of these arguments are wrong but we need something more to get inspired. Even the most casual observer knows that a large chunk of the UK in EU discussion is about British identity and that ‘red tape’, ‘renegotiation’ and ‘Brussels decides’ are often trigger words to fire people up about the fear of British identity under threat.

They are also side lining the much bigger story about the EU and Britain. In her book ‘Acts of Union and Disunion’, the historian Linda Colley argues that throughout history British identity has periodically organised itself around a series of ‘constitutive stories’ that include liberty, monarchy, the sea, constitutional superiority, islands and (at times) Europe.  These stories have been particularly helpful during times of external pressure because they give the often fractious group of different nations a common identity to converge around.

Eurosceptics are great at exploiting these ideas which is why any campaign (and I use this term in the loosest sense) for staying in the EU needs to pitch its battle lines firmly around these areas.  This means looking at identity and beyond jobs, growth, reform, regulation, renegotiation, the national interest, immigration or, shock horror, caps on mobile phone roaming charges.

Fortunately, the signs are that the pro-camp is starting to see that economic arguments alone won’t be enough. Any successful pro-EU campaign needs to re-claim and re-frame these ideas by coming up with a better set of stories about why being British means being at the heart of the EU. It doesn’t mean its leaders need to chuck their studies about British jobs and influence out of the window. But it does mean understanding that people need more than a set of data and scaremongering soundbites about loss of growth and trade to get excited.

Whether we’ll get this kind of approach is debatable, particularly given the less than inspiring line up of big names tasked with leading the referendum discussion.

But I do think we need to see three kinds of identity-based stories doing the rounds.  I don’t claim to have them all fleshed out but they broadly fall into stories that address the questions – what do I want for me/my family, what kind of country do I want to live in, and what kind of world do I want to live in?
The first story needs to address the issue of ‘small values’ i.e. one that addresses what being in the EU means to people at an individual and familial level. This could be very much tied to the ambition and aspiration (whatever that means) agenda that everyone seems to be getting excited about in Westminster. If we are to believe that Britain is a place that rewards hard work then being part of the club that shapes the rules of the world’s biggest single market of 500 million people is essential. If people are personally ambitious then they need to feel personally invested in the club that is the gateway to that prosperity.  And they need to be able to explain that to other people they know.

Then we need one on big values i.e. what kind of country do I want to live in?  This story is the counterpoint to the perennial ‘red tape’ argument put out by businesses and addresses a lot of the good things that Brits want in their lives – such as holidays, better environmental and energy efficiency standards for fighting climate change and energy dependence and more control over working hours.

And finally we need one about Britain’s place in the world through the EU. And this is the one about taking a lead and setting common standards on climate change, equal pay, human rights energy security, scientific research and Russia. It’s partly about influence but it’s equally about pragmatism and also understanding why being part of a bigger group is key for economies of scale as well as influence.

Reclaiming and mastering the narrative for the pro-EU camp will be hard but essential not least because it’s starting on the back foot. It will require pushing back against the common garden way of talking about and framing the EU and making British people feel as though they are making an active, deliberate and inclusive choice about being British when they choose to be in the EU.

Will these tales be enough? Possibly not.  But Britain’s membership of the EU is about more than the national interest. It’s about our national identity and a vision we can and should be proud to be part of. Those who support it must make their voice heard and must not get side tracked by arguments over reform and re-negotiation.

In short, we must hear the kind of stories that show how the success and values of all Britons – not just Britain – have built and are built through Europe.


                                                                               

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From marketing material to stories: mistakes to avoid

Who should decide what counts as ‘news’?

An interesting piece in this weekend’s FT highlighted the challenge that ‘corporate news’ now poses to traditional journalism. By which I mean the trend for companies not only to bypass the media by self-publishing PR stories, blogs or video clips, but also to create their own community news portals in which they present their stories as impartial news.

Some examples are given in the FT piece, which I strongly recommend reading.

Now, I am all for companies telling the best possible version of their story but I am squeamish about them sponsoring community websites which mix only positive corporate PR stories in with other kinds of ‘news’ (which presumably is not so positive). It’s clever and I am probably naive. But as someone who is a former journalist and works with a lot of PRs I’m not convinced this kind of approach won’t backfire in the longer term because it seeks to control the terms of the conversation rather than genuinely expanding it. And that runs counter to the supposedly transparent, inclusive principles, which underpin the digital age we now live in.

That said, companies are doing a sensible thing by taking a more journalistic approach to telling their stories, not least because many of them have been their own worst enemy when it comes to humanising what they do and the broader social benefits they bring.

So, if you are going to do more storytelling for your company or client, here are few tips.

Turning marketing puff into good stories is not easy

1. Sell the benefits not the product

People working on these stories are frequently only given marketing literature or press releases to draft from. These inevitably focus on what is particularly cool or new about the product rather than emphasising the particular social need it meets. So, for example, if you or your client manufactures a type of handbag that is made from 100% recycled material and still looks good and lasts a long time then you need to tell the bigger story of dwindling resources, saving the planet while looking good etc. Very few people who might read this story will care about the product or its qualities in their own right. But if you appeal to their values, they might.

2. Don’t believe the hype

This also means you need to challenge the cliches which pervade marketing literature but look lazy or over-sold in stories. Usual suspects include ‘innovative’, ‘experience’, ‘unique’, ‘transformative’ and ‘exceptional’. They succeed only in being simultaneously bland yet hyperbolic (and usually unsubstantiated). After all, we are still talking about a cup of coffee or a pair of headphones. Keep your language grounded and make a point of showing (using facts and examples and independent evidence) not telling. If you don’t have enough information, go back to your client or your colleagues and ask for more. This is an iterative process so don’t worry if you think your first effort is a bit thin.

This is a personal gripe but you should also limit your use of compound nouns. Used sparingly they are fine but when I read lots of references to ‘meat-eaters’, ‘coffee-lovers’, ‘tech-aficionados’ etc I can’t help feeling that is a lazy way to try and create a movement around something that doesn’t really exist. Now, I know this is a marketing technique but it doesn’t work for stories, particularly if used too often. I am all for making language interesting but this doesn’t do it.

Here are a couple of traps to avoid. If you have any other suggestions I’d love to hear them.

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Telling tales: how to develop a storytelling culture at work

Barely a day goes by without some communications tsar or journalist evangelising the benefits of storytelling for business and politics. And regular readers of this blog and our clients will also know just how much emphasis we place on the value of stories for making arguments concrete and memorable for the media, politicians, voters, customers or other members of the public.

“The manager of a bottling plant in Alsace told me the other day that …” can lead to an illustration of the importance of new labour regulations, environmental controls, human rights legislation, etc, etc.

“I was travelling in Eastern Spain over the Christmas holidays and came across a …” could introduce a killer example to support an immigrant rights campaign, social welfare legislation, drought/flooding alleviation measures, language-teaching subsidies, etc, etc.

That’s fine, in principle. But how do you develop a storytelling culture in organisations or industries whose staff see this kind of approach as purely something for the communications department to focus on?

A well crafted story makes messages memorable and sticky

Brussles doesn’t do story-telling well. Here are some tips for beleaguered communications staff to wield with recalcitrant colleagues.

1. Remember the big picture

Unless you are seriously odd, or read the rightwing British press (or both), EU regulation and legislation are not end-goals in their own right. Whether you’re talking to MEPs, journalists or members of your trade association, the particular directive your colleagues are working on is always part of a bigger story, be it about public health, the environment, or data protection. Encourage colleagues to take a step back and recognise the purpose and impact of their work outside Brussels. I accept this is tricky but it’s important.

2. Sort out the messaging

If you don’t have decent messages, work with the public affairs team and policy experts to refashion them into a proper story, which uses the legislative process to supply the detail (and not the narrative).  Less is often more. My heart sinks when I see unambitious and overcomplicated messages that are full of unsubstantiated assertions and meaningless proof points.

3. Know what isn’t a story

Resist the urge to comment on every single micro development that comes out of the Parliament, Commission and Council. There is far too much position paper and press release writing going on in Brussels as it is. I know I am not the only (ex) journalist who would be happy to never read another Brussels missive ‘welcoming’ some Commission announcement or announcing that the European Pencil Sharpener Association (also known as P.O.I.N.T.L.E.S.S.) held a conference. Don’t do it. These things are not interesting and they are not stories. Communications directors must stand their ground on this one.

4. Get your pipeline sorted

You can’t have a storytelling culture without stories and numbers (often known as proof points). If you are in a trade association or NGO coalition you may struggle to get decent material from your members.  But they are like gold dust in Brussels (because they are painful to source). Try to set up relationships with colleagues or wider association members who understand what you need and can help feed your pipeline. Tell them what you are looking for and ask them to give you examples and numbers that are memorable, show a relationship or can be put in context (i.e. which tell a story).

5. Apply this approach to everything

Whether it’s company notepads, posters, presentations, social media output or infographics, make sure all your organisation’s communications reflect its values and impact. If you are a grant-making body, this means putting an end to photos of meetings and handshakes and getting more action shots of children being taught in school, or fishermen using new nets.

Here are five ideas for how to encourage a storytelling approach in your organisation.

Let me know what’s worked for you?