How to Tell a Story

StorytellerEveryone has tips on how to tell a story. Advice ranges from ensuring your story has an arc, including engaging details, making it personal, and practicing your delivery in the case of elevator pitches. Much of this guidance is helpful but never really gets at the heart of telling a story. So then the question remains: how do you tell a story?

I’ve been told a million stories over the years. As a reporter I was pitched time and again by everyone from neighbors to CEOs. As a communications professional my clients or colleagues regaled me with stories of new products and programs that were always “changing the landscape” of whatever mission we were working on at the time. Many of these tales never went further than my ears.

So what does get attention? Or better yet, what deserves attention? What rises to the ranks of newsworthy or makes me pause and ask, “Tell me more?”

I’m only going to say this once so listen up: have something to thoughtful to say. It’s that simple. Add to the conversation. Don’t sell. Think about why you listen to stories that are told to you out of the blue. These are all different ways of saying that you need something worthwhile to share. Just stating that your product is new or different will never make anyone care deeply enough that they listen to you for more than a minute and politely nod at your occasional breaks in delivery.

So the next time you plan to tell someone about yourself, your work, or your children/pets/products/car/phone/app/book/movie/show, please be sure it will add something to their lives. It’s time that they will use to either learn to like you or not, so don’t waste it. After that, everything else from the arc to the personal and engaging details will fall into place.

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Let’s Tell Stories

Let’s get your 2013 work-year off to a good start. How about by focusing on story? As a storyteller I really can’t think of anything more important…

So to get you in the right frame of mind for telling a great story, here is a short video from MSLGROUP. Enjoy!

Use Your Senses Not Just the Polycom

Sherlock-Holmes-007It’s tempting when working in public relations to jump on a story that you think the press will like. Maybe you’re on a conference call with your client and they mention the beginnings of a new product. A small spark builds in your gut telling you that this may be the making of the next release or pitch to a reporter. But why do you feel this way?

You need to examine your motivation. Do you have a contract to deliver X number of press releases annually? Secure so many clippings? Post daily to your client’s social media pages?

If this is the driving force behind your “inspiration” you need to stop. Stop right there and look at yourself. Do you see what I see? A public relations consultant grasping at straws, reacting to their environment rather than providing the expertise that they professed to offer in the new client pitch meeting.

I’m a big believer in immersion when it comes to story telling. I’ve been in your shoes and it was torture. Sitting in a conference room listening intently and taking reams of notes as your client is poked and prodded by your managers for the golden ticket that will open the gates to a colorful and wondrous story. I would rather visit the dentist for weekly teeth cleanings than sit through another one of those.

When I went in-house I was amazed at just how many stories were waiting to be picked up. They just lay there, as inviting as a dog awaiting a belly rub. The more I roamed around, peered around corners, walked into rooms without any forethought, and spoke with staff members the more I realized that every company has stories. So why weren’t they getting across the phone lines or via Skype?

The answer was simple: clients rarely possess the skills to identify stories. It’s not in their DNA. They have jobs to do and that’s why they were hired. You most likely speak with their head of comms or marketing. They have agendas that focus on raising revenues. If they can tell a good story along the way then that’s great but they need to see results.

This is where you come in. You know what makes a good story and you know that it’s directly tied to revenue. You can pick a good story out from a load of horseshit in record time. The problem is you can’t see the barnyard from your conference room. (Ok, I’ll stop the farm talk.)

The point is, you know that Joe and Jane Public will buy your client’s product if it has the latest bells and whistles but what about the better story. Hopefully your client’s product is solid so what will separate them from the competition? Maybe they just helped a line worker pay mortgage bills to keep afloat in a down economy or supported the booster club at the local high school. But you wouldn’t know these things unless you went there and saw them for yourself. Even if they tell you these things you may miss the real story waiting in the gooey center of these little nuggets. Believe me, they all go further and deeper than you can imagine from your state of the art Polycom conference phone.

While you should use calls for updates, you need to put boots on the ground. The problem is that most site visits are brief, lasting only a few hours and consisting mainly of lunch. But how can it last longer when your client is several states away and can’t pony up the cash to reimburse you for your flight to their HQ? (Sorry, another farm animal snuck in.)

While the hiring of long distance clients is a topic best covered another day, I can say that I’ve had success training people on the ground to identify stories. It really surprises me how media training frequently consists of interview prep and not much else. Media training should include large doses of teaching staff members to uncover news quickly and share it with the comms dept and your agency to review.

While this is more of a rambling dialogue today, it may hold a nugget to get you looking at how you go about uncovering stories. For me, it’s described nearly perfect in this video from The Boston Globe. In it, these reporters knew that to understand a story they needed to immerse themselves in it.

If there is one takeaway from this post, please remember that you can’t describe truthfully that which you do not experience firsthand.

Once upon a nonprofit…

Storytelling has become a lost art among many modern nonprofits. Statistics now overshadow the drama, comedy and suspense in this sector and unfortunately, the few stories provided to audiences have been relegated to late night appeals that only function as guilt driven fundraisers rather than obtaining support through engagement and understanding.

The Heartstrings’ Connected to the Purse String

Those “pull on your heart strings” ads attempt to form a connection through gut reactions to horrible circumstances, however they rarely leave you informed to share more information than a brief description of a starving child or abused animal.

These “infomercials” are little more than nonprofit junk food designed for one purpose – drive donations. However they never truly accomplish the most elusive goal – creating advocate.

You may donate, you might feel like you contributed, maybe even made a difference and you might even tell a few people. This type of experience will live a box in your mind and rarely fuels further action or provide you with the tools for informed discourse.

Learning and Understanding

Think back to any learning experience in your life. Odds are it was not when you were fed information but rather when you felt a solid connection to a subject. You should have quite a few that stick with you because of the emotional bond to that memory.

Now cull those experiences to the few that impacted your current actions. Maybe it changed the direction of your career or awoke a passion that you never knew existed. Whatever happened, you were never the same person and you learned something about the world around you and how you fit into it.

What was the singular factor that made that experience stick with you for so long and not fade away into a one-time action?

Chances are it involved a story filled with character development, heroes and villains, images that did more than pass in front of you. These experiences welcomed you in to a new world, compelling you to engage with more than just your gut. This moment provided you with a framework where you understood your place in the world a bit more.

Enough with the Mushy Stuff

So now that you have this moment in your mind, you can appreciate what it took to engage you in a purpose. This is what you must now duplicate in your daily interactions with current and future supporters.

Too often, we feel comfortable throwing out statistics. We feel that when presented with the facts everyone will join our cause. That is seldom the case when building long-term support, the kind that will be there years down the road when you need it most…say during a recession.

It cannot be said enough that you care about your organization’s mission more than the average person walking down the street. Their day is filled with work, family, friends, gossip and a million tiny distractions. How will you break into that haze and be noticed?

Find Your Story

Many times it comes down to the story. Who have you helped? How did you help? What did you do that should be a banner headline on the newspaper or scrolling across a media site? Be honest, none of this “Well we just hired great new CEO…”

So here’s your homework: Think of a compelling story. Frame it in your mind. Ask yourself who would care about this story. Does it only work in your town, your city, or will it translate to other states, countries?

If it can bridge culture and language, you have a winner. Now write it down and share it.

A note: It is great if Saturday Night Live parodies your story as long as it’s not because they hate you…

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