I recently made a 230-mile detour to deliver birthday presents to my four-year-old niece, Halle. She loved the special markers she could use to custom color her new washable stuffed horse.
Only a few minutes passed, however, before she discarded the horse, hopped onto the couch and thrust her new book into my lap for me to read. During the next 15 minutes, we traveled to a land of castles and royalty where a young princess could not attend the queen’s ball without help from her friends.
People want good stories
Fortunately, stories are not just for kids. Even we adults—who are bombarded by thousands of messages each day—are still lured by a good story. Here are a few nuggets I took away from the speakers at PRSA’s 2011 International Conference.
“Humans have always been connected to stories,” Soledad O’Brien, award-winning journalist and host of CNN’s “In America” documentaries, told listeners during her keynote address at last year’s conference. “Storytelling is more than just a compelling fact.”
Johna Burke, senior vice president, marketing and communications, BurrellesLuce, emphasized storytelling as a primary tactic to connect with targeted audiences.
“Storytelling is the core competency in the public relations profession, next to great writing,” she said, adding that storytelling is no longer limited to library readings, festivals and other analog channels.
“We now have multimedia hypertext, social media and user-generated broadcast. PR professionals must leverage the art form—make your story compelling, make it stand out.”
It’s all about the audience
Burke warned that blasting our message to the masses is not effective, citing the following as the most important considerations:
- Audience – Target the story through the proper channels
- What matters – Understand your community and what they want
- Sustainability – Channel your resources so you aren’t wasting time and money talking where no one is listening
She referenced Walt Disney as one of the premier storytellers of all time: “he knew who his audience was. He knew that kids were his primary market, yet he recognized his secondary market was the parents (using allusions above the kids’ heads to amuse the adults). He also didn’t forget there’s always a tertiary market — audiences we may not have originally anticipated but who still matter and who take an interest in our stories…”
Suitable for most mediums
Storytelling has the ability to captivate almost any audience using nearly any communications medium. Marriott International, Inc. engages hotel guests by placing a black and white booklet entitled “Spirit to Serve, Our Stories” on the nightstand in every room. This small but powerful publication stresses the chain’s commitment to customer service by sharing staff member anecdotes—from vice presidents and general managers to a kitchen assistant.
J.W. Marriott, Jr., Marriott chairman and CEO, authored the foreword, explaining why Marriott chose an ensemble of employee tales to communicate its corporate message.
“When I first began speaking at business conferences, I asked for some advice from the best speechmaker I knew: my dad. I wanted him to give me tips to help prepare for all the questions I was getting about the company’s strategy and performance. Instead, he waved me off with a simple answer: “Bill, that stuff doesn’t matter to people. All they’ll remember are the stories.”
We can all learn from the great storytellers of our times. Weave a story the next time you want to engage readers and cut through the clutter.
Who are your favorite storytellers?