Commentary

Storytelling Is An Art

If a picture paints a thousand words, then how much is a tweet worth? Ten words, a dozen? When embracing Twitter, have you struggled to write something profound or worthwhile within the confines of 140 characters? I have. Don't get me wrong, "tweet speak" has its place in our digital world, but with every process that strips away the need to construct coherent and meaningful prose, not just blurts with links, we will, in turn, think less about what and how we write. It's already happening.

When talking about the art of communicating and storytelling, whether it's oral, aural, visual or in words (stay with me here, I am trying to correlate this with PR), the creative process is often lost during the template-driven process of writing a press release. I touched on this in my last column: some of you argued that the press release is not dead. Perhaps, or perhaps it is being "re-tooled" is more accurate. Any "fill-in-the-blanks-here" method is not conducive to creative thinking -- and that's 50% (or more) of what we're supposed to do at a PR firm. It's not just tactics, you know.

Here's one example of (and thanks goes to Constantine Hoffman's blog for this beauty):

"In the newly released benchmark report, 'Application Security: Protect Sensitive Data while Improving Compliance,' Aberdeen Group, a Harte-Hanks Company, found that on average, Best-in-Class organizations were able to realize a 12x greater decrease in the number of successful application security attacks than Industry Average companies as a direct result of incorporating the right blend of technologies and services as a part of their comprehensive application security strategies."

Huh? Can someone explain the meaning and what I'm supposed to get from that sentence?

As communications professionals, some of us are either not equipped with the right skills when we leave PR school, and/or we're losing those skills in favor of Twitter jargon and a media cycle with the attention span of a flytrap.

Good storytelling is a skill that needs to be nurtured by PR professionals, and taught profusely within agencies and by academics. It is not about form, but about substance. Companies want us to tout their wares, so we have to rise about mediocre drivel and produce compelling stories for our media audience.

Good storytelling can incite emotions, can make us buy triple-stack hamburgers when we're not hungry or cause our minds to create fantastic what-if scenarios. Good stories can make us cry, laugh or feel sick. Even better, good stories can make journalists pick up the phone or hit the reply button to our emails, saying, "Tell me more, I want to know." They are the reactions that good storytelling can invoke, and I don't think that's something we can do with a micro-tweet or pushing a one-size-fits-all template that's been approved by corporate because it's safe and sounds good to the CEO.

Our clients demand more results from us than ever before. As consumers, we've become more demanding and less forgiving. So as communicators, we really should know better. We don't want to be sold to or have stuff pushed in our faces. We want stories that make us "feel," which is exactly what our communications to media should also do.

Our clients need their brands boosted, their products sold and their services in demand. As PR people, we need to understand and capture what pushes peoples' buttons -- whether we're pitching reporters, bloggers or consumers - and, ultimately, what makes them react in ways we want. Our industry is not about distributing press releases but about communicating our clients' everything in meaningful, impactful ways.

Good stories don't need to be packaged in special kits or on glossy paper to be effective. They just need to tell and, ultimately, sell our clients' stories very well.

So if you want to call them pitches or releases, go ahead. Just don't forget that stories have been around for thousands of years, influencing people and their decisions.

Wouldn't you want your story to have that kind of power?

Tags: commentary, pr
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3 comments about "Storytelling Is An Art".
  1. Craig Peters , September 30, 2009 at 7:41 a.m.

    Spot on, Vanessa. As I blogged this morning (over here: http://www.lohad.com/?p=4307) releases that are written as stories received 31 percent more page views on average than more conventional press releases. Beyond the page views, though, the editors actually used them far more often than the conventional releases.

  2. John Ribbler from Media Pro, Inc. , September 30, 2009 at 12:52 p.m.

    All human endeavor is art when it is practiced by an artist. Great headline writers have always had character limits well below 140 characters and have been able to conjure stories. One problem of the democratization of media is that everyone with a brush and a canvas cannot be an artist.

  3. Bob Batchelor from Thiel College , September 30, 2009 at 1:21 p.m.

    Hello Vanessa, great perspective on storytelling. If I can weigh in from an academic perspective, many of us teach our public relations students to think concurrently about audience and storytelling to get at the heart of a topic.

    If a student or young professional looks to the broader culture for inspiration, then one sees the beauty of storytelling that can be applied to sell products, services, etc., in songs, films, books, etc. The challenge is to get students to make the connection.

    For instance, even reading something as basic as People can be applied, since the storytelling aspect and story through pictures is why so many people turn to the magazine for information.

    The disconnect in the real world, from what I've experienced, is that too many agency leaders are not willing to counsel clients re the power of storytelling, when the client is content with (yet another) typical release. One would think that the Web would have alleviated this problem by now, since the Internet is a story-driven medium, but we still see the drivel like you posted that makes no sense whatsoever.

    Another challenge is that too many press releases trumpet the company, rather than how the product or service helps the consumer/customer. Too often, we see "Company XXX Introduces," when the focus should be on the benefit to the consumer. Who cares that a company released a new piece of software, the release is about how it will make someone's life better by using it.

    Thanks for highlighting this important topic for your readers.