Anyone who has children, as I do, will at some point have received the request to “tell me a story.” Stories are a fundamental part of being human. In days of mass illiteracy, stories were the way in which society passed down its history from generation to generation, where lessons were taught and laughter shared. Tragedy and comedy, parable and epic were used to entertain, educate and enthuse, to teach people to farm, and to send them to war. Stories were powerful and used accordingly.
You have to wonder, therefore, at what point the “story” gave way to the “message,” at least among corporates. Most of our clients seem to want to deliver messages (I do loads of “messaging sessions” designed to arm clients to do just that), but people respond best to stories. Given that companies are, after all, communicating to people (even if they are organized, unbeknownst to them, into relatively arbitrary “stakeholder groups” or “target audiences”) this strikes me as an obvious disconnect. Messages seem developed primarily to win arguments, but how many people have had their hearts and minds won by a message?
Companies do seem increasingly attracted by the possibility of the story, though. They like the simplicity and the engagement of a story well told. They like the fact that they can be personal and yet also encompass broad themes. They like the ability to have heroes (normally themselves) and villains (the opposition), to have quests and challenges overcome, redemption, and the occasional bit of revenge. They recognize that campaigning NGOs, which are often against them, use stories all the time and that there is no use moaning that “they are not using all the facts.” They also know that their communications agencies get the power of stories and have been using them for years.
These same companies, however, struggle with how to get to their story. They struggle to unbundle, to strip away the apparently “must have” detail that permeates corporate communications in all its forms. The increasing opportunity to communicate afforded by social media and the proliferation of channels is seen as a reason for more – more messages, more detail, more voices – rather than an opportunity to tell a relatively simple story more often, to more people.
Increasingly, I feel that our role as communicators needs to be to help articulate the story; not just to craft the messages. We need to know how stories work, how they bring power and which stories genuinely resonate. We need to be able to write the story and then to help tell this in as compelling a way as possible.
So, the next time somebody comes to you and says, “I want to work on my messages,” sit them down, give them a cup of tea, and say “why don’t you tell me a story?”
Nick Andrews is FleishmanHillard’s Reputation Practice Leader for EMEA. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.