The Power of Storytelling: Words That Make People Listen, Care and Act

When people ask me what I do for a living, I usually answer that I help brands tell their stories to influence perceptions or behavior. It might be an oversimplified explanation of what the PR profession entails, but storytelling is something that people outside our sector can understand.

The truth is that we don’t communicate solely through stories, but storytelling is what enables us to create meaningful relationships, as humans and as brands. As such, storytelling is an essential skill for PR practitioners.

Telling stories is one of the oldest art forms, used by every culture to share experiences, record history, convey values and teach lessons. Remember those story problems from grade-school math class? Or the fairy tales your parents read to you as a child? Stories convey information in ways that people remember and respond to more than when the same information is delivered in non-narrative forms.

Perhaps the true power of stories lies in how they can unite people who would otherwise have little in common. Think of brands such as Airbnb and Toms Shoes that have built their businesses through sharing stories — and as a result have formed communities where none previously existed. Consider the “lifestyle brands” that companies such as Nike and Red Bull have developed to market products and services relevant to the interests of specific groups of people. Lifestyle brands create communities of fans by inspiring them with shared stories and experiences that reflect their preferred ways of living.

Telling stories makes us more relatable to others. The same is true for brands. When brands employ storytelling, they’re perceived as more authentic and human. Emotional connections are made. Stories have the power to make people listen, care and act — outcomes that are good for businesses and causes alike.

Recipe for Good Stories

How do brands create compelling stories? There’s a recipe to follow, but before you start, identify your objective first. Are you trying to sell a product, obtain donations or move people to care about a cause? Begin with your end goal in mind. And then stir in these ingredients:

  • Protagonist: Getting this character right is essential for your story. Who is this person? It must be someone your audience will identify with, so they’ll follow your story. To find the right protagonist, you’ll need to know your audience.
  • Conflict: What problem does your protagonist face? For the audience to care about this person’s struggle to overcome a conflict, it should be one they feel empathy for or have experienced themselves.
  • Resolution: Once you have found a protagonist and conflict your audience can relate to, it’s time to resolve the problem, ideally with a happy ending that your brand provides.

Happy Endings

With only three ingredients in your story, each one is essential. Without a relatable protagonist, no one cares about the conflict. Without a conflict, there’s no need for a happy ending. And without a happy ending, the brand cannot emerge as the hero of the story, the solution to the problem.

But for brands, there’s a fourth essential ingredient in storytelling: the call to action. What you want the audience to do after reading, hearing or seeing your story should tie back to your objectives.

Once your story is prepared, you need to share it. As PR practitioners, our happy endings usually include seeing the news media tell our stories. And while earned media is still important, media shared by members of the public may have surpassed it in terms of influence.

Consumers say they’re more likely to support brands that people they know have shared stories about on social media. To that end, many brands now create stories that are distributed only through owned media such as their websites, blogs and social media accounts. Consumers can then share those stories across their own channels.

However you choose to initially distribute your story, the more it’s shared, the greater its potential becomes to influence perceptions or behavior. So maybe my simple explanation of our profession was accurate, after all. 

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of PRSA’s Strategies & Tactics.

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