When was the last time you heard or read a really good story?
I’m not talking about a whole book but more of a simple tale that captured your imagination. Where you had an emotional reaction, it made you think or you learned something new? What made it memorable?
In this blog post I want to look at some factors that make a good story as it’s important to our work as communications officers.
Whilst there are a number of factors involved in writing a good story and plenty of academic research as well, let’s look at four fundamentals to keep in mind to engage our audience – trust, simplicity, humanity and purpose.
The more the reader trusts the author, or the source of the story, the more trust is placed in the story itself. Macmillan has a strong brand and works hard to promote and protect that brand in order to retain trust and help it grow so it can reach and help more people affected by cancer. There’s no denying that over the last year trust has been an issue for the charity sector as a whole as a result of stories in the media. We can’t expect the journalists to do our job for us and bad news has always sold more easily than good. So we need to ensure our stories can be trusted and it’s not all about facts. Facts are great and generally give a context or can be compelling themselves, but they don’t end up in the public domain without an author – and do you trust that author?
A simple story is easier to remember and re-tell. This is where those of us in comms can really help. We often take a complex story and strip it down to the essentials that will enable the audience to understand us and our message. Simple doesn’t mean uninteresting. Remember how, as a child, you first learned through stories? It’s wonderful to see children learning language through nursery rhymes for example and whilst ‘Polly put the kettle on’ doesn’t do it for us in adulthood, engaging, simple stories still do it for us as they are easier to remember and re-tell, thereby helping to increase their reach and impact.
Keep it human
We also seek to bring out the human side of a story – one our audience can relate to. Good stories are about real people and need to be relevant to the audience. I think you’d be hard pushed to find someone these days who hasn’t had what we call ‘a cancer experience’ – knowing someone living with or affected by cancer, having had a cancer diagnosis themselves or having lost someone to the disease. It’s a ‘fact’ we use to make our message relevant and we rely on those who are prepared to share their story as case studies to trust us to tell their story in a sensitive way that gets over the point we want to make whilst having their interests uppermost in our minds.
A good story always has a purpose. It can inform, educate or entertain and perhaps all three. As a result of people reading, hearing or seeing our story we want them to do something, to take some action. On its own it might not compel action, but it can add to messages that people receive in various forms at other times, building a position where they then do something about it.
For me, a recent example of a good story with a purpose was that of the Bristol tattoo artist who spotted a mole on a client that had changed shape and increased in size. He advised the client to get it checked out and his action might well have saved his client’s life as it was diagnosed later that day as a melanoma. The BBC story reported some nice facts as well, quoting melanoma as the fifth most common cancer in the UK, that 25% of these cases were people under 50 and that it claims 2,000 lives a year. The story is human, simple, raises awareness and shows action being taken to extend the training to others.
The art of storytelling is much bigger than the scope of this post but I just wanted to highlight and remind us to make sure our communications and especially news releases have a relevant story that people can follow, relate to, empathise and engage with. This will have a greater impact on our audience and enable us to get more people to take action – whether that is to get help, give to our cause or reach out and help others.
By the way – if you end up singing ‘Polly put the kettle on’ in your head for the rest of today, blame me.