Storytelling: How to get heard in the noisy world

Storytelling is a significant factor in guiding decisions, forming impressions and creating distinguished propositions. Stories gain attention, corner emotions and drive credibility.

By Varghese M Thomas, 

What makes a person interesting? Knowing the person’s name, age, gender, nationality, and educational background helps. It is, however, experiences, ideas, hopes, aspirations, dreams, convictions, opinions and beliefs that breathe life into the person, making the person interesting. We relate to their stories and the environments they live in. These fire connections, friendships and, sometimes, a life-long romance. Let’s face it; more people can recall and relate to a good story than those who can remember and interpret numbers! And, if stories connect people, they can also create connects to brands, products, services and business goals. When done correctly, they can be a business differentiator.

Telling stories has been central to human history. The Bhagavad Gita, the Bible, the Quran, the Torah and tales of the Buddha are some classic examples of enduring tales that have been repeated over centuries. Our DNA is wired to listen to stories that inform, entertain, inspire, motivate and bind us. This is why a relatable story ensures our message makes an impact. They prompt easy to recall, build trust and trigger the desired actions.

As PR professionals, we instinctively know that the difference between presenting cold facts and warm stories is stark. However, researchers are quantifying the difference. Using the Wason Selection Test (based on hypothetico-deductive reasoning), researchers have shown that fewer than 10% can solve a logic puzzle. That number grows to 70-90% solving it when presented as a social contract or as a fairly familiar situation explained descriptively.

While the Wason Selection Test outcomes are impressive and will make professionals sit up and take note, they are still cold numbers to most people. They don’t leave a memorable impact on the ordinary reader. We need to tell a juicy story here, preferably one that reflects tendencies that mark us as humans and make us human. So, without much ado, here is a story that will, doubtless, bring a smile to your face: In a fascinating 2012 experiment called Significant Objects, researchers did something wickedly simple. They used e-bay to auction thrift-store products bought for $1.25 apiece using purpose-written short stories around those objects by 200 contributing writers. The stories are quirky, hilarious, mesmerizing and memorable. They make fascinating reading. The result on buyers was predictable. As examples, a $1.49 fortune-telling device was sold for $56; a ¢25 egg whisk sold for $30. For the curious, the literary and economic experiment is also available as a book.

Admittedly, the Significant Objects experiment can be considered manipulative. Manipulation is absolutely not being recommended here for PR professionals. The point of the experiment is more important. It demonstrates the importance of storytelling and how it can be an effective way to get heard in a noisy world and draw desired actions from the target group.

Storytelling is a significant factor in guiding decisions, forming impressions and creating distinguished propositions. Stories gain attention, corner emotions and drive credibility. However, the best storytelling aims to humanize situations and circumstances, making them relatable and easy to follow.

Don’t create complex stories. Don’t choose clever endings. Use storytelling to show value and transfer your beliefs to your target group. Use it to develop empathy, bridge relationships, quell fear and draw communities closer together.

There are several ways to look at storytelling. The simplest is to build them through people, places, plot and purpose. These are often called the 4Ps of storytelling. I’ll add a 5th P to it: Passion. Narrate stories with passion and make them come alive. For most, the 5Ps are all you need to get heard. As author Jon Westenberg said, “storytelling is the greatest technology that humans have ever created.” Steve Jobs once said, “the most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation to come.” As PR professionals, never lose sight of “purpose”. Add purpose to your stories while using facts to make them fly.

We don’t need to look far to see how well-crafted stories can be a competitive advantage. Airbnb uses them every day to build its business. They narrate stories about places – tracking Tippu Sultan in Mysore, learning to bake French macarons in Paris, soaking in the dramatic views from the Uva Mira Mountain vineyard in Cape Town, and the thrill of horseback riding in the Atlas Mountains of Marrakesh. These stories help us decide where to go, which homestay to book and how much to pay. These stories are larger than life, larger than the charms of luxurious hotels with bay windows and warm bathtubs. Today, the examples of brands telling memorable stories abound—and we need to learn from them.

Storytelling can be, and is, a significant weapon in the arsenal of PR practitioners. Simple narratives can help gain attention, connect with customers and employees, amplify trust, drive loyalty, set the record straight for products and brands, and above all, ensure that brands and products stand out at a time when markets are confusing people with complex and inconsistent messages.

(The author is Vice President – Communications, TVS Motors. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of the Financial Express Online.)

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