Do we really know what a story is?

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then I’ll begin.

We’ve always created stories in PR. Well, we called them stories: news, analysis or commentary served up to journalists in order to get a publicity hit or generate sustained media interest. Or both. But they’ve typically been short-term stories.

Brand narratives have long been the long-term, joined-up, strategic framework for stitching those individual pieces together to link the pages into chapters, and the chapters into books. Media change has also made many of us focus far more on brand storytelling, and think more expansively – normally with a planner front and centre – about how to make that more potent. How to not just engage the reader, but add fascination.

But do we really understand what makes a good overall story, beyond being good at delivering the individual ‘pages’ along the way? Many of us would say we are, but in my estimation successful sustained storytelling these days is about far more than effective planning.

These are all thoughts that went through my mind in putting together a presentation for the annual Silicon Beach conference, which starts in Bournemouth (hey, it has a beach doesn’t it?) tomorrow.

What I’ll be trying to cover amounts to a short story about storytelling: how stories have been told through all kinds of media since the infancy of PR, and how digital innovation has changed the scope and nature of storytelling.

I won’t go into all of that here, but in thinking about it, the thing that really jumped out at me is that the same rules apply to progressive PR today as do to other forms of storytelling – novels, horror tales, children’s books, whatever. These for me are the 10 classic points to consider:

  1. It’s the audience that matters: sounds obvious, often overlooked
  2. You won’t see the story until you get to the finish: a challenges for PRs, but how can we signpost without knowing something about the destination
  3. Structure and signposting: per the above
  4. Simplify, focus, and mix it up. Avoid overcomplicating: we often can do simply, but then worry about ‘mixing it up’. We should be more adventurous
  5. Challenge your ‘characters’ with polar opposites: move beyond comfort zones to add intrigue and challenge preconceptions
  6. When stuck, figure out what wouldn’t happen next: I love this. Thing of recent examples of when brands have done the utterly unexpected
  7. Pull apart stories you like and figure out why: invaluable, yet rarely done. We typically look at parallel competitive stories, not those from other sectors
  8. Give your characters opinions: it’ll be difficult to engage people otherwise
  9. Give the reader a reason to root for you/them: again, understanding the audience but be empathetic and then take a stand
  10. What is the story essence, or central truth?: because you’re going to need to be clear on it
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