A return to storytelling

The timeless and trending tradition continues to attract attention

Matt Cookson

Storytelling is as old as any spoken language. It is how history was passed down before words were chiseled into stone or put on a printing press. Today, storytelling is trending and has become one of the most engaging ways to share information digitally through blogs, social media, self-publishing and even video — consider the TED talks model.

Everyone likes a good story. Just think of the movie, “The Princess Bride.” In the movie, the grandfather (Peter Falk) offers to stop reading the book to his grandson (Fred Savage) numerous times because Fred doesn’t seem interested in hearing a love story. But once engaged, Fred urges him to keep reading because he cares about seeing Buttercup and Westley find their true love.

Really good stories get repeated and shared. In the public relations and marketing sphere, developing and communicating a compelling story to a target market that triggers them to act in some specific way is at the heart of what we do. We’ve seen a significant increase in requests for help with blogs because good ones combine the art of storytelling with a digital element that allows us to see how many people opened it, read it, shared it, followed a link and more.

For those who closely follow the blogging world, we’ve seen Google dictate terms associated with blogs — the length (longer), number of keywords (don’t go crazy and select carefully because the reader can tell), and associated imagery (video preferred). According to Izea.com, nearly half of the 4 billion people online read blogs. About 55% of companies plan to make blogging a top marketing priority with a growing interest in weaving in storytelling.

However, it’s ultimately up to the writer or narrator to tell a good story. Here are some core items to consider:

• Know your audience: Cater your story to your audience and speak to their pain points. Don’t sell yourself or company/product.

• Be focused: Don’t ramble or self-promote. No one wants to read or hear that.

• Be honest: Find and develop the story and then tell it. Have a narrative.

• Don’t sound like a robot: Blogs loaded with catch phrases and keywords that read like a running ad will put off the reader, and as a result they may tune you out in the future. Avoid formulaic or templated posts.

Over the summer, I had an opportunity to speak to a conference focused on emerging leaders in New Hampshire.

As I considered how to present something meaningful and relevant to the attendees, I fell back on storytelling. I had an hour to fill — that’s over three TED Talks, which are supposed to be no more than 18 minutes in length.

Everybody loves a story, and I decided to tell one that was personal and highlighted successes and failures, sprinkled with scary photos from the pre-Facebook share-all, everything-searchable era. I talked about being hired for jobs I did not think I was qualified to do, learning life and teamwork lessons while waiting tables, being a speechwriter and spokesperson, the value of mentors, and how successes and failures serve as building blocks upon which we learn and grow.

A good story is not totally linear. It needs to have subplots. Like getting and losing an awesome job in Washington, D.C., and taking a brief pause to regroup while bartending in Georgetown. We bring stories back from those lessons and apply them to our next chapter.

That hour flew by, and I hope that I delivered a message to the attendees that we learn through failure as well as success and many chapters await them.

As an English and journalism major many years back, I am thrilled that I have an opportunity to write and edit stories for a living and that storytelling is an essential part of an effective communications strategy. Like “The Princess Bride,” we need our heroes and villains to tell a good story. We need subplots and humor. And we need positive endings that are memorable.

Not every story a person or a company can tell can be riddled with edge-of-the-seat excitement. But, if properly told, it can resonate with the target audience without reading like a string of keywords. Make proper storytelling a priority in your communications strategy and not an afterthought. It’s worth the time and attention it requires. Done right, it’s also fun and memorable.

Matt Cookson is president and CEO of Cookson Communications in Manchester.

Categories: Marketing & Advertising