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How Storytelling Captivates and Inspires

Posted on February 11, 2016, at 12:30 p.m.
by Mackenzie Lyng.

In April 2011, creator of TOMS shoes, Blake Mycoskie, asked the world a question: Will everyone go barefoot?

From this question, Mycoskie started One Day Without Shoes. The yearly movement teaches the world about the risk of infections and diseases children in developing countries face by growing up barefoot and without shoes.

TOMSTOMS donates a pair of shoes to an at-risk child for every pair it sells. But this year, the company took it one step further. For every Instagram post of bare feet tagged with TOMS Shoes, the company provided a new pair of shoes to a barefooted child. By the end of the campaign, 296,243 photos were tagged to TOMS — and the same amount of shoes were given to children in developing countries.

Like many PR pros today, Mycoskie understood the power of storytelling. By giving TOMS Shoes’ customers an active role in its social media narrative, Mycoskie used consumer-driven content to make a significant difference beyond the company’s standard charity model.

Storytelling is one of the timeless cornerstones of communication. And now more than ever, PR campaigns center around a rich and engaging story. Every organization, every brand and every individual has a story to tell. Whether to inspire global change, sell a product or make a personal connection, the best storytellers make their audiences stop, think and understand.

Why storytelling matters
Humans are naturally programmed to respond to stories. Scientifically, when someone hears a story, the brain dissects the true meaning behind a story’s words. Like translating a foreign language, people deconstruct a story to uncover its emotional message. People then are able to feel and act as if they are living the stories.

So when PR pros claim that stories engage readers, they aren’t lying; it’s science, and it’s incredibly powerful .

For stories to be memorable, grabbing an audience’s attention is crucial. In the digital age, it’s easy to ignore trivial content. People are overloaded with messages that reach individuals on all devices.

But with storytelling, information becomes relevant and personal; it makes people care.

Paul J. Zak, director of the Center of Neuroeconomics at the Claremont Graduate University, said tension builds personal connections with readers. “In order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention — a scarce resource in the brain — by developing tension during the narrative,” Zak said. “If the story is able to create that tension, then it is likely that attentive viewers or listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it.”

Zak added that stories with a hero or heroine often cause readers to connect or identify with a narrative on an intimate, personal level. “Every story happens to somebody and most of the time, the most-loved stories are about people,” he said. “The hero or heroine is usually a likable creature, but if not, they are not completely devoid of redeeming qualities. They must have something that makes the audience relate with them somehow.”

How to author a compelling story

Know your audience.
Companies should always be listening. Which stories resonate with target audiences and generate dialogue? What are their values and principles? What do they want and need?

Observe pop culture. What types of content does succeeds in target markets? What is currently popular?

Material matters.
Stories paint a picture and evoke the flavor and personality of a brand or product. It is important to know the history and mission of a company. How did the founders come up with that business? What challenges did they have to overcome to get their product out to market? This will help define a company’s identity: who it is and what it stands for.

Play on human interest.
A great way of personalizing a brand is through employee stories. Employees, at the end of the day, are people. Stories about their hobbies, crafts and even hardships can be a goldmine. These human interest stories and anecdotes connect organizations with audience members in ways a press release never would.

Customers’ stories are just as important, if not more. Happy customers give companies the opportunity to tell their success stories in a new way. And presenting customer satisfaction can ultimately build trust and confidence with potential consumers.

The future of storytelling
Modern storytelling’s success depends on one thing: social media. Social media, as many PR pros know, has redefined how companies and brands connect and communicate with audience members. Visual content, such as photos and videos, are effective ways to tell stories and enhance overall meaning.

Short-form content is a current standard for effective social storytelling. Hailey Wierzbicki, social media account director at MWWPR, said brands must master short-form storytelling in order to achieve success in the digital market.

“Brands need to be more concerned about their ability to tell engaging stories about their brands in seconds — sometimes on a daily basis,” Wierzbicki explained. “For example on Twitter — anyone can tweet, but some people and brands are creative with 140 characters.”

Screen Shot 2016-02-10 at 5.05.34 PMWierzbicki added that for those just entering the PR industry, short-form story telling is a highly valued skill. “Telling a story with words in short form or long form is exciting — short form is more of a challenge, and at MWWPR, we want people who like challenges,” she said.

Storytelling is one of the most powerful techniques in communication. Using storytelling in PR practice will make a brand’s image and content personal, unique, enriching and relatable. It is way to connect with an audience and build trust and support. As Mycoskie proves, storytelling can move mountains and, ultimately, make a difference.

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