Catherine Heaney, Managing Director of DHR Communications, is currently participating in an executive course in Global Communications at Columbia University in New York. In her latest blog from New York, she shares some of the insights she has gained on the importance of telling compelling stories…
The Art of Story-Telling
In recent weeks, food maestro Yotam Ottolenghi wrote a candid account of his road to becoming a parent. Being in a gay relationship, the challenges were greater. Eventually, though, he and his partner met the woman who would become their surrogate. She’s a Bostonian named Melanie with four children of her own. She had acted as a surrogate once before.
Intrigued to know her motivation to become a surrogate, Ottolenghi quizzed Melanie. It transpired she had watched an episode of ‘The Oprah Winfrey Show’ on the topic. She saw how life-affirming the experience was for other women to ‘give a gift’ to a childless couple. And that was it!
Ottolenghi was left uneasy at the thought. He was discomfited by the ‘American way’ of making everything public, and how people there seemed to tell everything to Oprah.
Almost two years on from first meeting Melanie, Ottolenghi and his partner now have a baby boy, Max. At first, his instinct was to keep his experience private. However, he realised that if others had not shared their similar experiences, he may have never had a child. In his words: “I know we can’t be shy, that privacy just isn’t an option. That’s because we could only have had Max, and hopefully also have future siblings, thanks to other people who have shared their stories – even if that happens to be on a cheesy talk show.”
And so Ottolenghi became convinced of the power of storytelling. His story is compelling. That’s because it is emotional. It touches people because it’s a real-life experience. Not sugar-coated or Utopian.
Similarly, US President Barack Obama knows when it is time to tell a story. Following the verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman some weeks back, he told the world that the young teenager at the heart of that case – Trayvon Martin – “could have been me 35 years ago”.
He recalled being followed while shopping at a department store; of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars; and the experience of getting into a lift and see a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she had a chance to get out (read his remarks here).
His story went global within minutes. The world knew his position on the killing of Trayvon Martin, unequivocally.
It seems that businesses are now ditching clever slogans and reverting to stories to win customers. At least that’s what Joanna L. Krotz argues in an article for ‘Business on Main’ (March 2012). Stories inspire us. They speak directly to the human condition, to our hardwired emotions and instincts.
Perhaps when our now Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, was eyeing up his future role, he was ahead of the curve in his mode of delivering messages to the public: every argument or point was coated in a story about the constituent he met with this or that problem. But, then again, were any of his stories truly memorable? Did they make an impact?
Before anyone abolishes the slogan in favour of a story, be warned. To command mindshare and memory, you need compelling stories, which are authentic and reach out to people’s emotions. Otherwise, your story will be forgotten.