Storytelling is at the heart of every public relations outreach. Be it through informal conversations or formal structures like press releases and news pitches, PR professionals are always trying to tell a story one way or the other. There are a lot of storytelling tips available to help young professionals hone their storytelling techniques; however, the most beneficial approach towards developing this skill is to study materials on storytelling.
After reading Annette Simmons’ The Story Factor, I must confess that I got hipped to the idea that storytelling is a strength that should be cultivated by public relations professionals in order to be successful in the field of practice. One part that resonates from the book is the notion that “facts are boring, banal, and hard to swallow”. To be better expressed, they have to be clothed in stories. This can be likened to a rose flower, with facts as thorns and stories as the petals. Standing alone, the thorns are meaningless, but with the petals, it becomes a symbol for the expression of meaning (love, friendship, affection… the list goes on).
The concept of storytelling in PR is probably not a new one. Elements of this can be traced back to the times of Edward Bernays, and his famous women’s cigarette smoking campaign in 1920s. Up until the time of the campaign, women were not allowed to smoke in public places. Bernays, however helped the Tobacco Company tell its story by showcasing models holding lit Lucky Strike cigarettes – “Torches of Freedom” – during the 1929 Easter parade in New York City. This revolutionized the tobacco industry.
Story telling in PR should be seen as a novel way of telling a tale either to, or for a client. A good illustration of this concept is in The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. Vogler does a good job of classifying the characters in a story into archetypes. These different archetypes perform various functions that add up to the overall structure of a story telling process. Vogler suggests that all good stories consist of these archetypes, although they may not be represented in a definitive order.
For more understanding, a brief synopsis of these archetypes might help.
- HEROES are the central figures in stories. Every story has a hero and everyone is the hero of his or her own myth.
- MENTORS serve as teachers who provide guidance to the hero. They provide support to the hero through their wisdom.
- SHADOWS are villains or enemies that try to hamper the quest of the hero along his journey. These may serve as obstacles or challenges that a hero faces in his story. They can also be an enemy within (fear, anger).
- HERALD is a person or event which prompts the hero to make a call to action. This is what propels action.
- THRESHOLD GUARDIANS are forces that stand in the way of the hero achieving a goal. These should not be mistaken for shadows as they may not always be there to sabotage a hero’s effort. The threshold guardians may be government regulations, paperwork or even personal doubts.
- SHAPESHIFTERS are normally two-faced individuals who are easily susceptible to change. It may be a colleague at the work place who acts differently towards the opposite sex, or management.
- TRICKSTERS are clowns or mischief-makers. These people usually act as comic relief.
- ALLIES are people who help the hero on his quest. These people work with him/her to get closer to achieving an aim. They may come in the form of business partners, buddies, girlfriends, co-workers, or even co-owners of a company.
In order for PR practitioners to tell better stories, they should be able to identify the various archetypes in every story. A deeper understanding of the nature and characteristics of each archetype will help structure stories, providing a better focus, and a stronger delivery to audiences.