The Art of Storytelling

When I was a young boy, every Sunday evening my father and I did something unusual – instead of turning on our new color television to watch the latest “Star Trek” episode. We would take a small step back in time and huddle around the radio and listen to a program called “Shepherd’s Pie,” hosted by the great Jean Shepherd. Shepherd is best known to modern audiences for A Christmas Story (1983), which he narrated and co-scripted, based on his own childhood experiences. Each week, for 90 minutes, Shepherd would tell rich tales about growing up in Middle America. Every story was filled with memorable humor, action and suspense, and always had a little bit of wisdom as well.

My father would turn off the radio and I would start to drift away into dreamland. Those lyrical stories would stay with me and the bits of advice would creep into my head and take root. I can still remember more than a few times when Shepherd’s words reappeared in my voice, helping me out of one childhood jam or another.

That’s what great storytelling does. It doesn’t just impart information; it weaves a tapestry of insight, emotion, humor and straight talk that makes its way to your mind through your heart.

For those of us in the advertising, marketing and communications professions, there are valuable lessons to be learned from the art of storytelling and how this skill can be used to help build brands and enhance reputations.

As technology advances, we have an ever-increasing array of tools and means to tell our clients’ stories. More than were ever dreamed possible during the “Mad Men” era. Instead of being able to tell stories through just TV, print and radio, we now have access to our audiences across countless platforms at any time, day or night. With this change, one might expect that the art of storytelling in public relations would have kept pace and advanced in step with technological changes. Unfortunately, it has not.

I think there are two reasons for this lack of evolution in storytelling. One, we have so fallen in love with the technologies themselves; the profession often overlooks the quality of the content that is pushed out from these new channels. As the “pipe” has increased in size, the amount of content has become overwhelming for most audiences, especially since the content will often lack the compelling and emotional narrative that comes with great storytelling.

Two, with social media, apps, tablets, smart phones, websites, advanced TV, etc. all now part of daily viewing habits, how to make narratives work across platforms has become a very complicated matter that few have mastered.

Recent studies have shown that most audiences are looking for more integration of content and reality in a layered and yet compelling and cohesive way. They just don’t want to learn about brands and products, but want to “experience” them through stories that are relevant, meaningful and entertaining.

Here are a few lessons we have learned that help shape communications into better storytelling, utilizing the technological tools that are available today:

Dive Deeper – Use technology to go deeper into the brand story by bringing together additional content and providing audiences with experiences that appeal to the senses.
Get Your Audience Involved – Don’t look at consumers as just an audience, but rather as participants. Give consumers opportunities to be part of the narrative or even the chance to add to the story itself with personal experiences. Allow consumers to influence the outcome of the story.
Keep it Consistent, But Not Identical – Our audiences are getting our information and messages on TV and radio, through their smart phones and computers, and across other devices. Consumers need to see consistency in the message, but they don’t want duplication – that’s boring.
Be Interactive – Consumers don’t just want to listen to a story, they want to become part of it and take some action to affect its outcome. Give consumers opportunities to take action.

The great stories of Jean Shepherd jumped out of the radio and connected to my own life in meaningful ways. While Shepherd is no longer with us, his art of storytelling can live on: we can transform our technologies into innovative storytelling devices that engage our audiences more directly, deeply and emotionally.

The End.

For anyone interested in listening to Jean Shepherd’s stories, they can be found here.