The key to storytelling: make people care

July 18, 2017Content marketing

By Darren Horrigan, Editor in Chief

Five years ago, at a communications conference in Seattle, a man in a sharp suit and loafers gave me his business card:

Steve Clayton
Chief Storyteller

We spoke about his work. He asked me about mine. We shared a laugh about how we essentially did the same thing, yet my job title was ‘corporate writer’ while he roamed the world as an uber-cool ‘chief storyteller’. I’ve wanted to be one ever since.

From hidden persuasion to cracking yarns

I’ve spent 28 years telling stories.

Initially, as a journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald, I covered state politics, local government and crime. Sometimes, in New South Wales, it was difficult to tell one from the other.

This is what I’ve learnt…

Some advertising and marketing (some, not all) is the price organisations pay for poor communications.

It’s the tax for not being authentic; for disrespecting your readers; for lousy storytelling.

Communicators have a higher calling.

Our role is to create a sense of belonging and to inspire people to join our movement, whether it’s a political party, a consumer brand or a niche firm of management consultants. The most effective way to win hearts and minds is through stories.

The best storyteller wins

The world’s most successful organisations – no matter their size or business – have shifted from interrupting our day (with marketing and advertising) to interacting with us (through communications and PR).

Today, the best storyteller wins.

Donald Trump became president of the United States because he told the best story – ‘Make America Great Again’.

The current world champions – the organisations telling the best stories – are American Express, Guinness, GE, Google and Red Bull.

What’s so great about this storytelling?

It is authentic. We can see ourselves, or someone we know or love, in these stories. They feel real. Most times, the people in these stories are real.

All these stories have emotion, and none of it is connected. They are exhilarating. They have a laser focus. They have a hero, and it isn’t the product. Instead, at the centre of these stories we find the people the product or service is meant for.

These are stories that grab our eyeballs and minds, take us on a little journey and leave us feeling warmer, smarter or energised.

Make people care

I’m amazed at how many Australian organisations – public and private – have their communications bar set so low. Too often the result is fractured, soulless and impotent marketing that most of us ignore.

People are the medium for stories – always have been, always will be. So, worry less about which channel (print, broadcast, digital, display, experiential, etc.) should be primary, and focus first on your two main concerns: to tell a good story and to make people care.

One man who knew this well is my professional hero, Ted Sorensen. As John F. Kennedy’s speechwriter and confidant, Sorensen helped to tell some of the biggest and most powerful stories of the 20th century. “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country” is a Ted Sorensen line. He was a master.

Together with Kennedy, Sorensen helped to change how an entire country thought about itself. They changed history.

What we do will never change history. However, by being authentic, by helping people see themselves in a story, by making them care, we can help our clients present themselves to their audiences in a way that gives them the best chance of prompting a positive response.

In the meantime, enjoy some more corporate storytelling at its finest.