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BLOG - What's The Story?

How To Tell Stories People Can Trust

By Peter Boisseau

The Freelance Bureau

I started to write when I was young because I loved telling stories. My passion led to a job with my hometown newspaper, being recruited by the CBC, and moving to Toronto to join The Canadian Press wire service.

Although they were very different kinds of media organizations, they all had one thing in common. Storytelling was their doctrine, and each had made themselves a trusted news source by telling stories people wanted to read, listen to and watch.

When I switched to freelance journalism, it was much the same. Editors liked working with me because I “got it.”

If they sent me to cover a chess tournament, I didn’t come back with a list of match results or a chronology of events.

I wrapped the story around a theme from popular culture, like the legend of Bobby Fischer, an American maverick who transformed the game with his aggressive style, but became a mysterious recluse after besting the defending world champion Boris Spassky of the Soviet Union in a televised Cold War battle that inspired a generation of players and fans.

If I was writing that story today, I might throw in a Last Jedi analogy as well, but you get the point.

Engaging stories are populated by genuine characters, relatable themes and real-world context. They are a pleasure to consume and easy to digest, and a reader or audience responds intuitively to these elements of a well-told story.

For a long time, I operated under the assumption everyone was on the same page, that they all understood telling stories was the path into people’s hearts and minds.

Until I expanded into public relations.

Eat your broccoli

I had done a lot of reporting on the environment, so it seemed like a good fit when my first client turned out to be an environmental group.

But I soon discovered something about telling stories was getting lost in translation.

They took what I would describe as an "eat-your-broccoli" approach to storytelling.

In their view, trying to make environmental issues a little more tasty or easier to consume was reductive, and risked trivializing a serious topic.

They boiled down the latest studies and dished out press releases stuffed with “endocrine disruptors” and “precautionary principles,” as if these terms would soon be rolling off people’s tongues.

I created a “media blueprint” for them of best practices and ideas for generating public awareness and news coverage, including how to tell good stories. But I really didn’t get their attention until a much-anticipated press conference fell flat.

They had listed a series of toxic substances by chemical names they were urging the public to avoid.

Afterwards, I took the organizer aside and asked her what common household products contained these chemicals. She started rhyming them off. “That’s what you should have said,” I told her.

Everyone is telling stories

Things have changed a great deal since then. “Storytelling” is no longer questioned but instead is embraced as a marketing and public relations mantra, and social media is a huge driver of that movement.

Everyone says they want to tell their stories. Some do it very well. They “get it.”

Greenpeace and others have employed their own journalists to focus on storytelling and reporting news. I recently started working with a client who is funding a news website full of stories about their industry, just to add to the “buzz” and interest.

In my opinion, these sorts of approaches are the wave of the future, especially with media newsrooms rapidly shrinking.

But many remain stuck in the past when it comes to telling their stories.

They don’t understand how to tell stories without being transparently self-serving about it. They mimic the form and style without adding any zest or substance. They conflate the thin gruel of propaganda with the appealing flavours of authenticity.

Diplomatically, I might call this the “phoney-baloney” approach to storytelling.

Transparent self-promotion will never win the trust of readers, content agency CEO Kylie Ahern of STEM Matters recently wrote.

Addressing universities and researchers specifically, she said they need to stop putting their message at the heart of every story and start thinking about their audience.

“What do they want to know? What are their questions, concerns and inspirations?”

They can learn those lessons from the media, she added.

“The media’s influence relies on its ability to command and engage audiences – people who return regularly because they want and trust the content they find there,” said Ahern, who co-founded Cosmos Media before starting STEM Matters.

“If the scientific community wants to get its message across, it also needs to build audiences, own its narratives, and place universities at the heart of peoples’ lives.”

The exception to the rule

I am fortunate enough to work with some universities who are ideal clients. They encourage me to be creative and tell their stories in whatever way gets media attention.

These kinds of clients are the exception to the rule.

No matter how often they hear and see the merits of storytelling, many remain deaf and blind to it.

And it doesn’t matter whether it’s universities or environmentalists, the business sector or the legal profession, the only solution is to keep trying to educate them.

I’ve learned a lot over the years. I have a much better understanding and appreciation for the unique disciplines of public relations and communications. I can converse in the lingo and metrics of these professions.

But I still am a journalist at heart. That’s the approach I bring, and as far as I am concerned, the greatest value I can offer: To approach stories like a journalist.

PR exercise vs news service

Think of it this way.

Storytelling should not be treated like a PR exercise, but more like a news service, dedicated to telling authentic stories in a way that makes them genuinely interesting.

For instance, journalists love to balance quotes and narratives with well-placed stats or data points, which allows them to take something vague or unfamiliar and draw comparisons with something the audience knows well.

The classic example is to compare an imaginary area to “the size of Rhode Island” or some other defined boundary, so people can picture it better.

As noted in a recent white paper, any data can be turned into good story material.

A “story structure” approach reveals hidden insights in the data and makes it easier for the audience to engage and discuss the topics, they wrote.

“Stories also create interactivity—people put themselves into stories and can relate to the situation.” 

In a sense, we are actually hardwired for storytelling, as illustrated in the infographic at the top of this blog. Among other things, the graphic notes that engaging stories generate powerful emotions through the release of hormones in the brain.

The "matte" article

Stories help us make sense of our world. They come in many styles and forms, and the ones we respond to say a lot about how we see ourselves, and our sense of community.

It’s too complex to sum up in one sitting, and I will explore nuances of effective storytelling in future blogs.

But I’d like to conclude for now by briefly touching on something that’s a cornerstone of my practice – the “matte” article.

Sometimes also known as “mat releases,” these are media-friendly articles written in a journalistic style.

The goal of the matte article is to engage broad audiences and pique media interest by helping journalists spot stories their audiences will like, regardless of their own relative expertise in the subject.

A good matte article makes a topic crystal clear and illustrates the aspects people are most likely to care about.

If people care, they are more likely to discuss the topic, form opinions and take action.

At the end of the day, matte articles are just following the same doctrine as the media: Make yourself a trusted source by telling stories people want to read, listen to and watch.

Matte articles are real stories

A good matte article is a pleasure to consume and easy to digest.

It is not a product of the “eat-your-broccoli” or “phoney-baloney” schools of storytelling. And there’s the rub.

Many groups and organizations assume they alone are best qualified to tell their stories, without any help from, you know, professional storytellers.

But when it comes to telling those stories, they suffer from a kind of myopia – they are so close to the subject they can’t step back and see it clearly at a distance, as others might.

In a sense, they apply their own distorted version of a precautionary principle. They filter out the authentic or revealing – the very things that resonate with audiences – in favour of stilted “quotes” and speaking points.

Reticence and dissembling prevail over candor and transparency. Old-fashioned PR reflexes kick in, and blatant self-promotion wins out.

Do yourself a favour.

Believe in the adage that “others see us better than we see ourselves.” 

Find a writer you trust. Give them the independence to tell real stories and let them do what they do best.

If you can stick to that approach with the same passion and commitment you have for your company or organization, the stories will flow, and the audiences will follow.

©2018 Peter Boisseau

Peter Boisseau is an award-winning journalist, writer and media consultant, and the founder of The Freelance Bureau editorial services and PR Inkubator public relations. A former CBC radio broadcaster and producer, Canadian Press reporter and editor, and Reuters Journalism Fellow at the University of Oxford, Peter combines an extensive background in journalism and public relations with an exceptional ability to create engaging stories in a wide variety of styles and voices.