Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The love of a good story

In case you haven't noticed, the story about companies, places and people is about THE STORY

Telling a good story (after making sure you HAVE a good story), is the current mantra of communications professions. 

Why? People love a good story.  People have a much easier way of connecting to someone or a business if that person or company has a good story to tell.

Over the next 45 days, we should get a lot of great stories from one of the best arenas for great stories - sports.

In my former life as a newspaper reporter, we "hard news" reporters were jealous of the sports writers.  They seemed to have more freedom with prose. Some of the best writers at newspapers are sports writers.  But, they also had great subjects (more on this later).

Over the next several weeks, it will hard to escape the great stories that will come from:
  • The Indianapolis 500 car race (with one driver attempting to also drive a stock car race that same day)
  • The potential of a Triple Crown winner in California Chrome at the Belmont.
  • The playoffs in the National Basketball Association and National Hockey League.
  • The start of soccer's World Cup.
  • The US Open Golf championship.
For public relations professionals, this should be an opportune time to study how to create a good story, and how the media flocks to a good story. 

A little "reverse engineering" will be in order. Some of it is basic journalism and story telling.All of it will be a fantastic opportunity to study the art of "connecting with" and "captivating" an audience.

Here are  look for:

Start with the character
As a journalist recently told me: most news organizations love to tell a story through "a good character." This usually means someone who stands out or represents the story. 

Today, it is hard to miss that "issues" - from health care, to taxes, to immigration - are being conveyed to us in newspapers and on TV through real live human beings. Issues (and products) impact us, so why not find that ideal candidate who represents the issue of the day? 

Sadly, in this era of immense litigation and corporate branding, companies too often fail to find someone who is not a company employee and let them be THE STORY about their business. Companies are too caught up in creating a "feeling" about their product or creating message points to defend their issue, when their case can better connect with their audiences through a "live body." 

So, the key question here is:  How can you tell THE STORY of your company without profiling people other than the CEO? 

Find the conflict or the struggle
In sports, it's about the struggle.  It's the "back story."  When the Winter Olympics occur, we are glued to our sets when NBC profiles an athlete.  "...she came from a small town where on weekends, she picked corn and at night, she practiced her skating for four hours in a dimly lit rink...." 

If life was easy, it'd be boring.  People want to know how these athletes overcame adversity, how much work they put in to get to where they are.

I can relate
Obviously, the athletes we will hear about over the next two months are exceptional.  They are not us because we are not competing at that level.

But we had dreams. 

We had parents who trucked us to endless soccer practices. We may have friends who earned sports scholarships because they excelled both in the classroom and on the field.  And these friends never forgot where they came from.  Forget the ego-driven athletes - we'll pass over those stories in a nano-second.  We need humility.

Advertising tries to do this by putting "everyday" people in their spots.

Now, how can we translate these pillars of a good sports story into a public relations-driven effort for our clients?

Some of the most ideally suited "characters" to tell a story about your company are using your product.  This effort, however, has to go beyond the lazy tactic of letting customers write their own testimonials on a review site or the company's Facebook page.

It is harder to cultivate a customer to rise up and share all the details of their live and their experience with your product or service - and in a way that doesn't look contrived.  Heck, it's hard to find that compelling story in the first place.  The truth is that it will take 99 interviews before you find THE perfect one.

A back story may not be about your company or product.  It is, after all, about the person.  Some leeway must be given to let the story have a few chapters that don't relate directly to your company or product.  This can be the most frightening part of the exercise because of the possibility of a person going "off message" or the back story becoming more interesting that how your company's service or product changed this person's life. A typical customer can't be media trained in one day. 

Even if the main focus of your connection with this customer starts taking a back seat in a news story (but you still have a positive mention of your product or service), that's OK.  At the end of the day, there is still a connection between "cool, interesting person/story" and your client. Goodness will rub off.    

Why we care
Once the "story" is told through the customer, now is the time to bring in your own personal "back story" from the company's perspective.  Let employees or managers talk about how they came up with the idea for a new product, how a "team" came together to brainstorm a new service, how an employee used his/her own family experience to make improvements. 

Employees are people, too.

So, turn on the sports channels and break down the human drama before you.