“We are all storytellers. We all live in a network of stories. There isn’t a stronger connection between people than storytelling.” With these words, Jimmy Neil Smith, founder and president emeritus of the International Storytelling Center in Jonesborough, Tennessee aptly captures humans’ innate drive to engage in a universal dialogue of communication, in all aspects of our lives. As his sentiment highlights, we each possess the capacity to feed into this network and, although the art of storytelling may come more naturally to some, the challenge often lies in each of us identifying how best we can translate this tool into a force for establishing relationships and impressing our mark on those around us.
But, what does ‘storytelling’ actually mean? From my experience, storytelling does not have an objective definition, each of us deriving something unique in reference to our own lives. In a literal sense, one would superficially define the term as the telling of stories, be it through words, images or dance – but this is not, by any means, sufficient. So, as PRs, we must methodically dig deeper and investigate what is involved; break down the processes to uncover the practice. For some, storytelling invokes a tradition rooted in social and cultural rituals aimed at uniting communities and transcending language barriers, becoming a universal language of communication in itself regardless of race, class and gender. For others, storytelling is centred upon ensuring that one’s voice and values are heard more widely for their own sake and, in turn, can often be perceived as an egotistical and ‘me’ centric practice altogether.
Stories filter into our lives on a daily basis, often without us even realising. Let’s face it, we are all inclined to a gossip session every now and then and we have all fallen victim to over sharing, some of us more times than we would like to admit. It would seem that it is in our biological make-up to want to share stories with one another, be it a pithy anecdote about a celebrity scandal that was too juicy not to flag or a reflection on the current political scene – and that is ok. This tendency has been exacerbated by social media – a platform that enables individuals to access and share news with ease, at anytime. Whilst storytelling originated as a purely oral tradition that relied on stories being passed down from generation to generation, the 21st Century has been presented with a medium that encourages us to bare all for a mass audience, and frequently. Fairy tales and mythology have been replaced with Facebook and Twitter; Once Upon a Time, a seminal phrase that looks to the past, has been substituted with an urgency for the now, the immediacy of life.
What we need to do, as PRs, is convert our generation’s instinctive need to share every detail of our lives, and fast, into professional practice – which can be easier said than done. It requires the identification of a story’s key ingredients: narrative, language, plot, characters, setting, points of view and themes. But this is only the beginning. We must learn how and where to incorporate these concepts into our own methods of storytelling, placing them high on our agenda where relevant. This takes time and perseverance, but the end results are certainly worth the journey.
It is clear that storytelling is not an art limited to fictional novels, but rather an essential part of each of our identities. The ways in which we tell and interpret stories can reveal a whole lot about someone’s personality. As we all know, the awareness of the fact that individuals react differently to a single story is continuously drilled into the minds of anyone working in the PR industry – it can be the make or break of any interaction with clients and journalists. Whilst ensuring that we tailor our communication to any given target is a common task, it can often be daunting and potentially tedious. I urge you to go beyond the surface of what the art of storytelling encompasses and delve into the depths of a story’s capability. It can offer a new insight and perspective into how to best manage work relationships, internally as well as with clients. You never know what you might discover, and you may even be pleasantly surprised.
By Deborah Eder, Account Executive