“Pay particular attention to the first and last sentences of a story. People tend to remember the first things you say and your concluding thought. Make sure they are as powerful and memorable as possible. I don’t necessarily use the same words when I am telling a story, but I typically know what the first and last words will be.”
Those carefully chosen words come from Scott Steen, executive director of the American Physiological Society, in a white paper he wrote titled Becoming Your Association’s Storyteller-in-Chief. Steen will be one of the featured keynote speakers at the upcoming Reset, Reinvent, Revenue 2021, AM&P Network’s virtual event for association publishing professionals, online everywhere June 16-17.
While Steen’s talk—titled MarComm as Change Agent: How Brand Drives Organizational Change—will delve into other areas, his proficiency at and commitment to the art of storytelling will serve him and his audience well. You’ll hear how he’s led associations through major transformation and why association communicators are perfectly positioned to be the catalysts of change within their organizations. (Can’t wait? Tune in here to learn more from Steen on how communications drives change.)
“Effective associations tell stories to: promote their profession or industry; attract new members; trumpet their accomplishments; honor their members; sell their experiences and products; and more,” Steen wrote. “But few leaders take the time to hone their storytelling skills.”
While Steen’s doubling-down on storytelling is not a revelation, its emphasis is well-warranted. In December 2019, after speaking to our media group for 30-plus minutes about the vital nature of digital design and the reading revolution that digital has thrust upon us, Mario Garcia—a Columbia professor and author of the book, The Story—closed by saying: “The takeaway is if you have a good story, people will stay with you… I don’t sit here and lament what was. I celebrate what is. These are the best times to be a storyteller, but you have to explore all that is there.”
The pandemic may have amplified the value of storytelling even more, as we all experienced things for the first time over the last 15 months.
The Food Marketing Institute opened its virtual meeting last year with footage of members talking about the importance of grocery stores and communities during the pandemic, the role they played, and how they gave back to their communities. “Opening the event with the stories was so powerful,” said Margaret Core, VP of marketing and industry relations. “That’s engagement: We let the actions of our members tell our story.”
Steen lists 5 Principles for Telling a Great Story, based on a version by Stanford Business School Professor JD Schramm. They are:
Parachute In. You have seconds to capture your audience’s attention… Captivate your audience from the very beginning by jumping right into a story.
First & Last. (This is the lead quote about first and last sentences.)
Goldilocks Principle. Not too hot, not too cold, just right. Use too few details and you’ll prevent your audience from truly experiencing your story and lose emotional connection. Use too many and your story will become confusing and (worse) boring. Make your details count.
Poetic Language. Poetry uses carefully chosen and powerful words to communicate both information and emotion. It also uses language economically, conveying tremendous meaning with the fewest words possible. The best presentations and speeches do, too.
The Sound of Silence. [Interesting on the day that A Quiet Place Part II opens up.] Silence tends to make Americans nervous, but it can be an incredibly powerful tool when you are telling a story. It gives people time to “get the joke” when you say something funny. It intensifies the moment when the point is profound or poignant.
As with all of our content, measurement must be considered. In a whitepaper titled, Storytelling 2020: What You Need to Know About Storytelling in Marketing, the Atlanta chapter of the American Marketing Association wrote: “Be prepared to isolate the data that matters to your storytelling efforts. Then analyze what messages had an impact, which ones didn’t and where there is room for optimization. Also, leverage this data to get a better picture of your customer and where there are opportunities to extend the relationship to create stronger, even lifelong, connections.”
Speaking of data, Emily Laermer, managing editor for Ignites at Money-Media, told us this a couple years ago: “Data and visual stories are pretty consistently among our most saved and forwarded content. In the most basic sense, data stories are ones that just have a ton of information. So they can be generated from a huge spreadsheet or Excel file. But they don’t necessarily have to be numbers driven. They can be stories that have a lot of facts. So for example, new rules and regulations are great data stories. The first story I worked on at Ignites required that I read a 400-page rule on mutual fund regulation and how the funds were going to have to change their reporting. That’s a data story.”
Suggesting you read 400 pages of rules is not the best way to encourage data stories, but there are easier ways. Timelines can be very effective. In reporting on a company that had been acquiring other companies, Laermer went through annual reports, press releases, etc., and built out a timeline that proved very engaging.
Finally, Steen believes that everyone can be a storyteller, especially publications pros. “While there are naturally gifted storytellers, storytelling is a skill,” he wrote. “As such, storytelling can be learned and improved with practice… Ask yourself story prompts. What is the worst trouble you ever got in as a kid? What was the best journey you ever took? Who do you admire most and why? What is the most daring thing you ever did? Believe me. You have stories.”
It will be enthralling to hear Steen tell his story on Wednesday, June 16 at 3 pm. Make sure that happens by registering here.