12 Ways to Improve Your Digital Storytelling

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I recently was reading Sally Hogshead’s latest book, How the World Sees You, when I was shocked by one of her insights. More specifically: an insight gleaned from her assessment tool meant to describe how I influence other people.

I know I’m an analytical guy, and the assessment confirmed this. The other aspect of the assessment shattered my gratuitous sense of self-awareness. It explained that I am least capable of influencing people with passion. The assessment got even harsher:

“You aren’t usually the life of the party at your annual get-together. You are not a natural networker.”

Sally’s assessment hurts (primarily because it’s true).

This led me down a rabbit hole of sorts: how do I compensate for the fact that peppering statistics into cocktail conversation doesn’t endear me to others? Long story short, I became very interested in storytelling. Specifically, I wanted to understand the mechanics of storytelling and how people are able to leverage this tool to communicate ideas more effectively than I am predisposed to communicate.

What I want to do it share twelve best practices that you can use to improve your storytelling. But first, I want to explore why storytelling is important to the PR discipline.

Why is storytelling important?

Storytelling - Content Marketing

Setting, plot, characters, conflict and theme. When I found these “aspects of storytelling,” I was so happy. Finally! I would be able to communicate my ideas with greater effectiveness.

The setting: the swarmy digital enclave known as the Internet.

The plot: while surfing the Internet, our hero finds an article about a social network called Tsu that pays users a percentage of advertising revenue (redistributing 90 percent of their ad revenue to users based upon traffic generated). Writers are proclaiming that Tsu may be the new Facebook (supplanting last week’s hot network, Ello).

The characters: Me, Tsu, Firefox

The conflict: This will never work. Facebook couldn’t operate with only 10 percent of their advertising revenue. Scaling is difficult for investors with highly restricted returns. Social networks Pheed and others have tried this type of monetization and haven’t found a lot of success.

The theme: The thought that Tsu could become a major social network is quite implausible. There isn’t a past precedent that would predict its success.

Why do you suppose you’re not compelled by my story?

The reason you’re not compelled is because we aren’t fascinated by stories just because they follow some banal structure or have some rote elements. Boring is boring. I am boring (until you get to know me, then I may fascinate you with my exceptional rationality).

PR expert Robin Thornton describes the importance of storytelling in the PR discipline like this:

“Storytelling is important because it allows us to speak to an audience in their language, in a manner, and with information that is relevant, so that your story resonates.”

Buffer founder Leo Widdrich also points out that the structure of storytelling aligns well to the way that we learn (This Forbes article corroborates his points as well). Storytelling maximizes the likelihood that the listener (or reader) will remember what we’re sharing.

1. Your story must have conflict

PR Storytelling - Conflict

If you want to induce a powerful sense of reality, then give your characters a chance to prove themselves in a tough situation. – Ken Ramsley

In any great story there is conflict:

Frozen – absolute power corrupts two sisters absolutely

Star Wars – against his dad’s wishes, son doesn’t want to go into the family business

Big Lebowskimistaken identity leads man to seek replacement rug

I’m having a little fun there, but you get the gist. Conflict draws us in to a story.

Pixar does as good a job as anyone of telling compelling stories, and one of their rules of storytelling is this:

“What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.”

Of course we’re talking about PR and not Pixar, but the inherent conflict writing for either is a subtle distinction. Maybe you’ve read the somewhat-clichéd content advice to “solve a reader’s problem?” (examples can be found here here here here and here). Your audience’s “problems” are conflicts – create your story around solving their problems.

You can also use the “crucible” device, where a character must overcome one severe task. Most brands would have no problem finding a few crucibles that their products would help to overcome.

Kermit - PR Storytelling

2. Your story must have form

PR Storytelling - Form

In his TED talk, literary agent Julian Friedmann discusses the storytelling formula that Aristotle originally described:

  • Pity – an audience should feel pity for a character due to their undeserved misfortune
  • Fear – an audience should an increasing sense of fear for the character as situations increasingly jeopardize the character
  • Catharsis – an audience should feel catharsis when the character is released from jeopardy

Many writers (like this one) also compare the same storytelling arc to a magic trick: the “pledge,” the “turn” and the “prestige.”

One of my favorite examples of this is the television show Curb Your Enthusiasm. Each episode finds the protagonist Larry David in an escalating series of circumstances that continue to imperil his character. What’s unique is that the catharsis element is only introduced in the final episode of each season, and these are some of the most enjoyable episodes to watch.

For PR practitioners, this formula is a fantastic tool to gauge the effectiveness of your PR storytelling. If you haven’t sufficiently created empathy for your “character” with a crisis and escalating circumstances, chances are that your solution probably won’t be cathartic. As early as 350 BCE, weak storytelling was discouraged.

3. Your story must align with audience values

PR Storytelling - Align

When companies don’t listen to what consumers need and want and value, they can damage their own brand. – Sally Hogshead

In Pixar filmmaker Andrew Stanton’s TED talk on storytelling, he says that great stories offers us “some truth that deepens our understanding of who we are.”

Weber Shandwick’s Greg Power discusses the challenge of storytelling as this:

“You need to connect my story to your story to make our story.”

One of the biggest impediments to this is that our values are frequently incongruent with our audience’s values. Julian Friedman explains that one of George Orwell’s most underappreciated works was a book entitled Why I Write, and the number one motivation that he described was “sheer egoism.”

Pixar has a rule for their storytellers that addresses the disconnect between storyteller and audience:

“You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be very different.”

PR practitioners have a story to tell, but it needs to be weaved into the story of our audiences. Otherwise, it will remain disparate.

4. Your story must be sensual

Sensual - PR Storytelling

In his book, TED Talks Storytelling: 23 Storytelling Techniques from the Best TED Talks, author Akash Karia discusses the storytelling skills that are common for the most successful TED Talks. He explains that great storytellers write about all five our senses:

  • Visual (sight)
  • Auditory (sound)
  • Kinesthetic (touch, emotions)
  • Olfactory (smell)
  • Gustatory (taste)

Karia goes on to say:

“When crafting your personal story, it’s important to keep in mind that you need to provide as many specific details as possible.”

Writer Tracey Nethercutt explains that although storytellers generally focus on visual language, writing about different senses enhances our capability to connect to an audience:

“The other senses add layers to the story that helps us not only see the story but enter into the story. Instead of just seeing the city’s towering buildings and packed streets we smell the hot dogs from the hot dog stand, hear the honking cars and the hum of music from a nearby car. We feel the thick, hot air and the cool metal inside a subway car. And we can taste the sweet icing on a cupcake.”

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5. Your story must be (heavily) edited

Eraser - PR Storytelling

I could listen to “This American Life” in perpetuity and be stay mesmerized. Ira Glass is such a masterful storyteller and I’d be remiss not to include his insights into this piece. One insight in particular was extraordinarily powerful.

When producing “This American Life,” Glass and his staff cut between 30 percent and 50 percent of everything that they create. This means that many weeks, half of the work that they do is superfluous. He goes on to add that most of their time is spent looking for stories, rather than producing content.

Bear in mind that they have fewer content constraints than a PR professional that wants to tell a very specific story about a very specific product or service. If you’re not editing your content as ruthlessly as Ira Glass, your storytelling probably isn’t as good as you think it is.

6. Your story must be plausible

Plausible - PR Storytelling

“What I think the magic ingredient is, the secret sauce, is can you invoke wonder. Wonder is honest, it’s completely innocent. It can’t be artificially evoked.” – Andrew Stanton

Merriam-Webster defines spin as “a particular bias, interpretation, or point of view, intended to create a favorable (or sometimes, unfavorable) impression when presented to the public.” Spin is perceived as dishonest, and is the antithesis of what you want to do when you’re storytelling. You want your story to resonate, and to seem veritable.

A great example of spin was the NFL’s recent handling of the Ray Rice domestic abuse. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said this when describing what the league would do to combat domestic abuse:

“I’m here now because our rules, policies and procedures on personal conduct failed to ensure that this high standard is met. But I want to make it clear. These are complex issues. Our country has a legal system that everyone needs to respect.”

Contrast that with the words and actions of Maple Leaf Foods CEO Michael McCain in response to a Listeria outbreak that killed between nine and 20 people in 2008:

“Tragically, our products have been linked to illness and loss of life. To those people who are ill, and to the families who have lost loved ones, I offer my deepest and sincerest sympathies. Words cannot begin to express our sadness for their pain.”

McCain owned up to the mistakes immediately, purportedly ignored his lawyer’s recommendations to mitigate risks by spinning the problem, found the root cause and corrected the problem. Where Goddell has been universally panned for his response to the NFL’s domestic violence response, McCain was lauded for his honesty and integrity.

Seth Godin said this about honesty as a component of storytelling:

“A great story is true. Not necessarily because it’s factual, but because it’s consistent and authentic.”

7. Your storytelling must have anecdotes

Window - PR Storytelling

Ira Glass believes that everything you’ve been taught about storytelling in school is wrong.

Rather than beginning with topic sentences and supporting arguments, he believes that one of the fundamental “building blocks” of storytelling are anecdotes. Anecdotes (in his definition) are a sequence of actions that serve to build up momentum in a story. For example:

  • the woman gets out of bed
  • she stretches
  • she puts on her glasses
  • she slips on her slippers
  • she clumsily saunters down the staircase all the while noticing an eerie silence

He goes on to explain that effective anecdotes (no matter how boring they might seem) serve to build up tension, so long as they build up to a “bigger something.” If there is no payoff for an anecdote, then it’s unnecessary.

8. Your story must challenge your audience

Chess - PR Storytelling

“And now “Cosmos” veers waaaay off course with a preachy segment on climate change and how we could be destroying ourselves by not seeking sustainability.” – LA Times review of an episode of Cosmos

How many times have you read a review or felt that a piece of content was “preachy?” Your frustration may stem from the fact that humans are predisposed to solve problems, even if we don’t quite understand the mechanism that drives that curiosity.

Ira Glass says that good storytelling doesn’t overtly spell out everything for the audience. He says that a good storyteller will give an audience “bait:” a series of questions that you commit to answer but that leave the audience some room to discern the answer for themselves. Depending upon the circumstances there may be a fine line between “bait” and appearing “preachy.”

Of course there is a lot of risk for PR professionals to concede parts of the narrative to an audience’s interpretation, but with technology it is almost certain that the narrative will be crowdsourced somewhat.

Letting the audience do some of the heavy lifting in your story also can serve to qualify them as a target. As Seth Godin writes:

“Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone…. If you need to water down your story to appeal to everyone, it will appeal to no one.”

9. Your story must have economy

Chess - PR Storytelling

“What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.” – Pixar’s rule #22 for storytelling

I’m going to invoke the spirit of Ira Glass one last time in this section. Glass says that your storytelling should raise a question and continue to deliver “bigger somethings” that lead to Aristotle’s catharsis. If your storytelling doesn’t say anything new or progress towards resolution of the overarching question, he recommends to “kill it.” This is similar to the “Chekov’s Gun” plot device: an item that is innocuously introduced into a story then becomes central to the plot later on. One of the rules of this device is that you don’t introduce random things into your story without a payoff, or more succinctly: economy.

Working in the more insulated confines of PR, it’s tempting to introduce non-sequitur brand information into a story that you’re crafting for that brand. But you can probably understand how an audience could be turned off by this. They want a cohesive story that they can empathize with and that will pay off. They want you to be economical in your storytelling.

Sally Hogshead (who shattered my dreams of being the most charismatic person in the world) says that your job as a storyteller is to fascinate your audience in nine seconds. Why? Because nine seconds is the extent of most people’s attention span. Lack of economy can drive your intended audience away.

10. Your story has a lexicon

Dictionary - PR Storytelling

“Advertising research reveals emotional response to an ad has far greater influence on a consumer’s reported intent to buy a product than does the ad’s content—by a factor of 3-to-1 for television commercials and 2-to-1 for print ads.” – The Guardian, discussing the role of language in digital storytelling

One of the most interesting research about storytelling has been done by neuroscientists. When studying MRIs of people’s brains when certain language is being used, words that invokes sensory experience stimulates people’s brains far more than ordinary language. Your audience prefers a certain type of vocabulary in stories.

Beyond language, clichés can be just as detrimental to successful storytelling. Akash Karia recounts one of the most overused storytelling narratives:

“One of the most clichéd stories that is repeated way too often by amateur speakers is the ‘starfish story’ – the one where a man walking along the beach sees a young boy throwing starfishes back into the ocean. When the man tells the boy, ‘Why bother? There are so many starfishes you can’t possibly make a difference.’”

Long story short: the boy makes a difference. Your story may not.

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11. Your story must leverage technology

Toy - PR Storytelling

“With digital storytelling through social media, the brand controls the messaging and the images, as opposed to journalists through traditional PR efforts. Highly visual platforms like Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest are a great opportunity to share your brand’s story and human side through compelling, brand-specific imagery.” PR expert Jennifer Berson, discussing social media and technology as a component of storytelling

Coca-Cola did something pretty radical in 2012: they revamped their corporate website into a storytelling vehicle. Rather than the typical banalities you might see on a corporate website, Coca-Cola Journey is supported by editors and freelance writers that develop original stories around the Coca-Cola brand (recipes, feel-good stories, and heritage stories as examples).

An important aspect of the Coca-Cola Journey are visuals. The visual aspect of Coca-Cola’s storytelling spurs consumer engagement through social sharing and crowdsourced contributions. Not only is Coca-Cola optimizing their organic digital assets for storytelling, but they are making their content sharable and encouraging the audience to contribute to the story.

In the words of Greg Power: Coca-Cola uses digital media and technology to connect their audience’s story to the Coca-Cola story story to make a collaborative story.

12. You must know this: your story is capricious

Capricious - PR Storytelling

“Society’s expectations about what is right and wrong are notoriously capricious.” – excerpted from Public Relations Writing: Form & Style by Doug Newsom, Jim Haynes

Greg Powers uses politics to describe how narratives are given to sudden, unaccountable changes of mood:

“Stories and elusive, capricious and need to be handled with care. A great story that can sweep a candidate to victory can disappear in a matter of months.”

His point being to be aware of the mood and climate relative to your audience. A successful story in one context could be unproductive or even harmful in another. Powers uses Barack Obama’s election narrative as an example: Obama was able to frame himself successfully during his election, but then when the context changed he now is viewed quite unfavorably. This is a plausible scenario for any corporate PR.


These types of storytelling tips for PR make make as much intuitive sense as a guy with analysis paralysis trying to work a room. However, PR and guys like me have a dilemma: people are hard-wired to internalize good storytelling. It is the most compelling way to communicate ideas and narratives with others. This is what we aspire to.

Hopefully you find these tips helpful. If your storytelling isn’t yet on an Ira Glass level, be consoled by this final Pixar rule of storytelling:

“Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.”

Stories v Logic - PR Storytelling

Want to see a storytelling infographic? Click the image.

Jim Dougherty is an expert on social media and technology who blogs at Leaders WestFor more marketing advice from Jim, click here.

About Jim Dougherty

Jim Dougherty is a featured contributor to the Cision Blog and his own blog, leaderswest. His areas of interest include statistics, technology, and content marketing. When not writing, he is likely reading, running, playing guitar or being a dad. PRSA member. Find him on Twitter @jimdougherty.

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