Is storytelling the core of strategic writing?

When I agreed to teach the graduate-level course, “Strategic Writing & Messaging,” I spent 8 months stewing over the content. I’m a strategist, so that part I get. I’m a writer, so I’ve got that covered, too.

So where’s the problem? It’s my students.

The Online PR Master’s at Kent State serves a sophisticated group, most of them veteran communicators. They write strategically every day, and they’re good at it.

So what can I offer that they don’t already know?

How about a class in storytelling?

It’s the story, stupid!

Storytelling is part of the human condition, a process that shapes our lives from a very young age. Meet my grandson, Jake!

Storytelling theory isn’t part of most PR majors in college. Sure, we all took English Lit, so we know the importance of the “hero” archetype and maybe even the “hero’s journey.” But how often do we examine our company’s “story arc”? Who are the mentors in our organization’s story? The allies? The villains? And what are their back stories?

These aren’t concepts most of us think about much. But maybe we should.

The primary text for my new course has nothing to do with PR.  “The Writer’s Journey,” by Christopher Vogler,  examines the storytelling process as it plays out on the silver screen. A Hollywood script reviewer and editor, Vogler knows how great stories work. His book borrows heavily from Joseph Campbell’s classic, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” but instead of using myths to illustrate his points (as Campbell does), Vogler turns to the cinema, with examples ranging from “The Wizard of Oz” to “Star Wars.”

Unfortunately, our clients don’t live in Oz, and they don’t fight the Evil Empire. PR is nonfiction — at least when it’s done ethically. Nonetheless, it’s been my experience that even in the most mundane companies have plenty of great stories to tell. We simply must find and develop them. Vogler shows us the way.

No, it’s the strategy, stupid!

Great storytelling in PR doesn’t help unless it changes attitudes and behaviors and in measurable ways. I can’t wait to see how my students blend creative storytelling techniques with the reality of day-to-day business and the need to be transparent.

My 7-week-long assignment challenges students to examine their organizations and companies using Vogler’s methodology. They’ll identify the characters and they’ll develop factual back stories on heroes, villains, allies, mentors etc. Then, they’ll apply those characters to engaging story lines that include key messages and motivating stimuli.

I don’t expect my students to have the creative skills of Hollywood scriptwriter. So the final project won’t include the stories themselves, but, rather, a prospectus that outlines those stories, how they should be delivered, and for what purpose and objective.

A dash of psychology

After much searching, I found a popular business book to complement the storytelling component of my class. Sally Hogshead’s “Fascinate: Your 7 Trigger to Persuasion,”  fits nicely, and suggests a lot of ways to make our clients more…well, more fascinating.

The research Hogshead presents can help every storyteller tap into the human condition. It’s an easy read that offers plenty of takeaways that will help you on the job.

Help me!  Class doesn’t launch until January, so if you have suggestions on how to improve it, tell me your story. I love a good story.

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Special thanks to Robert Rose, lead strategist of the Content Marketing Institute. His presentation at Content Marketing World 2011 convinced me that my storytelling theme for this class is on the mark. He’s also the one who introduced me to the Vogler text and urged me to use it for this class. You gotta love a guy who lists his occupation as “Chief Troublemaker.” We need more like him. Really.

4 thoughts on “Is storytelling the core of strategic writing?

  1. I highly recommend “The Story Factor,” by Annette Simmons.

    I also highly recommend a guest lecture by someone at a utility, who can talk about Changing the Narrative, and Storytelling Through Social Media.

    Or so I am told…

  2. Very interesting. I’ve never thought of PR quite in this way before. Heroes and villains: How fascinating.

    I’m glad there’s room for creativity in PR writing. While I appreciate the rigid functionality of news writing, I find it refreshing to be able to add some flair to my language.

    I’ve been trying to step my game up as an effective writer for my new job with EIG. Can you link me to an example online of excellent PR storytelling?

  3. This is the beauty of creating an online program in public relations! I have one of the smartest minds in the world in public relations in the office right next to mine, so one utilizes that firepower by getting him to design and teach an online seminar in social media and design and teach a course in strategic messaging.

    What makes Bill so effective that everything he does is student-centered. I’m positive that the online students will love this class and their teacher…just like they did in the social media class!

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