Thursday, November 19, 2009

Telling Your Story

One of the biggest questions I hear from small business owners and non-profits is, "How can I get people to notice me without spending a lot of money?" In today's economy, everyone is looking for ways to grab million dollar headlines at bargain basement prices. It can be done, but it takes a little creativity, imagination and a some basic know-how.

PR and marketing firms all have their own unique way of getting positive attention for their clients, but the one thing that they all have in common is this; they start with the story and work out from there.

What is the story, you might ask? It’s YOUR story. It’s the tale you weave to tell others about who you are, what you do and, perhaps most importantly, why you do it. Newsrooms and all media outlets deal in stories. That’s their trade, their gold at the end of the rainbow, their reason for being. Journalists rarely say, “What I’m really looking for is an article with lots of facts and figures.” If that were the case, they’d all be writing textbooks.

No. What they say is, “I’m looking for a great story to tell.” Your job is to give them a great story and it begins with you.

What makes a good story? First, let’s take a look at some of your favorite books. Maybe it’s a scary Stephen King book, a thrilling John Grisham novel or a scintillating romance tome. Regardless, they all have some very similar structural bones in common. Ask yourself, what makes your favorite book such a good read? Really think about it. Now, let’s transfer some of those same attributes to your story.

Don’t be afraid. You don’t have to be a world famous writer, or an amazing public speaker to tell your story. You just need to know some of the basic elements of a good story and then start plugging in your bits. No, we’re not stealing the plot of the latest bestseller and bending it to fit your organization. That would be, well, ineffective, not to mention most likely illegal.

Let’s take a look at what makes a good story and how you can use these elements to help get attention for your organization.

Story Elements:

1. Character - No matter what story is being told, whether it’s horror, romance, action, even historical treatments, they all have one major thing in common; a strong character. There might even be more than one, but it’s essential to have a strong character or characters. Remember that the character of your story is probably going to become the face of your organization, for a little while at least. So it’s important to make this decision carefully.
Recently I did some work with a client that was looking to get a story done on the opening of a spay and neuter cat clinic. The opening of the clinic itself wasn’t much of a story, but as I talked with the client she mentioned an aspect of her organization that really got my story juices flowing. They have what they call “cat trappers.” Folks who go out at night and trap stray cats. They had several individuals who did this, but, as the client said, most of them aren’t ready for prime time. However there was one trapper who was attractive, well spoken and available. This was perfect. They had someone who could speak well and with authority, someone who would be available for interviews and someone who had a little eye appeal. This individual ended up being the focus of a four-page spread in a local magazine just a few weeks after the opening of the clinic.
When looking for a character for your story, keep in mind that you want interesting, not crazy. You don’t want to scare away potential customers, donors or volunteers. The media likes crazy, it’s fun, but an over the top character could turn off potential customers. Over the top might work for advertising, it’s not so great for PR and marketing.
You could be the main character of your story, or it could be a customer, or a client, anyone you think would be interesting. It’s always easier to tell a story through a single or a couple of viewpoints. One of the big reasons this matters is because of our next story element…

2. Relatability - Sometimes your message or story is just too big to boil down to a single talking point. You can simplify your message as much as you want, but unless you have someone delivering that message that the audience can relate to, your story could end up being ignored. Take a look at the most recent presidential election. It’s very, very difficult to make complex campaign issues relatable.
The Republicans were facing a strong opponent and were in danger of losing many swing voters. They needed someone who those swing voters could relate to. They needed a face, a voice that could speak directly to that voting base on behalf of the party. Cut to Joe the Plumber. A seemingly everyman who most Americans could relate to on some level.
You could do the same thing, only without all the controversy. If your organization specializes in helping the poor, find a family that can help your message resonate with those who might not able to otherwise relate. If you specialize in green industry or sustainable economy, find someone who will give your message impact to your audience. A spokesperson is a vital need your organization must have, but a spokesperson isn’t always the best character for your story. Tell the plight of the millions of homeless people through the story of one individual. Suddenly there’s a human interest angle and it becomes much more personal to the audience, making your own story and message that much more powerful.

3. Conflict – Generally conflict in a story means some kind of fight between your protagonist and the antagonist. The conflict in your story is a little different. You don’t have to go out and find a “bad guy” for your story necessarily. Bad guys don’t have to be individuals or corporations. The bad guy of your story could be the economy, it could be the lack of resources for a particular need. If your business is a deli, you might ask yourself, “where is my bad guy?” Your bad guy might be the lack of affordable, fast healthy lunches in your area. Maybe the bad guy is the lack of traditional Italian meatball subs in your city. The point is, your organization does something that few others do, or offers a service that helps people. When you started your business or non-profit, you identified a need in your area that you want to meet. This need is your conflict. By identifying what the need is, you will automatically tell your audience why your organization is important. Sometimes, hell, many times, you have to point out a need to your audience in order for them to notice it. You want your audience asking, “Why DON’T we have more traditional Italian meatball sandwiches available to me and my family?!” Identify what the most important need your organization fills and make that your bad guy, your conflict, your reason for being.

4. Resolution – Now that you’ve identified what the conflict is, you have to give the audience a resolution. The entire neighborhood is now up in arms because of a serious lack of traditional Italian meatball sandwiches. What will they do? Where will they go? Never fear, you are here. You have to let the audience know that you can fill their need, but most importantly you have to tell they HOW you will meet their needs. Your organization is the hero here. You come in, swooping to the rescue to put their minds at ease. You don’t just say, well, we sell traditional Italian meatball sandwiches. You tell them that your meats are from Italy, your chefs are trained in the traditional ways of preparing meatball sandwiches, you tell them that because of your attention to traditional detail, no one does it quite as good as you do.

You, as the deli owner can use a regular customer as your character. Or you as the owner can be your own character, as long as your relatable to your target audience. Your character can help your audience relate by noting how you fill the need not only for traditional Italian meatball sandwiches, but also for fast and affordable lunches. You will appeal to those looking for good food that is fast, not expensive and unique. You will note that families need good food on a budget and on a timeline; food that is handmade and much healthier than those national burger chains.

Don’t Give a History Lesson:

Just a couple of things to keep in mind as we wrap this up. You’re story isn’t necessarily a rehashing of your organizations’ history. While it’s certainly important and an added benefit to have a history of your business or non-profit on your website or in some of your collateral, the story you tell to get media attention or appeal to your audience isn’t about how you got to where you are, it’s more about where you’re going and what you’re doing. Every time you go to the media looking for coverage, you have to create a story that will appeal to them. This means the story you tell could change slightly every time you approach a reporter or media outlet. This doesn’t mean your message changes, just the way you express your message. Stories can always be tailored to fit a specific event.

You can tell your story in a press release, in a personal email, in a newsletter article, any vehicle you would normally use to reach out to your audience or to the media. The story shouldn’t be too long, something you can tell in a three to four paragraphs and, this is important, keep it simple.

One of the biggest mistakes small businesses and non-profits make is to try to cram too much stuff into their message or story. Don’t do this. It confuses people and dilutes the primary message. Focus on one story at a time, one primary message. Don’t worry, if you get media attention, you’ll have plenty of opportunity to get your sub messages across.

Creating your own story is a great start, but it’s only half the battle. The next step is to start thinking like a journalist, or at least have an understanding of what exactly they’re looking for. While journalists understand the elements of a good story, they have their own criteria when it comes to deciding what stories to tell. There are a million good stories out there, and yours is just one of them. Next, we’ll take a look at the criteria journalists use when deciding which stories to run with, and which ones end up in the “futures” file.

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