Mar 28, 2011

Storytelling Rules & Writing Better Press Releases

Everything is a story. Stories are how we make sense of the world around us, how we communicate, how we reach out and touch others. Press releases, videos, podcasts, blog posts, tweets… They’re all forms of story telling, even the driest financial statement has at its heart the story of a company’s performance. And that’s important, right? People work at that company or have invested in it, or supply it with goods or services, they depend on it in one way or another, so the story needs to told and told well.  Lastly, well told, genuine, audience-focused stories may be more important than ever: Google’s ‘Farmer’ update may have included the ability to interpret what users consider ‘valuable’ in content.  This is very new and a radical change.  If true, then the more original and well written the story, the more likely it is to rank well.

So what makes a good story?  And if stories are so universal, is there anything we can take from millennia of story telling to help us improve the stories we write, improve engagement and optimize for higher search ranking?

Fans of Star Wars, ancient mythology and certain novelists will be familiar with the name Joseph Campbell.  Campbell was an academic interested in the common threads running through all of the great myths.  In the late 1940s he published The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he lays out the theory that the great myths from all cultures and regions of the world share a similar structure, which Campbell called the monomyth.

Campbell summarizes the monomyth thus: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

I stated that “everything is a story.” If so, then could we create better, more effective press releases, marketing campaigns, blog posts or tweets by applying Campbell’s theories?  I think so, and here’s my attempt to map Campbell to the the humble press release.

The first hurdle is that we’re not writing fiction…  So unless it is actually about a specific individual, who is to be our hero?

I’d say that the hero is our reader, and that we are the ones offering the hero a journey and the eventual boon to take back to his/her village (bear with me here…).  We like well told stories, but we really love the ones we can identify with.  If a press release can plant the image of ourselves using that product, attending that event, buying that stock, it’s been a story well told…  So, if my assertion holds any water, then the first rule of the Campbell school of press release ‘literature’ is

Rule 1.  Know your audience.

This enables us to write the right story, set our hero a challenge he or she will accept and guide them to fulfillment.

So our hero is considering the challenge (they are reading our press release after all), but is not yet committed.  The prize has been identified (status, material wealth, some other boon), but… in all good stories there will be challenges to face, one-eyed ogres to slay, armies of orcs or Sith lords to fight.  How can you help your hero overcome their natural hesitation at embarking on such a hazardous journey?

Campbell identifies helpers or companions in the great myths that provide the hero with materiel, knowledge or other gifts that will eventually be used in the decisive battle in which the prize will be won.  Skywalker had Obi Wan, Frodo had Sam, your hero has…. yes, you!  Arm your hero with all the information and resources required to complete the tasks required to earn their prize.

Information, case studies, video, images, downloads, links, contact details, a map; all are the equivalents of light sabres, The Force or invisibility cloaks in your story. So the second rule of Fight Club, er, sorry, wrong story… the second rule of mythic press release writing is

Rule 2. Give your audience what they need to achieve their goal.

And so, travel-stained and weary, but wiser and richer, your hero sets off on the journey home, carrying the prize he battled hard for.  And in this, my young padewan, is the final lesson of today’s story.  For the hero is returning to the village from whence he or she came, and the boon they have been granted is no boon at all if it is kept secret.  It must be shared to realize it’s full value.  What does this mean for our press release?  We must give them the tools to share it with friends and colleagues on social networks or media or email or whatever their own social poison is.  Follow the third rule and you set up your story for success.

Rule 3.  Help your audience tell the world about your story.

I’ll end with two quotes, one from a PR practitioner who knows more about this business than I ever will and the last from Joseph Campbell himself.

Rohit Bhargava is SVP, Global Strategy & Marketing at Ogilvy. He was kind enough to talk at PR Newswire’s global sales conference in January 2011 and he was the one who got me thinking.  In a discussion full of insight he said “People buy stories,” and if we make our stories simple then more people will buy them.

Lastly, Joseph Campbell, “What I think is that a good life is one hero journey after another. Over and over again, you are called to the realm of adventure, you are called to new horizons. Each time, there is the same problem: do I dare? And then if you do dare, the dangers are there, and the help also, and the fulfillment or the fiasco. There’s always the possibility of a fiasco. But there’s also the possibility of bliss.”

There are many, many guides to writing great press releases out there.  I hope mine has added a little value.  How about you? What are your rules for good writing?  Let me know.

Author Rod Nicolson is PR Newswire’s VP of user experience design & workflow.

Image courtesy of Flickr user jmv.

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