One day, instead of his normal sermon, the Buddha held up a white flower and said nothing. The monks were bewildered except for one, who smiled and instantly attained enlightenment.”

– Ancient Zen story

Sometimes we try too hard. For example, when we try to tell stories. For at least the last five years, maybe more, PR folks have been telling clients that messages carry more weight when presented as narratives. Between 2011 and 2015, there was a 294% rise in the use of the term “storytelling” in PR Week.

I guess that’s reasonable. In a recent article, consultant Joshua Reynolds of Quantifind pointed out that using stories to teach, persuade and entertain is a very old art—witness Aesop’s fables and many ancient myths. As The Atlantic aptly put it a few years back, humans see the world in narratives because it affords meaning to our lives—even when (uh-oh) there may not be any.

The problem I’m describing isn’t with the stories. It’s in the verb “to tell.” Firstly, this is an action verb that doesn’t include listening. Worse, the action doesn’t recognize that stories develop, evolve, and take on new lives. In healthcare PR, we may help a client tell a story about a patient’s journey. But how often do we listen and watch, two years after the campaign, to see how the story evolved? Maybe in its “second life,” the story has led to some happy denouement for the patient. If all we do is tell—not pause, listen, and ask—we will never hear the denouement, and our client may miss the chance to learn something unexpected and valuable from the patient.

Read the full post on the PR Council’s blog here.

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