Once upon a housing estate
Since Procter & Gamble hired Jim Bangel 40 years ago and made him their official ‘Storyteller’, the profession of ‘corporate storyteller’ has become increasingly mainstream. Storytellers now pop up all over the place, not just in their natural habitat – marketing and advertising – but in oil and gas companies, the automotive sector and software firms.
Still, it was a surprise to discover a corporate storyteller who works for housing associations. Appropriately enough, I met Rob Doyle at Story, a once-a-year one day jamboree devoted to storytelling in every form: film, song, animation and art, as well as fiction.
Here Rob talks about how he came to be a storyteller, and shares his wisdom about how to use storytelling to make a difference.
Why do people love stories?
It goes back to humanity’s origins. People used to pass on information sitting around a fire telling stories either about where they wanted to go or what they’d done, using their imagination. People tend to forget facts and figures but they remember stories and empathise with the people in them. We’re just addicted to stories and always will be. There’s something magical about stories and storytelling is about bringing some of that magic into the grey world of business and government.
How did you become a storyteller?
I worked as a journalist for many years and was looking for a change. I saw an advert for a not-for-profit housing organisation looking for a storyteller. We met and liked each other, so I started working there and developing the role. This was a new idea at the time. They wanted to be innovative and use their communications strategy to stand out from similar organisations. They had big ideas and thought that storytelling was the best way to get those ideas out there.
What did this job involve?
Usually, housing organisations let the world know about their work by sending out press releases with lots of facts and figures and quotes from the Chief Executive. Instead, my job was to tell the story of the company through the voices of its customers. So if they’d spent money doing up a community centre, I’d find someone who’d used the centre and interview them to find out how the new facility had changed their life.
It wasn’t superficial at all. I’d talk to them and ask about their life story to build up a picture of who they were, where they were from, the challenges they’d faced and their life and loves. Then I’d tell their story and mention – almost in passing – how the organisation had helped them.
How did the organisation use the stories?
Sometimes we’d get a newspaper or magazine feature out of it or something in the local tv news. But I developed a storytelling portal – a website that was filled with written stories, audio files and video footage. The stories could be long or short. The idea was to keep up a constant narrative, going from one story to the next, with the underlying message being that the organisation cared about its customers and lived up to its values and mission.
What did the interviewees think of it all?
Customers absolutely loved it. That’s why this is such a good strategy. They’d probably never had an opportunity before to tell their life story to people. When someone sat down with them and showed an interest, took down everything they said, they revealed things that they normally kept to themselves. Of course, some didn’t want to tell their story. But nine times out of ten, it made people feel good about themselves. Usually, once they started talking, they couldn’t stop. That’s where the power of the story comes from.
What kind of problems did you have to overcome?
There was a bit of resistance to the idea at the beginning. The people at the top of the organisation got it, but the people in the middle were less keen. I had to demonstrate the value of storytelling a lot of the time.
Also, I had to show that a story has to contain both the light and the dark side. It can’t just focus on the positive. One time, I was talking to a man who lived in an area that had become really run down before the housing organisation helped to turn it around. He told me that his next door neighbour had killed himself with a shotgun. Some people within the organisation thought it was too controversial to include that detail.
But I convinced them we needed to tell this as part of a story about the triumph of the human spirit.
What are the crucial elements of corporate storytelling?
You have to take all the techniques that you’d use in fiction – conflict and suspense etc. – and use them to take people with you on a journey. I’ve got an MA in Creative Writing so that, together with my journalistic background, really helped me.
Psychologists at Washington University in St Louis tested people as they were reading stories and discovered that they had a definite effect on the brain which seems to encourage us to relive similar experiences and in that way understand real-life experiences better. So by using fiction techniques, you can help bring that same dynamic into play and encourage people to relate stories to their own lives.
How can stories convey a corporate message?
You have to be clear about what you’re trying to achieve. In my new role, I’m working for a housing association that’s challenged by welfare reform and the bedroom tax. Our aim is to encourage people to seek help if they can’t pay their bills. We’ve created a range of stories about what people fear and how they’ve coped with the changes so far. This brings the issues to life because other people can see those stories and empathise with the person telling the story. They think, ‘I’m like that.’ It delivers a positive message, but not in a bland, corporate way.
Is it worth a try?
Storytelling is a very powerful way for businesses to get their messages out there. Businesses need to get into a more show business frame of mind, thinking about how their communications can entertain and delight people. And once you get going, the results are incredible. It helps get your messages out there and helps you become more connected to customers. If you’re thinking of trying storytelling, take the plunge, because it really does work.
Rob’s storytelling tips
- Be authentic. Tell the truth.
- Write about the dark side too – don’t whitewash your story.
- Sit down face-to-face for the best results.
- Be a really good listener.
- Don’t be afraid to ask the right questions.
- Go beyond the facts and figures to get people talking about themselves.