Once upon a time, you may have heard a senior communications leader say, “Storytelling is the most important skill a communicator can have.”
If you were like me, you might have even believed it once. But in a PR skills cage match, strategy beats storytelling any day of the week.
That’s not to say storytelling doesn’t have an important place in the Communications pantheon. It does. In fact, storytelling driven by strategy is one of the cornerstones of a successful communications effort.
According to author, historian and philosopher Yuval Noah Harari we humans are “storytelling animals [who] think in stories rather than in numbers or graphs, and believe… the universe itself works like a story, replete with heroes and villains, conflicts and resolutions, climaxes and happy endings.”
A skilled communicator understands there’s something in the DNA of our species that gives storytelling universal appeal and uses this insight to captivate their audience. They can turn the driest topic into a riveting call-to-action and deliver a message so effectively that the audience wants more.
The true core of being an effective communicator isn’t in the telling of tales.
It’s in the strategic approach driving the storytelling.
Because without a communications strategy, storytelling is simply entertainment.
Becoming a communications strategist isn’t something that happens overnight. It starts with asking hard questions and doing your homework.
One of the most important questions a communicator can ever ask is, “What is the business strategy?” Just as important are the questions, “Who is our audience?” and “What do they really care about?” Together, these questions can guide an effective communications strategy.
To understand the business strategy, you need to have an intimate knowledge of your organization’s business model. This means going beyond mission statements and talking points. It’s about having a fundamental understanding of what keeps the lights on and pays the CEO’s salary.
The audience may not be who you initially thought they were. And once you do understand who you’re really trying to reach, it’s critical to dig deep and understand what motivates them. Go beyond superficial answers and interpretations and uncover what their true interests and needs are.
This approach applies whether you’re at a Fortune 50, a non-profit, government agency or in any other kind of organization you can imagine.
For example, I once worked at a publicly traded Fortune 100 technology company that was trying to bring a new product to market in the federal contracting space.
When I was brought in to lead the communications effort around the project, the program director was beyond excited about what he called “eye-watering” new technology. He said “give me a press release” to tell “the whole world” about our revolutionary new capability.
But after asking some questions and doing my research, I learned that our launch customer — the government agency that was paying us to develop this technology – was already all in. Provided we accomplished certain technical milestones, which we were on track to reach, we’d get paid.
But communications still had an important role to play in this – and one that had nothing to do with telling our story to the entire world.
The real problem – the business problem — was that our customer’s parent organization thought the project was a complete waste of tax dollars. They wanted to scrap the project entirely, and no amount of great storytelling about eye-watering technology was going to persuade them otherwise.
But, after doing additional research, I learned that the parent agency was focused on solving an entirely different problem. Congress, the press and other important stakeholders were asking the parent agency a lot of hard questions about this problem.
Our solution had the capability to solve that problem. But we had never publicly talked about that use case, because up until now, we’d only talked about how cool the technology was.
Armed with a deep insight into what the business really needed to achieve to succeed, and what our customer and their parent organization really cared about, I was able to develop a communications strategy that looked very different from what the program director asked for.
Instead of talking about technology, my team and I focused our energy on creating a compelling story about how our solution could solve the parent organization’s problem. And we didn’t blast out a series of press releases to the world – we focused on placing our message where key decision makers would see it.
The approach worked. Not only did the parent organization fund our progress payments, but they gave the customer additional funding so we could do more.
Storytelling was important – but it was strategy that enabled my team and I to tell the right story to the right audience.
Ultimately, strategy lies at the intersection of understanding and mastering the tools at your disposal, the organizational goals, the business landscape, and the needs of the audience. By digging deep into the business problem and constantly asking questions we can all become better strategic thinkers and communicators – and that’s no fable.