Telling the ‘story’: communicating emotion as well as information

I had a real success with my little daughter this week, and all because of a story.

She started nursery school for the first time a few weeks ago and although she loves being there and talks about it happily, the first 30 seconds where she has to leave me are hard for her (and for me too, to be honest). Each morning she’s been crying, clinging to me and begging me to come in and play too. I realised that she simply didn’t understand why she had to be there on her own.

So I wrote her a story. The story described her arriving at her school, feeling sad, and then listening to Mummy explaining how school can be a special place. It showed her having a good day, being busy both with friends and all by herself, and then us being together again afterwards. It wasn’t complicated or lengthy and I’m no Julia Donaldson. But when I showed it to my daughter she loved it – she wanted to read it over and over again.

And then – here’s the magical bit – this morning when we went to school she acted it out! She did all the things she does in my story, saying, “Just like the story!” while she did them, and I played my parts too. We hung up her coat and backpack and she gave me a big kiss – just like in the story – and she went inside with no tears. It was fantastic.

We (and by ‘we’ I mean grown-ups) tend to use the word ‘story’ in two distinct circumstances: to mean either a piece of factual news journalism or a fictional tale told to children (check out the lengthy definition in the OED). Actually there can be a lot of crossover between the two, and some of the most powerful and persuasive communication can emerge from that crossover. In my story, I reported the facts of my daughter’s school life but then I added to that base from my imagination to make it interesting enough to engage her attention. A lot of what I described her doing was fiction – I don’t know the intricacies of what she does during the day, or the names of all the children she plays with – but the setting and the principles were real and this made the story experience real to her, so she was able to use it to get some perspective on her big feelings.

When writing marketing copy or creating an advertising campaign, if you start with the real ‘story’ of your product – the hard facts – then you’ve put down good, true foundations. You can build on those foundations to illustrate your product and create the imagined ‘story’ of how it works in the real world. When truth pervades your marketing, then everything, from stock photography right up to a big advertising campaign using actors, becomes illustration, rather than fabrication. It is this illustration which makes a product appealing to your audience’s emotions, and engages their attention.

I don’t think this is wishful thinking – I’m not trying to wriggle out of some of the criticisms levelled at marketing and advertising professionals. Instead I’m explaining how, in my opinion, sincerity can include fiction, not preclude it, if you start from honest foundations.

Creativity is so often lacking in marketing. I think we as communications professionals have got a lot to learn about storytelling, and where stories are concerned children are a great place to start.

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