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.

What’s the difference between communications and marketing?

I really hate the term ‘marcomms’. I’m not even sure about ‘marketing communications’. Of course they go hand in hand for much of the time but I like there to be a little ‘and’ in the middle of those words, and this is why – while there are many points of intersection, I don’t think ‘marketing’ as a concept has any space for genuine disinterestedness, while ‘communications’ does.

Message Word with Speech Bubble

Marketing is about working out how to sell your product or service. You need to figure out who might want to buy it, how much they would be willing pay, and how to present both the product and your company really well to those people, in order to persuade them to do so. Words like audience and brand and targets and  product development start flying about and making small business owners quake in their boots. Marketing is a pretty technical thing – it follows set principles and firm ideas which anybody can follow but which can seem impenetrable and mired in jargon.

Implementing a marketing plan then involves good communications – deploying well-written copy and engaging images and/or design, maintaining a website and social media channels that provide interesting and useful content, and so on depending on your business type. Communications is about presenting your product in the way that your marketing planning suggests will be fruitful, and a good communications strategy is about working out how best to do this.

Marketing strategy must run in parallel with communications implementation in order for a marketing strategy to be effective – we have to communicate with our market. But I think this is the crux of the problem – a ‘market’ fundamentally implies commerce and therefore ‘marketing’ does too (it is, according to the OED, “The action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising“). Communications doesn’t imply that: it is “The imparting or exchanging of information by speaking, writing, or using some other medium“. These differences are subtle but I think they make the ‘marcomms’ portmanteau a little uncomfortable.

In the past year I have managed three Facebook pages on behalf of organisations that have no ‘selling’ intention at all – both (as well as the organisations behind them) have a pure communications function, simply to let people know what’s happening and tell them how they can be involved in a community. They have an information market but not a commercial one. The desire is there to build an audience and build conversations, but for genuinely altruistic reasons – education, community interaction, fitness – and the hard business of marketing isn’t necessary as they operate within contained communities. I think they demonstrate that good communications without marketing is possible, while marketing without good communications is pointless.

Communications can be pure and without self-interest. It can be motivated by the simple desire to talk and to get in touch. Of course I am in no way anti-marketing – even the smallest businesses depend upon the guidance of marketing principles to make much progress – but the creative, human side of what we term ‘communications’ is the bit I enjoy. It’s the bit where you forget that you’re trying to sell something and enjoy the process of exchanging and informing – the process, via whatever medium, of talking.


Live tweeting an event: creating a content narrative

One of my clients has a really cool event happening next week and when I met him today he was wondering how to maximise its coverage on social media. I suggested that we live tweet the event, and I was excited to have the opportunity because, to me, live tweeting epitomises the best things about social media as a tool to show your work in action and to connect people around a common experience.

If you’re not sure what live tweeting is, let’s start with the Oxford English Dictionary which defines it as:

VERB (WITH OBJECT): Post comments about (an event) on Twitter while the event is taking place.

Essentially it’s a way of reporting an event in snippets – you turn up armed with your smartphone, and you tweet about what’s happening at very regular intervals either throughout the event or for a defined period of time. Each time something interesting happens, someone says something noteworthy, or you take a great picture, you tweet it. You retweet what others are posting too – speakers, event Smart Phone with Blank Screenparticipants, audience members. You ask and answer questions. All those tweets – both yours and those posted by others – are connected together by a hashtag which you’ve predetermined, so you and everybody else can easily find the conversation and join in.

The most obvious example is a conference. Let’s say it’s about rabbits (I love bunnies). We’ll call it Rabbits International 2017. All your publicity material in advance includes the conference hashtag, #RabbitConf2017, and your delegates’ packs include a flyer asking them to tweet comments and questions using the hashtag, before, during and after the event. Then you might choose to live tweet the opening talk by a world rabbit expert, with photos of him speaking, quotes, and lots of retweets of others’ comments. You would definitely live tweet the talk where they bring out all the adorable bunnies, because, yes, photos of cute animals really do rule the internet. I’d be really surprised if a strategy like this didn’t generate some good conversations that wouldn’t otherwise have taken place or, more significantly, that would have taken place without your involvement in them.

Here’s a less obvious example. You’re a hotel and you’re holding a wedding fair. You write in advance to all the businesses attending and ask them to use your hashtag, and you include it on a flyer in the pack you’ll hand out to couples who attend the fair. With luck and encouragement some of the businesses attending might tweet about their preparations for the event and post their own photos of their stalls, while you post your own preparations at the hotel. On the day itself, you go along and take photos (with their consent!) of couples visiting the fair, telling their lovely engagement stories and getting their wedding ideas. You tweet about the stalls on offer and mention the Twitter handles of any of the attending businesses, especially the ones making use of your hashtag! You include useful wedding planning tips (and you can schedule these in advance). Of course you make sure there are lots of photos of your lovely hotel.

Both these examples show how intensive use of Twitter over a short period can enrich your event by spreading its message to those who couldn’t come, and making it linger in the memories of those were there. But there’s a more important reason to go to the extra effort of live tweeting: it creates rich, unique content, a content narrative, which you can repurpose when the event itself is long over. It’s easy to compile your tweets into a blog post, or a Storify story (although this depends on consistent hashtag use so don’t neglect publicising your hashtag!). You turn the photos into a gallery on Facebook. You edit the video snippets and put them on your YouTube channel. Real people are involved in the story of your business. This content shows your business in action rather than in its ‘marketing’ mode.

Live tweeting allows you to be your own journalist. Not every event is important enough to attract the ‘real’ press, but we can use Twitter to recreate the same effect and make a story out of the day-to-day. To me, Twitter has its natural home in journalism and using it in this context unleashes its most valuable powers.

If you haven’t got time to think about marketing, your marketing will be easy!

As you’ll know if you’ve read the ‘About Us’ page, I’m a mum. I love having my own
business because it gives me the flexibility to be with my gorgeous and amazing daughter
untitledall the time when she isn’t at pre-school, and I feel really fortunate to be able to work in this way. But in reality, like pretty much every other working parent in the world, my family commitments still mean that business admin falls to the bottom of the list of priorities.

Lots of people see good communications and good marketing as part of their business admin – a boring and annoying part. And here’s the funny bit – I kind of agree with you! I only concentrate on building my business after everything else is done.

I even think this attitude is healthy. Marketing people often talk about the amount of time business owners should devote to marketing and communications, and nowadays especially to social media. The reality is that it can be counterproductive to do that. If you’re a builder and you have work, you get on with it. Are you really going to turn down a job one afternoon because it’s time to do some marketing? Nope. Your website, your Facebook page or your new leaflet ends up at the back of the queue. People often find marketing annoying and stressful. I don’t think that’s a failing and I aim to build strategies which understand this.

One of the principles that I’ve based my business on is that marketing and communications is a servant to your business or organisation. Whatever you do, that work is your priority, and your dedication to it is what will bring you success. Of course a good social media presence or a well-written, informative leaflet (or whatever else will work for what you do) will help get you noticed by new customers, but it’s what you do in your day job that’s the real winner. It’s often the people who struggle to make time to think about marketing during the course of their working day who have the best businesses to sell and the strongest ideas for how to sell it. They have interesting content and they understand their audience – they just don’t know it yet! I love working with them!

In conclusion, if you think you haven’t got time for marketing and communications you will probably find that a small investment of time and effort will reap huge rewards. Don’t think of it as ‘marketing’ – all you are doing is presenting the work you do to people that might be interested in it. I’d love to help you do this!

Building a children’s play area (and what it’s got to do with communications)

I’ll admit before we start that there is a communications-related moral to this story.

As part of my work as a Parish Councillor in Watlington, I recently led a project to replace the play equipment in one of our parks. It was old and rotting, and was inviting vandalism. We live round the corner from this little park, and my little girl and her Daddy go there most nights when he gets home from work, so it was a labour of love for me to work on getting some lovely new play equipment.

We got a 50% grant from South Oxfordshire District Council, but I still found myself in a position where I needed to raise £10,000 in four months. In a town of just 2,500 people, this looked like no mean feat, but (and this is ironic given my business name) I underestimated the power of talking. I organised an Easter Egg Hunt, a wine tasting and a bouncy castle party, each of which raised a few hundred pounds but also attracted a lot of people (both actual attendees and passers by). I posted a lot on the town Facebook noticeboard. I put up some posters. I spent a couple of hours one Saturday morning standing outside the Town Hall collaring people and telling them all about the lovely new play area we could have.

And suddenly, people were offering things to the cause right, left and centre – donations of both time and money, event ideas, grant suggestions. I made it over the fundraising finish line months before I realistically expected to do so. Here’s my girl playing in the playground I built for her.


It’s only now that I realise this was, in fact, a communications project. All I did was tell people (both in person and through various digital and print media) what was happening, what was possible, and how we could get from A to B. It was pretty simple, but it worked because I was talking to the right people.

This is how easy communications can be. Maybe the channels are a little different (I’m probably not going to offer to stand in the cold on a Saturday morning and advertise your business for you, I’m afraid) but the fundamentals are the same – get your message to the people who want it, in a way they can access it, and in a language they understand.

I had a lot of fun getting the play area. But not as much fun as I’m having with our new slide and log cabin house!