Wednesday, 4 May 2011

How telling stories can improve your reputation

Stories are as old as the hills and such a simple way of communication. A good yarn can create a positive narrative that reaches across audiences, let alone across generations. Some of the oldest tales have lived on thanks to their ability to capture emotion and imagination despite the lack of written records.

The Bible, the Decameron, The Canterbury Tales, many of the Roman histories all record stories that existed many centuries prior to their publication. Although details may have changed like Chinese whispers, central themes remain the same.

Everyone has a story or two to tell, and while my mother’s tales might get taller with every retelling, there’s a value to repeating them for entertainment, information and education. Even the most simple story can have a learning point as I mentioned in my blog before

So at the Harrogate 4N meeting, I decided to tell a story about myself to illustrate how stories say a great deal more than you may at first think.

How I saved the life of a celebrity donkey

As a sixteen year old, I delivered the newspapers around my village. Being a rural community, some of the homes were farms a mile or so from the next nearest house. The final house on my route was a fair old walk or cycle from the rest of my route.

At the top of the long winding drive, a donkey stood in the middle of the main road; quite motionless. Being on the brow of a hill and a blind bend, I feared this donkey was soon to cause one almighty accident. Assuming the beast had escaped the paddock of the house down the drive, I struggled to haul the donkey off the road.

Donkey’s aren’t called stubborn for nothing. After Struggling for ten minutes I had barely got the animal off the busy main road, and a further quarter of an hour later I was at the front door of the owner’s house.

A knock on the door early on a Sunday morning was not greeted warmly by the home’s owner, a dress maker to the Queen, who opened his bedroom and telling me to buzz off and stop waking him up. When I explained I’d returned his ass safely, he was even less enamoured with my Sunday morning alarm call.

I had drawn his attention to the noble stead now merrily munching on his best border plants whilst I was at the door. I quickly found out the donkey was not his property. A long haul back up the drive, and a similar stubborn journey down the next led me to discover this, too, was not the animal’s home. At least this was a proper farmer and he agreed to take the donkey and ring the police’s “Missing Donkey” department.

I thought nothing more about the incident until I looked at the front page of the local weekly newspaper the following Thursday. A large chunk was devoted to the sad tale of a Donkey, used in the filming of Tots TV, a programme from the same stable as Tellytubbies and In the Night Garden. The programme originally had a pony and donkey in it, but the pony had died. Mourning the loss, the donkey escaped its paddock and was found several miles away. The newspaper credited the discovery of the TV donkey by a local farmer, quoting his thoughts on the discovery.

So what does this actually teach us about Stories?

- One learning point is there are different versions of the same story. My story was the stubborn beast refusing to move, and the struggle to make the animal safe. The newspaper focussed on the sad tale of loss and reconciliation.

- If you don’t tell your side a story first, you might find someone else distorts the story, getting in first. This could be a corporate competitor.

- Stories are based on emotion and emotive issues. Even a big business story is about creating jobs and communities, and not about how many noughts are written on the contract.

- Stories tend to have a hook early on – in my case you want to find out more about why the donkey is a celebrity and what happened. Normally the first line or headline encapsulates the whole story.

- Stories have a halo effect on an individual or organisation. How do I come out the story? Caring, determined, struggling against the odds, sympathetic.

- If you have a message, make sure your stories reflect any relevant key messages you are trying to enlighten people about.

Public relations is about managing reputations and stories can help develop and build a reputation. The best stories are based on real life and true experience. Describing untruths as reality are also damaging to reputations. What I’ve discovered talking to people in business is how mangy good stories there are, and how little mileage businesses make of them. The times they’ve saved another person’s bacon, gone way past the extra mile yet failed to tell their customers and potential customers.

The image is taken from The Donkey Sanctuary, a worthwhile charity helping to protect the animals from abuse around the world.

1 comment:

  1. Was fascinating hearing the story this morning, you are so right about telling the story first too.