The Importance Of Story Telling In Digital Comms

Author – Tom Palmer, Director at Ocean City Media

The new James Bond film is out.

And I’m already wondering about that legendary opening sequence before the titles and theme tune roll.

Will it be a comprehensive run-down of existing world threats to the secret service, an analysis of which is the highest priority and discussion about which member of the team (007 perhaps) is the most suitable person to tackle them?

Or will it open with a look at the current budgetary position for the secret service and forecasted funding gaps that could compromise the purchase of missile-firing Aston Martins and metal-melting laser watches?

No. Of course it won’t. Because the writers and film-makers are telling a story. They want it to have an impact on their audience and they want their audience to engage with it and share it. Put bluntly, you start with an exciting story and leave the context till later.

And that’s exactly how organisations planning their digital communications should approach things.

The scale may be different – I’d be surprised if there was any appetite for the next South West Business Council conference to be live streamed to Leicester Square – but digital technology and evolving hybrid working practices mean we’re all broadcasters now.

The video conferencing market nearly doubled during 2020 to be worth $8bn by the end of the year, there are 3.5bn social media users spending two hours-a-day on these platforms, and the vast majority of us carry mobile phones which have the technology to film, edit and publish anything, anywhere.

Faced with all these dizzying numbers, it can be easy to forget that there’s a person behind every screen. People engage and connect with people, not many connect with strategies, plans or spreadsheets. They want content which is either useful or entertaining.

Whether you’re a team leader holding regular Zoom meetings, a business marketing a product or pitching for work, storytelling is an essential communication tool if you want to meaningfully engage your audience.

And you don’t have to choose – you don’t have to disregard that essential context, those crucial numbers or key messages. In fact if they are set in the framework of an engaging story, then they can have far greater impact.

So how is it done?

Let’s assume most companies don’t have Daniel Craig on standby to lead their next Zoom call. That’s not a problem because fundamentally most great stories follow a similar pattern.

They are all ‘local stories’ with a group of characters going about their lives. What makes those stories travel is the universal themes within them to which an audience can relate.

You don’t have to be a wizard to empathise with some of the issues Harry Potter tackles as he grows up in school and you don’t have to be a Mafia boss to recognise some of the family chaos in the Sopranos.

This doesn’t mean your next team briefing should be a screenplay and unless your ambition is to be the next David Brent I’d avoid trying to ‘entertain’ at all costs. What it means is to think of the audience, the message and the messenger.

What will the impact of the message be on your audience? What will it mean for them? Can the audience relate to the person delivering the message? Is it authentic?

If you want to change the way people think and feel about your messaging, they need to engage with it and care about it.

And to be effective, that message doesn’t need to be a landmark event or major drama. Stories are everywhere.

This year we’ve worked on projects about cyber security, roadworks and new cycle lanes.

Despite these seemingly everyday subjects, we’re proud to have delivered films that demonstrably engaged audiences. How?  By recognising that people are stories and authentic, human voices are your best messenger.

Take Plymouth’s Forder Valley Link Road Scheme – a headline I know has already got most of you moving to the edge of your seats. This is a major investment, will create jobs, ease congestion and offer a huge boost to the economy.

These are undoubtedly valuable and important messages. They are also messages audiences will expect to hear, which means there is a risk the audience won’t engage with them and then they become devalued.

As with James Bond, context is important, it is the foundation of a story and often the reason for doing the story but it cannot carry a story because it isn’t engaging on its own.

The same risk applies if the infrastructure project itself is your story – a project isn’t a person, it isn’t relatable and as such is much easier to criticise.

Working with Plymouth City Council, Balfour Beatty and their contractors we chose a different messenger.

Meet Ray and his team, contracted to move the 30-metre, 105-tone concrete beams for the Forder Valley bridge from Ireland to Plymouth.

Ray leads a team of everyday people who are doing something extraordinary. They are helping to build the biggest bridge of its kind in the UK. They are building something which, in his words, would be there ‘long after we’re gone’.

Now the film isn’t just roadworks or infrastructure projects.  It’s about people similar to any you’d find in your local pub, building history with passion. From Ireland With Love. Actually.

Now that’s a story.