You’re sitting in a restaurant waiting for the food you just ordered. A waitress saunters over to the table and drops a plate in front of you. The burger before you looks nothing like what you expected and hungered for. A lack of toppings, dry, no “secret sauce” and possibly over-cooked. On the whole a forgettable and unappetizing presentation. It is in fact, a burger… But, boring food was not what the menu promised. You won’t be back again.
In the same way that a restaurant needs to make meals memorable and satisfying to be successful, PR professionals need to create stories that appeal and stick in the minds of readers. Stories are an integral part of being persuasive. There is a need for strong writing in communications. PR agencies favor hiring those who know how to write by 93 percent. Harold Burson, considered the godfather of PR, said, “…strong writing ability soon becomes one of the office’s most billable employees. There is always a need for good writing, and word spreads fast.”
But what makes writing strong and memorable? Is it merely the articulate presentation of facts? Much how the unadorned burger is technically a burger, it takes more than that to hook the consumer. In a story, creative writing along with solid facts makes messages more palatable and persuasive.
The recipe to good storytelling has these vital ingredients:
1. Get their mouths to water
Suspense and anticipation are key to a captive audience. People are susceptible to being “swept up” in both a story’s message and in the way it is told. Stories transport our mind to another place, and engage our emotions. If the reader doesn’t care what happens next the message is lost.
The “cliffhanger” works. We are wired to want to know what happens next. Humans are much more inclined to finish something that has already been started. In psychology,the Zeigarnik effect states that people remember interrupted and uncompleted tasks better than completed tasks. In research, nearly 90 percent of people went on to finish a task even after being told they could stop.
Create an addictive narrative through suspense. Good writing will tantalize and encourage the reader to take that next bite.
2. Engage the senses
Brandon Mull is a bestselling author who also received his degree in Public Relations at BYU. He says, “Whenever you want to simulate reality by dramatizing a moment with words, you are using the tools of a creative writer. If you want to pull a reader into a particular moment, bring it to life by appealing to the senses using concrete details expressed with rich vocabulary like a fiction writer would do.”
Engaging the senses creates memory links that make messages stick. In crafting messages use memorable imagery and details that link to existing and familiar schemas. About 70 percent of the body’s sense receptors are located in our eyes. You could say, “the book was old” or “the cover was faded and dog-eared, the title had nearly been worn away from years of being touched.” See the difference?
There are about 10,000 taste buds in the human mouth and each one contains 50 taste cells that communicate data straight to our brains. Adding details such as the “metallic taste of blood” or “sweet and salty kettle corn” will pull the reader in by tapping into their own experience.
There are about 5 million receptor cells in the human nose and smells are stored in our long-term memory. If you are told a man works in a space that smells of formaldehyde and sulfur it is easy to imagine a laboratory. The same goes for touch. Describing what something feels like with textures and temperatures brings the reader into the scene that you describe.
Want to get people swept up in your stories? Use the relatable elements of the senses that make your story as easy to identify with as the taste of pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.
3. Create comfort food
In your rush to wow your audience keep it real. Mull advises, “One essential element of persuasive writing is relating to your audience. If you don't feel authentic and relatable, how will they connect to the proposition you are pushing?”
Your story needs to present a reality that the audience is familiar with. Basic motivations, the senses, needs, and desires that we share as humans bring the “real” even in a new or unusual story. The familiar helps create a better connection with the reader.
Just as gourmet can be a turn off, if you cannot identify or pronounce an ingredient—it might not be as appealing. Likewise, if you bombard your reader with fancy phrases, jargon and convoluted messaging, you will lose their interest.
If you are not genuine, exaggerate, or seem incompetent, you will only make your reader wary of what you are serving up.
4. Share the recipe
If you want someone to change a behavior or take action, then show them how in your message. The transportation effect is when people place themselves in the situation being told, re-imagining themselves as an integral part of the message. Readers automatically ask themselves how any given message relates to them. Often they weigh and make judgements about whether the message is good or bad and if it is something they need to respond to or share.
We learn by example as expressed by Mull, “Our culture is largely formed by the stories we tell each other. What is acceptable or unacceptable, brave or cowardly, smart or foolish, cool or pathetic is largely defined through examples in stories. Dramatizing principles and norms in stories makes abstract ideas accessible and relatable. If you want to change a society, change their stories. Opinions and behavior will follow.”
Positive messaging, that promises benefits, self-actualization and satisfaction is powerful and can serve as a motivator. Showing, for example, that eating a certain way leads to weight loss or healing can rally many to follow.
Negative messages that show the bad consequences and loss that happens as a result of inaction, can also motivate people to act. Describing the outcome of not eating healthy as a life of obesity and health troubles will be the motivation to change for some people.
In the end, studies show that negative and positive reinforcement can be affective, but leaving someone with a good taste in their mouth may be the best way to build a relationship with the reader.
5. Plate it right and deliver what you promised
Cooking shows teach us that getting something to the table isn’t enough. It must be delivered after careful work, styling and in a timely manner. Don’t dawdle between courses and make good on your promises to the reader. Few things are as annoying as having to tell a waiter, “This is not what the menu says it was.”
Some PR professionals may underestimate the need for creative writing because they believe that “the facts” are the most persuasive pieces of content they can deliver. But when something is made memorable in the ways discussed here, messages will not become lost in a sea of less-worthy content. Well crafted, imaginative narrative makes stronger connections to the minds of the reader and will make them come back for more.
And remember, people are resistant to the idea of being told what to do. “Eat your broccoli” is less appealing than being presented with a steaming plate of delicately blanched and seasoned greens smothered in a tangy cheese sauce.
Bio: Jo Schaffer is pursuing a degree in public relations at Brigham Young University. She is a published author and blogger. She is a founder of the nonprofit, Teen Author Boot Camp, teaching creative writing skills and supporting literacy for teens. Follow her on Instagram @jojo_schaffer