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Use storytelling to engage audiences

BY BECKY JONES MAHLUM
The first time I learned about the power of using stories in news releases and articles was during a webinar sponsored by the Public Relations Society of America about a year ago. I was embarrassed. I was a devotee of the now-so-five-minutes-ago inverted pyramid and in presentations had promoted its use. It felt like the time I took my brand-new, one-speed bike with big fenders to a biking summer camp only to find everyone else had sleek 10-speeds. I may have been more physically comfortable, but I could not keep up with the latest in bike technology. The shame was similar to how I felt during the storytelling seminar. Why didn’t I know about what all the other kids were already using?
Like bringing a 10-speed to a week-long bike trip, I quickly realized using storytelling makes sense. When we were students, good teachers told us stories to cement concepts in our young minds. Using metaphors and anecdotes puts your main points in context for the listener or reader. They give us a reason to keep reading, while helping us retain the message.
And, whether I’m writing an article for Ducks Unlimited’s magazine or writing a press release for the organization, I want my audience to keep reading and understand my and the organization’s message.
Stories connect information with emotion so we can remember it longer. I’ve held on to some stories for years, retelling them over and over, something you likely want your readers to do.
We are more likely to talk about an experience than facts and figures. The writing expert Ann Wylie suggests leading with an anecdote and following up with a statistic that shows the scope of the problem. Numbers help us frame an issue, but it helps to first give the reader a reason to care about that gee-whiz statistic.
Stories are up to 22 times more memorable than facts alone, according to Jennifer Aaker, a Stanford Graduate School of Business marketing professor. Aaker says facts and figures shouldn’t be completely eliminated from your storytelling. When data and story are used together, audiences are moved emotionally and intellectually.
Hearing stories stimulates chemicals in our brains. According to a study published in Harvard Business Review, character-driven stories consistently cause us to make oxytocin, a hormone that can influence emotions and social behavior. The researcher and author of the article, Claremont Graduate University Professor Paul J. Zak, reported the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others, like donating money to a charity that is part of the narrative.
Zak’s research showed including some kind of struggle or tension that eventually leads to triumph can motivate people and help them remember your story. He says it captures people’s hearts by first attracting their brains.
Applying this technique to what I write about most, conservation work and major sponsors to Ducks Unlimited, took some figuring out. Sometimes I need to fish around during an interview to get that great story, the pivotal moment, and sometimes the best stories fall in your lap.
I was working on an article that emphasized recruitment and how members bring each other into the fold, when I learned how one member joined DU after falling into water on a minus 28-degree day. On the chilly walk back to the car, he and his companion decided they needed a dog. The dog trainer they eventually hired turned out to be the chair of a local Ducks Unlimited event. Sharing this story is way more interesting than simply telling members they might find recruits in unexpected places.
In an article covering a successful Ducks Unlimited committee in a small town, I lead with a metaphor featuring Ginger Rogers. The more interesting lead hopefully kept readers engaged, whether they are Ducks Unlimited members, or an editor at the local newspaper, who might find the article intriguing enough to use.
One thing riding a grandma bike at bike camp taught me was the power of friendship. My good friend, despite her sleek 10-speed, stayed with me in the back of the pack the entire trip. We did have company, though, from the guy who brought a low-rider banana bike. If you are under 50, you may need to Google that. ♦
— Becky Jones Mahlum is the communications manager for Ducks Unlimited’s Great Plains Region, headquartered in Bismarck, North Dakota. Mahlum worked as a journalist for most of her career. She joined Ducks Unlimited in 2005.

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