These are the questions the director of communications at an independent girls’ school says he's been thinking about lately. “One of the things I’ve come up against is the idea of prepping people to ‘tell’ stories, not just to write them,” he told me last week.
A few years ago, before Facebook, Twitter and YouTube defined the way we think about stories moving from person-to-person, I wrote a piece on word-of-mouth marketing campaigns. Turns out it’s a recipe for face-to-face storytelling. Here's an excerpt with the best of the advice.
Story First, Brand Second
Mark Hughes, author of the book Buzzmarketing: Get People to Talk About Your Stuff, says it’s counter intuitive, but in word-of-mouth marketing the rules of engagement are story first, brand second. Good stories go viral, he says, because they are interesting and therefore make the teller interesting. “People want to be in the know. They want to start a conversation with “did you hear’ or ‘you’re never going to believe,’” he says.
According to Hughes, the same topics that get people talking also get the media writing. The five stories that appear on the front page most frequently are surefire conversation starters:
- David and Goliath stories
- The outrageous and unusual,
- Stories that piggyback on an already hot story
Denver-based public relations firm JohnstonWells’ signature program “Cocktail Talk” is designed to do just that. Cocktail Talk trains board members, staff members, and volunteers how to incorporate an organization’s messages into social conversations—not by spouting off facts and figures but by becoming good storytellers. The program begins with some basic branding techniques—defining an organization’s distinctions and backing them up with proof that they can then translate into a memorable acronym. But Cocktail Talk’s innovation lies in allowing participants to connect their organization’s brand attributes to their own stories.
“[As we work] through every piece of the acronym we ask them ‘Okay, tell a story that really exemplifies this point,’” says GG Johnston, president of JohnstonWells. “Incredible stories unfold—many of which participants haven’t even told each other.” The process builds internal consensus among leadership, staff, and volunteers that is critical because people seldom successfully use messages handed off to them. Rather, they communicate messages enthusiastically when they’ve had an active role in creating them. One can easily imagine how powerful such storytelling sessions could be for admissions tour guides and alumni and parent volunteers because they would have the opportunity to make an institution’s brand story their own.
When asked if volunteer participants balk at being encouraged to promote their organizations in social situations, Johnston says, “It’s not about asking people to dominate conversations with organizational messages. These are smart, busy volunteers who are passionate about where they spend their time. What happens is they gain practice talking about things that are important to them.”
Joshua Searle-White, a professional storyteller and psychology professor at Allegheny College who has taught many storytelling workshops and classes, says the one common element he finds in good stories is that they connect with some truth about the teller. “Something in the story feels important to the teller and the listener senses that,” Searle-White says. “The listener has a sense of being invited in.”
Structured for Results
That invitation is exactly the kind of opening Sametz Blackstone’s Andrew Maydoney* says is missing from a lot of today’s brand stories. “It’s probably the most important part of the story for a word-of-mouth campaign,” he says. A brand story has four parts, he says, but most institutions stop at the first one: facts and history. “They leave out how that institution differentiates itself from its competition. They leave out the institution’s value and meaning to the world. And finally, they leave no room in the story for the role that the alum, the student, the prospective donor, the post doc, or the new faculty member will play in the story.”
Maydoney worked with a liberal arts college in New England that wanted to expand the geographic diversity of its student body. The college draws students from the region and two additional areas outside New England due to a critical mass of alumni who have settled in those areas and are spreading the word. Campus leaders would like to leverage that success by accelerating good word-of-mouth. The Sametz Blackstone team met with alumni, guidance counselors, and prospective students and their families in those two areas to get a sense of what they understand about the campus. After comparing what constituents know to what institution officials hope they know, the team started writing stories aimed at alumni in target areas to help them tell an authentic but better story about the college.
Once the firm finished the research, it developed “cheat cards” delineating five easy ways to tell the story. The cards are not prescriptive, but principles-based, and they outline an exchange between storyteller and constituent that begins in “empathy” and ends in “follow-up.” For a real dialogue to build, Maydoney says, “you can’t lay out rules that don’t acknowledge everyone has his or her own way of telling stories.” Alumni of different ages will tell the story in their own vernacular, as will people from different backgrounds. “It’s not as straightforward as a publication,” he says. “You have to get out there and talk to your constituents and do some role-playing. The work is actually in the dialogue.”
While Maydoney emphasizes that word-of-mouth campaigns shouldn’t tell people what to say, they do revolve around memorable messages that people can make their own in part because constituents have helped develop them. For an education organization serving disadvantaged youth aspiring to go to college, Sametz Blackstone developed the tagline: “Get in, graduate, go far, success depends on you.” Without coaching, those affiliated with the organization began folding the messages naturally into their language. The campaign is credited with bringing coherence to the organization’s story—a coherence that doubled donor support.
*Maydoney, is no longer at Sametz Blackstone but is using his talent for storytelling as an artist.