Discovering the magic of story

Stories and the telling of them are part of our lives and the real world we live in. Since the beginning of humankind, we have used storytelling to communicate information and pass knowledge and history from one generation to the next.

Yet it’s only fairly recently that organisations have started using storytelling – in “plain English” – to get their messages across clearly. Storytelling was relegated to the realm of being a child, denying the need to imagine and dream. Sophisticated organisations would hide behind jargon and big words to get their sophisticated messages across – and they would fail.

We can learn from children – the joy of play, the power of imagination and storytelling

It’s powerful

I guess that journalists have always been aware of the power of storytelling. They look for the “human interest” angle, even on complicated issues; indeed, they unpack the issues through stories about people. These journalists – reporters, sub-editors and editors – never throw in obscure words to baffle their readers and viewers. Everything is explained in clear language that their readers and viewers understand – they know that if a reader is left wondering, they will simply stop reading.

This all came back to me when I was asked to run two interviews at a recent storytelling festival. Have a look here if you’d like to know more about the festival, by an organisation called YORstory; I highly recommend watching some of the superb talks and discussions. I found it uplifting to learn about storytelling escaping from the exclusivity of journalism to spread its power across a range of fields, from economics and business to forests and health.

Some still talk of storytelling as a “tool” for their organizations. I think it’s more – I think it’s a new way of thinking and doing, a way that demands tapping into our humanness.

Making sense

The truth is that we relate easier to stories than a bunch of cold facts and figures – which are important too, but for different reasons, like monitoring. This is because we make sense of our world through stories.

People remember stories a lot easier than facts and figures. And stories are a way to explain a different way of seeing the world, helping people connect, understand each other and find common ground.

A “good” story is not necessarily a happy story. It’s one that reaches people in a way that they can relate, understand and remember. If you use words and language that people find hard to follow, then you are not doing a good job of telling a story. Good stories reach us on an emotional level and engage our senses.

Storytelling in Africa often takes place in the shade of a big tree. I took this picture, while on assignment for the Forest Stewardship Council, of a group of American girl guides in conversation and listening to stories at the Cheetah Conservation Fund in Otjiwarongo, Namibia. It’s unlikely they will forget what they learned in this way about the environment and their place in it

Plain English

This is where plain English is so important. Plain English means using language that readers and listeners can easily understand. From my experience, here are some of the ways you can be sure you’re using plain English:

  • Avoid jargon. If you really can’t avoid it, then explain it. In every field I’ve worked in as a writer and editor and, earlier, as a journalist, I’ve come across people who insist on mystifying information in jargon. I’ve often suspected that they don’t understand what they are saying either.
  • Use shorter, simpler words. Using big, complicated and obscure words does not make you appear smarter. It loses readers and listeners.
  • Use the active voice, whenever possible. There may be times where the passive voice is preferable, but these are pretty rare.
  • Vary the length of your sentences. Too many short, sharp sentences sound like a machine gun being fired. But do avoid long, convoluted sentences – readers get lost in them, they stop reading and your message is lost. Try to find a pleasing cadence; think of the rhythm of a favourite piece of music.
  • Tell the story as if you were chatting to a friend. Then clean it up.

I found my YORstory festival interview with Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) Global Communications Director Karen van der Westhuizen particularly useful to illustrate the big shift to storytelling. She also shared practical advice about storytelling, with examples of its power. The aim of FSC, by the way, is to ensure that the forests of the world are managed in a way that works for the environment and for people. It runs the premier global certification system to let consumers know that what they are buying comes from a forest that has been responsibly managed.

FSC uses a treeBnB concept to tell the story of a specific tree. This is a screenshot of its BanyanBnB video

A new journey

There was a time that FSC publications and newsletters were turgidly difficult to read, couched in big words that made sense to a handful of people (well, maybe) and always angled, like PR speak, on the organisation itself. About 18 months ago, Karen and her team discovered the power of storytelling. They were faced with a very technical story about using a scientific method – called isotope testing – to pinpoint the exact origin of a piece of wood, an important step in the war against illegal logging. But no-one in the media was interested. The FSC team hit on the idea of turning it into a tree detective story – the story was picked up immediately and went all over the world, reaching something like 1.5 billion people.

Storytelling grew from there. For example, to tell the story of a particular tree, Karen’s team launched a “treeBnB” – explaining who lives here, who is visiting, who is eating here – to help people connect to forests. Watch this delightful short video of the Banyan BnB.

Today, storytelling is at the core of the FSC communications strategy – and it will stay there. I asked Karen what they’d learned in their year and a half of their journey into storytelling. I think her tick-list (expanded with a little detail here) can be applied to any field, not just forests. Here it is:

  • The audience comes first. If your audience is mainstream consumers, think about the kinds of magazines they read, and comply with how the magazines present information. If it is an online business audience (like LinkedIn), look at how those businesses present their information, and replicate that. Pick up on good ways that businesses talk (“good” here means how easy it is for you to understand what they are saying).
  • Find a new angle on a trending topic.
  • Excellent (not just good) pictures (and videos) are vital. A story about a dormouse from Lithuania made it to National Geographic largely on the strength of great pictures. FSC also told the story in a video.
  • Keep a minimal focus on FSC. The story is not about FSC, although FSC is part of the story.
  • Keep it short, simple and clear.
  • Choose the best platform for the story. For example, FSC would likely post a long, rich narrative on its blog or a platform like Medium. If it’s a simple story with amazing pictures (like the dormouse story), Karen and her team would look to pitch it to publications known for good photography (like National Geographic) and/or prepare a social media video. The audience you’d like to reach also dictates the platform. You’re unlikely to reach a business audience via Facebook or a lifestyle-focused radio show; rather choose LinkedIn, media like the Economist, or the business section of your local newspaper.

Part of the shift to storytelling at FSC involved bringing the sceptics on board. They wondered: why adopt this childish thing in their big, important mission? Simple. Karen consulted science. Storytelling truly lights up the brain. Naturally. Here’s a good explanation of how storytelling affects the brain. Basically, “boring bullets” or dry facts activates two areas of our brain. Storytelling not only activates the language-processing part of our brains; it gets seven regions flickering.

Storytelling lights up these seven areas of the brain. Source

It’s a no-brainer, really.


2 thoughts on “Discovering the magic of story

  1. Thank you for this excellent example of a story in plain English, Janette. I watched your interview with Karen van der Westhuizen and found it fascinating. Karen’s enthusiasm for her FSC projects is palpable and infectious and her knowledge is vast. You’re both superb communicators.


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