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What Harry Potter teaches us about storytelling

25 Apr

There’s no denying that JK Rowling is one heck of a story teller. But, I must admit the inspiration for this blog post came as somewhat of a surprise to me.

Last week, as a birthday treat for my husband, we visited the Warner Bros Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford. He’s a bit of a film geek and absolutely loved the films (and books!) so I thought it would be a fun day out. It was more than that.

Now, I should make clear that I am in no way a Potterphile. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve read and enjoyed all of the books but that’s as deep as our relationship goes. It didn’t take long for that to change.

Whilst queuing to enter the tour, soaking up the atmosphere and marvelling at the extensive gift shop already in plain sight, I noticed a quote from JK Rowling that had been blown up and hung on the wall.

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“No story lives unless someone wants to listen.”

You know when you’re talking to someone and they have no idea what you’re talking about? When you spend time and effort explaining something a hundred different ways and they still don’t get it? When you feel like you’re banging your head on a brick wall and then suddenly there’s a breakthrough? This was my breakthrough. The moment when my thoughts and words became clear in one succinct phrase that was easy for everyone to grasp.

In the world of PR and communications, and particularly in local government, we hear a lot about stories. We’re told that we need to “get more stories out there”. It’s often a reaction to negative coverage and is sometimes seen as the solution to kill any flack or criticism that we may be getting. It’s no solution.

Churning out stories is one thing but making people listen is something else, and if nobody is listening it doesn’t matter how many stories you get out there. Now, I’m not suggesting we don’t tell stories. I’m saying we need to do some leg work first.

We need to be the listeners. We need to listen to our audience and find out what they care about, what they are talking about and how we can link into that in a real and relevant way. In doing that we can make a connection with our audience. Without that connection our audience has no reason to care about what we say and they certainly have no reason to listen.

Here are my corporate storytelling tips:

1. Identify your audience – know who you are talking to. It will make it easier to write the story.
2. Be an active listener – before you write a word, listen to your audience. What are they talking about? Learn about them.
3. Ask and answer ‘why would my audience care?’ – the strength of your answer will tell you if your story is worth writing or not.
4. Be real and relevant – your audience will smell a rat if you are not being genuine. Lose their trust and you lose their ears.
5. Mean it – believe in your story. If you don’t no-one else will.

In learning to listen we can figure out what it is that people really care about and we can connect with that. It’s that connection that makes all the difference. The difference between being heard and being white noise.

And, in case there are any Potterphile’s reading this, here are a few photos from the tour:

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Unpaid work experience in PR. Should we just be grateful?

4 Feb

It’s been happening for years but this week a storm has been brewing over the issue of unpaid internships in the PR industry. Following the airing of a BBC2 programme Who Gets the Best Jobs?, people in the industry have declared their disgust at the day-to-day practice of employing hoards of unpaid interns. Though I sigh with relief that people are responding in this way, I am surprised that this has never been an issue before. Or maybe it has?

In 2004 I moved to London to complete a Masters degree in Fashion Journalism. I was desperate to crack into the fashion/PR world and was prepared to do (almost) anything to get my name out there. Coming from a fairly small town in South Wales I had no contacts in the industry and was literally starting from scratch. So, I bombarded numerous PR agencies and fashion magazines with my CV begging them for work experience. And it paid off.

A number of magazines and PR agencies agreed to give me work experience – all unpaid of course. Competition for each placement was incredibly fierce and I got the distinct impression that I should just be ‘grateful’ for the opportunity, and I was. At the majority of my work placements, interns were expected to work full-time (and more) and be available for any other ad hoc requests. Some placements would insist on a minimum time slot of six months – quite a commitment when you’re not getting paid – whereas others were really non-committal and left you wondering what value you were getting.

There’s no denying how valuable work experience can be: you get direct exposure to the industry; real-life-on-the-job training; you make contacts and can decide if it really is what you want. But, an unpaid full-time placement screams exploitation. At one of my placements there was a team of 5-6 interns who literally ran the fashion cupboard. We kept the wheels turning and if you’ve ever worked in fashion you’ll understand what that really means.

According to PR Week, Julian Vogel of Modus Publicity (the man behind the controversy) admitted that by not paying [interns], ‘I do worry sometimes that it does favour the slightly better off’. Well, yes! It absolutely does. I spent about 18 months completing various full-time work experience placements. All of which were unpaid. At the same time I was studying for my Masters degree. I didn’t have the luxury of the ‘bank of mum and dad’ so I worked in shops/cinema so that I could afford to eat. And eventually, it was the money situation that forced me to throw my hands in the air and admit defeat. Just as I felt I was making headway.

It felt like the end of the world at the time but it was a happy ending for me. Though, I do wonder what the ratio of PR success stories to failures is.

So, what does this mean for the PR industry? For the sake of free labour are we exclusive? Maybe. So, what are we going to do about it? 

 

Do awards really matter?

9 Oct

Over the last few weeks, the communications team that I am a part of have been shortlisted for seven national awards (see below for detail). We have been recognised as a team and also as individuals – exciting times. But, do awards really matter? Or do they just give us an opportunity to turn into big show-offs?

For me it’s simple; awards matter. And here’s why:

  1. We are all busy people and move from task to task in quick succession. Sometimes, it’s nice to stop, take a breath and give ourselves a pat on the back.
  2. It’s great for team morale. A little bit of acknowledgement goes a long way.
  3. In an ideal world communications would sit on the top table in our organisations, but, in reality this is often not the case. An award not only raises your profile externally, it raises your profile internally and sends a message to senior management that you’re doing something right.
  4. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of competition. Being shortlisted but just missing out on an award can give us that extra little push we need to really do something award-winning.
  5. And finally, it gives us an opportunity to turn into a big show-off. Sometimes that’s ok.

And just to demonstrate point five above, the awards we have been shortlisted for are:

CIPR Local Public Service Awards 2010

  • Digital Excellence – Tweeting for Monmouthshire
  • Crisis Communications Excellence – Winter Wonderland
  • Young Communicator of the Year – Jessica Burns (me!)
  • Young Communicator of the Year – Helen Reynolds

Full shortlist

Some Comms Awards 2010

  • Best Use of Twitter – Tweeting for Monmouthshire
  • Public Sector – Engaging Monmouthshire with Tweets
  • Best In-house Team – Monmouthshire County Council

Full shortlist