Within public relations it is taken as given that we are good storytellers.
Most PRs will have developed their craft by writing stories for journalists. These stories have a fairly standardised structure. They come in the form of a press release, with a headline, a lead paragraph, then more detail and some supporting quotes, and finally there’ll be some boilerplate.
Structure is often likened to a pyramid; the further down the page you go, the more information you get. It is designed to grab attention and, once that’s been achieved, it throws in additional information. It is a sensible and solid format.
But does this format work for a tweet? Or a video? Or a GIF?
The short answer is, “No.”
So if the pyramid doesn’t work, what does?
Enter narrative arcs
This is where thinking about a narrative arc helps. A technique that I was first introduced to by TV writers, it is a device they use to think about changes in their stories. We all know the classic story of the underdog who succeeds. Here the narrative arc starts low and ends high. In a tragedy, the play Macbeth for example, the arc starts on a high and ends very low indeed. Arcs can go up and down. They don’t have to start at one point and end at an opposite.
They are useful because they help writers think about the audience. Do we need to make them feel sad or happy? And if we want them to feel really happy, perhaps we need them to feel sad first so the shift in emotion is more dramatic?
If you’re writing copy the purpose of which is to sell, you might want to build up to a high so your call to action is powerful. If you’re trying to pull together a quick six second animation, you might want to start on an eye-catching high so it grabs attention straightaway.
The trick is to recognise two things, one is that stories need to move down as well as up. You can’t keep an audience consistently in a good mood or it gets boring. The second is that you need to identify the sources of tension in your story. What’s the key the bit of information that causes change?
For PRs, this way of thinking about copy is useful because it offers flexibility and it lets us draw upon the experience of master storytellers from film, TV and other creative sectors. Above all though, it helps us focus on how the reader or viewer feels, and ultimately if we can make them feel strongly enough we might even elicit action.