To Connect With Audiences, Stories Need Empathy

February 2021
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The best stories have the power to break through the modern world’s information overload, but they still face daunting odds. It can be confusing to know what deserves our time and attention. But if something isn’t interesting, why should anyone pay attention?

In public relations, we’re vulnerable to thinking that it should be obvious to others how great our clients and employers are. 

To mitigate this bias, I build stories the same way I would set the scene for a friend about something that happened to me that day. I try to bring an event to life with descriptions that appeal to as many senses as possible. The goal is to make the public feel, not simply know, something about the subjects of our stories.

Compelling narratives

Research suggests that the human brain is hardwired for stories. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak observes that “personal and emotionally compelling” narratives “engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts.” Such stories stimulate the release of oxytocin, the chemical in our brains that’s responsible for empathy, thereby opening a pathway for information to be conveyed. The way to keep an audience’s attention, Zak writes, “is to continually increase the tension in the story.” 

Press releases, blog posts and website copy might not bristle with tension, but they can still tap the brain’s oxytocin reserves. It’s not about padding or sensationalizing the information, but rather about showing why each piece of news or stage of a client’s development matters personally to an audience.

Powerful symbolism

Citigroup executive Ray McGuire is a candidate in New York City’s 2021 mayoral race. His campaign drew attention in December for an ad narrated by film director Spike Lee, in which McGuire jogs through different parts of the city. Those images are interspersed with stills and video of New York and its citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

When McGuire takes over the narration to speak about his childhood, a boy is shown running to school. The message is clear: Running — literally and figuratively — takes perseverance, consistency and strength. In the ad, McGuire’s symbolism is powerful.

The spot also demonstrates how multimedia communications help build a story. Visual content can be engaging and relieve the demands that would otherwise be placed on audiences and pitch-weary journalists. The time we ask of an audience should not exceed what’s needed to convey our point. The phrase “short and sweet” certainly applies to public relations and marketing.

Audiences best understand stories that give them a sense of connection. As professional communicators, we need to find ways to bring even everyday subjects to life. The future of storytelling in PR, or how we “break through,” is about grounding our communication decisions in empathy and connecting audiences to the bigger picture. 

Return to Current Issue The Art of Storytelling | February 2021
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