Storytelling still works, even in 140 characters

Today, catchphrases, talking points and key messages are more abundant than sand specks in the Sahara. We hear political pundits talking about “staying on message, completing the narrative and not straying from the talking points.”

No longer is the Reader’s Digest version of storytelling working well for a majority of the public. Instead, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat are abbreviating our language into snippets, initialisms and acronyms.

Is this terse trend hurting our ability to fully explain ourselves or our clients? Well, sure. We’re not expecting 1,500 words to be read even if they start above the fold on Page One. And brevity is consistent with the tried-and-true journalism maxim, “Shorter is almost always better.”

Remember Mark Twain? He apologized for writing a long letter and said it would have been much shorter if he’d had more time.

But, alas, here’s the rub. Many issues are quite complex and need a lot of explaining. Think nuclear fission. However, we simply are not getting the playtime we need. Let’s compare our current messaging state to the bygone days of vinyl: While we’d love to do an LP with 15 tracks to establish a theme or story, we’re lucky if we get a 45 with two sides.

So, what does this mean for all of us wannabe storytellers are not only constrained by today’s popular platforms but also by audiences who are easily turned off by writing of any length?

Well, as communicators, we need to do better.

According to the market research firm Yankelovich, we are exposed to almost 5,000 messages every day. That doesn’t mean we are consciously thinking about all 5,000 messages as they come in. If we did, we would be taking in almost 300 exposures for every waking hour each day. Instead, we filter with selective retention, or remembering information that supports personal feelings and beliefs and forgetting about inputs that do not support them.
So, how can you be sure your message is getting through to your audience?

1. It must be relevant to the recipients.

2. It must be delivered where they want it and in a way they desire.

3. It must be creative enough to capture their initial attention.

The future of communications rests on digital delivery on a highly customizable and convenient platform, so we have to be smart about this. If we get only 10 seconds of someone’s attention, what should we do? Four suggestions:

1. Grab attention in a surprising or provocative way.

2. Make a simple, understandable statement.

3. Be accurate and concise.

4. Ensure it provides information that the recipient can accept or needs.

Think billboards. Really good billboards get five seconds of viewing. Combining words and images into an outdoor board that works is really an art form.

Take a McDonald’s ad on the highway. It’s a picture of a Big Mac and the phrase: Buy one, get second for 22¢. Exit here. Now that’s effective storytelling.

The upshot is, we must adapt our narrative to the immensely complex world by ensuring our messages are clear and succinct, effective and memorable, factual and relevant.

Or, keep it simple, stupid.

McDonalds Billboard

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