A guest post by Mike Sergeant, ex-BBC journalist, international communications coach and PR adviser to CEOs and business leaders, host of the PR for Humans podcast, and the author of PR for Humans: How business leaders tell powerful stories (Practical Inspiration Publishing, April 2019).
It’s got to be about you. But it can’t be all about you.
That’s the paradox of powerful business communication.
The penny dropped for me a couple of years ago when I was working on a personal ‘life story’ speech with a client.
This individual had had an amazing background and career. Incredible achievements, anecdotes and successes. A life full of colour and conquest.
As I wrote his story down, the relief was running through me. Wow, I thought. This story has so many elements. It’s going to be a dream to write.
In the next session I got him to read out the story summary I’d prepared.
Oh hell. It dawned on me: This guy is sounding like the most arrogant, self-centred jerk imaginable.
Why is this story not working? Why is this list of his ‘greatest hits’ pushing me so forcefully away?
Of course, the answer is that humility and empathy were nowhere to be found. In delivering his story – the story that I had prepared for him – those vital human qualities evaporated.
So, since then I’ve kept the storyteller’s paradox firmly in mind:
- It’s got to be about you
- It can’t be all about you
Good storytelling is usually personal. To connect with audiences out there, we first look in here. Dig down into our beliefs to find out why we do what we do… and why it matters. Look back into our life story and project a vision for the future.
But… if we value our own story above the story of any member of the audience, we will often fail.
We need to reach for the wider context. Not just talk about our own achievements. Connect with broader themes and issues and people.
Sometimes self-deprecate to communicate.
“I’m going to LEVEL with you” – I like that expression.
I’m going to be honest and straight with you. But also think of the visual. LEVEL with people. Not talking up to them. Not talking down to them. Talking straight across.
Because every one of the 7 billion people on earth has a story. And each of those stories has equal value. When you start to judge your story better or worse than anyone else’s, then you will start to push your audiences away.
That’s why good communication starts with listening. Listening to the audience. Hearing them as humans. Then demonstrating your own humanity to them. Building rapport, connection and the bonds of shared existence.
What’s this got to do with PR? Everything.
Many of the problems with the PR industry stem from a desire to project outwards a ‘positive vision’.
Trying to talk up a company, an organisation, a government is an uphill struggle as these are all legal constructs. As humans, it’s hard for us to care terribly much about inanimate constructs. We usually need to find the human connection to feel the story.
Audiences want to know about the CEO, the other leaders and the employees inside the organisation.
Then the question customers, clients, stakeholders and commentators then ask is: do these individuals ‘get’ me? Are they authentic? In touch? Can I connect with them?
If the human story doesn’t exist or isn’t visible, then it will be very hard indeed to build and defend ‘reputation’.
PR people rarely talk about these things. That’s why the industry is in a deep and possibly existential crisis. Devoured by the serpent of spin.
The worst PR practitioners try to manipulate their story onto their audiences. Thrusting forward a self-serving narrative.
And yet, there are some wonderful storytellers out there too.
The best PR practitioners seek to understand their audiences…tickle them… before slowly reeling them in with a gripping yarn.
A bit like fishing.
And the most effective lure… is always the story we carry within.
PR for Humans: How business leaders tell powerful stories is published 18 April 2019.
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