How stories paid for my patchouli and horrifying trousers

We asked our February speaker Jamie Veitch from Keep Your Fork, A Sheffield based marketing, PR, personal branding and training consultancy to write a guest blog for us - getting us ready for our story telling theme - grab a brew and take a read because it's a great story with lots of useful information.

Imagine a business buzzword bingo scratchcard. Twenty years ago, it would have contained the phrase “paradigm shift”; then 10 years later “blue sky thinking” and “think outside the box” would have featured. These cliches are no longer widely used because they were essentially meaningless waffle.

Self-appointed "thought leaders” make their money from the next big concept. Is the tide of interest in applying the principles of “storytelling” to communication the latest fad, here today and set to disappear next year?

And is it all a waste of time anyway for time-poor charities, social enterprises and businesses, and their audiences, in this era of rapid-responses, instant decision making and increasing demands on our attention span?

Short answer: no. You might expect that I would say that though.

Long answer: come to the next Third Sector Cafe to really get to the bottom of this. 

Medium answer: pour yourself a hot cup of fresh coffee and read on. It’ll be sixty seconds well spent.

My first business communication “story” – at the age of 17 – ended up helping to pay my way through University. I’d setup a part time business – and burned my entire advertising budget on an ad that got no response.

Given the opportunity to run a further ad by the hungry local newspaper, I came up with a 4-word (true) story. The ad worked: the phone rang off the hook, my business developed and provided much-needed income for baked beans, patchouli candles, ridiculous clothing and other student essentials.

My psychology degree was punctuated by acting in nine university productions – and writing and performing in a ‘game show’ touring play for Third World First to introduce the concept of fair trade tea and coffee to schools. What could have been a dry, worthy and dull assembly – boring the pants off pupils – ended up engaging kids and playing a part in fair-trade’s 1990’s growth.

Now, many of my and Keep Your Fork’s clients have generated media coverage, increased membership or supporter numbers, attracted more people to their events or raised funds by communicating effectively and with emotional resonance. And, like it or not, stories will have influenced the charities that you support. You’ve probably consumed all manner of stories today, through all sorts of formats. Which stand out?

Stories resonate for many reasons. Legends and fables were passed verbally from parents to children to warn them of dangers before writing materials were accessible.  Stories are memorable. And they are persuasive. Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio has demonstrated the importance of appealing to emotion in communications. Think you’re a rational being? Of course you do. And so do I. But evidence consistently shows that appealing to your audience's emotion is considerably more effective than appealing to logic alone.

There’s more – much more – enough, in fact, for a shaggy dog story. Stanford Business School’s Jennifer Aaker invited students to give one-minute pitches. Only one in 10 used stories in their pitches. But asked about what they remembered of each pitch, 63% remembered stories and only 5 percent recalled statistics.

In crowdfunding campaigns, widespread data shows that campaigns including emotion AND statistics are more successful than campaigns that only include factual information.

So stories are invaluable for effective communication. For third sector organisations they can help your messages to achieve exponential impact.

Across whatever communication channels you use (and tactics do evolve faster than strategies – in fact I’d argue that the bedrock of effective communication strategy hasn’t changed for hundreds of years despite ongoing evolution in tactics) – you can use stories.

Aren’t we in danger of emotional overload? No. But we do need to understand how to use the “power of story” in our work. And that, of course, is why you’re coming to the Third Sector cafe (you are, aren’t you?) On the 16th you can also hear about a mistake that cost me and former colleagues £1m – and why we were glad to have made it. And of course, there will be lots of examples of great storytelling – in a range of contexts – from third sector organisations. We’ll work through ideas you’ll be able to apply.

Get your Place now if you haven't registered yet

Fancy some tips in the meantime? Here are a few:

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  1.  don’t ask for permission to tell a story or feel the need to introduce it, just dive in. Whether it’s a presentation, an interview, your email newsletter, a blog, a piece of writing: start your story immediately. On my radio show, guest Deborah Bullivant of Grimm and Co launched straight into a story as soon as she was introduced. Listeners loved it – you can get hold of the podcast here 
  2. give people cliffhangers. From the works of Dickens and Atwood to long running radio soaps such as The Archers, and TV dramas to podcasts like Serial, authors consistently use cliffhangers and gentle teases of what may or not be coming up to prompt curiosity. But this technique isn’t confined to episodic formats, nor to fiction – as you’ll realise by re-reading this blog.
  3. - be personal. Share something true about yourself. Let your volunteers, employees, customers and clients speak about you. We’re humans and we engage in professional relationships with other humans. Being “professional” doesn’t mean being the same.

    - can you engage all the senses in your story? The sweet smell of success will be yours.

    - does it have to be short? No. Long? No. The answer, of course, it “it depends!"


    and check out some resources. Laura and Sophy have already linked to a great article about the “six principles of sticky ideas” in their newsletters - sign up and read it if you haven’t.  Akash Karia’s TED Talks Storytelling offers "23 techniques from the best TED Talks.” You can see, hear and even feel some wonderfully successful storytelling techniques at the Cafe, where we’ll discuss how to craft your stories. So book your place now.  I’m looking forward to sharing stories with you.