In her guide to DIY public relations, Your Press Release is Breaking My Heart, Janet Murray offers a mantra for PR storytelling: “Put some people in it!”
Janet describes how she repeats this advice to journalists in her role as a commissioning editor. In turn, she recommends the same advice to business owners and PRs who want to pitch stories to those journalists.
It’s great advice for anyone constructing a story: “Put some people in it!”
Giving stories a human scale
Here’s an example. I’ve been writing a lot of speeches recently on green finance and sustainable infrastructure. And I’ve found that global warming is a story that’s surprisingly difficult to tell.
One approach is to insist on the scale of climate change by way of facts and figures. You talk about the billions of dollars that need to be invested, the massive volume of plastic in the ocean, the millions of people facing environmental catastrophes.
But the implications are almost too vast to contain within a pithy narrative. The scale goes beyond an individual’s comprehension.
So another approach, which I consider more effective, is to tell “human-size” stories. These require less abstract thought, less “cognitive strain,” and so we relate to them more easily.
For instance, if the story needs to be rousing, it’ll be about communities taking discrete and identifiable action. If the story needs to be cautionary, it’ll be about the struggles of specific individuals. Either way, they’re stories with people in.
As a principle of storytelling, “Put some people in it” applies across PR and communications, from speeches to press releases.
Landscape painting as storytelling
The principle is illustrated nicely, I think, by landscape painting. Above is John Constable’s “The Hay Wain” (1821). This work is often voted as one of the “most-loved English paintings,” because it seems to capture a uniquely English landscape.
This archetypal scene of pastoral life – all moody clouds, patches of warm sunlight, ancient oak trees – features prominently in English cultural history.
But the clouds, sunlight, and trees tell a story because of the people in the scene. I mean the farm workers on the wagon and the woman at the cottage, as well as the horses in the river and the dog on the shore.
Because there are people in it, the landscape assumes scale, perspective, and emotional depth. It tells a story.
So, next time you need to write a press release or a speech, put some people in it.
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