Every communicator is familiar with the dreaded Obligatory Story.
The topic could be the annual United Way drive, an HR benefits update, or yet another article on that darn sustainability initiative. All of them are worthy, informational topics. But it’s hard to find a new angle, year after year, to convey essentially the same message. There’s always a nagging concern. Is anybody reading this?
But taking a brand journalism approach—covering the story as a feature assignment—can enliven even the most repetitive topics, boost readership and, as a bonus, make your job more fun.
Communicators often organize these Obligatory Stories around the topic. But they instead should focus on the people who are emotionally connected to an activity, said Jim Ylisela, owner and managing partner at Ragan Consulting Group.
“You can’t find the emotional center of a story if you’re not even thinking of it as an actual story—as a narrative,” Ylisela added. “You’re just thinking of it as a thing you have to describe.”
A clear sign that you need to get more creative is when you find yourself bored by your topic, said Jake Jacobson, director of public relations at Children’s Mercy Kansas City.
“If you wouldn’t want to read it, don’t write it,” Jacobson explained. “If you feel like you’re writing a boring story, that’s exactly what you’re doing. If it’s an assignment and you must do it, then dig deeper and find that hook.”
With that in mind, here are a few tips for crafting engaging stories on any topic:
Tell the stories of people.
Topics such as diversity or holidays can emerge year after year, challenging communicators to find a new angle, Ylisela said.
He cited Metropolitan State University of Denver as an example of taking the extra step to find a new angle to a story that is told every year—the school’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day awards. The winners were interviewed about what the civil rights leader’s legacy means to them. The result was a poignant video that was much more meaningful than the standard press release that the university had issued in the past to publicize the awards.
“Instead we highlighted—through video and really interviewing and storytelling—the award recipients,” said Cathy Lucas, chief of staff and vice president of strategy at MSU Denver.
Another example was a university story that revealed how one student, a former Navy nuclear engineer, helped design a solar furnace that offers heating alternatives to low-income families.
To find those human stories, develop sources and work your organization like a beat reporter.
Michael Brito, executive vice president at the Zeno Group, also said that people trust each other more than brands and organizations. When employees repackage branded content in their voices, not only is it more compelling, but it better drives actions such as clicks, downloads or calls, he says.
Have your experts talk as if speaking to their neighbor.
Whether interviewing an executive for a blog post or a software engineer for an internal story, experts sometimes tend to slip into jargon and technical talk. Solution: Help them to speak in everyday terms, as they might chat over the fence with a neighbor.
At Children’s Mercy, Jacobson said his lack of a health care background has proven to be an advantage. It gives him perspective to push medical experts to speak in everyday terms.
“If I don’t understand it,” he said, “then the reader won’t understand it, and it really will be dry or boring … It really is telling the story in a way that, if their eyes light up, then my eyes might light up.”
Remember the two elements of writing.
Dull stories often overlook two primary aspects of good writing: color and voice, Ylisela said.
- Color describes a scene or a moment, and then brings it alive to the reader. Ylisela recalled one memorable article from a hospital client. A communicator wrote about 13 doctors and specialists gathering to discuss one patient’s cancerous tumor. The story described how the doctors gathered in a room, chitchatting over bagels and coffee.
“At the appointed moment, they all fall silent, and they look at up at the screen where they’re looking at the tumor, and they get very focused on what they need to do for the patient,” Ylisela said.
There is power in setting the scene.
- Voice. Quotes from sources should add spice to a story by capturing the natural voices of people.
“In most of these boring stories, the quotes are absolutely horrible,” Ylisela said. “They’re generic. They don’t say anything. They’re a name. They’re people being official. They’re using a lot of jargon.”
It helps to push sources to get personal: I know why this matters to the organization, but why does it matter to you?
Don’t be so serious.
Sometimes there is information that must be shared with the company that, no matter how you try to make it interesting, is boring. New building safety information. Changes in benefits. Next week’s cafeteria offerings.
But it can be done. Add a sense of humor. Or at least try to be clever. A message about health benefits might be headlined: “Before You Step on That Banana Peel . . .”
At Dynamic Signal, it’s always difficult to get employees to pay attention to the open enrollment period. The way Dynamic Signal got around that problem was to have the company’s straight-laced HR director record a humorous video called “10 Things to Know about Open Enrollment,” complete with cheesy music and cue cards that he gleefully tossed in the air after reading. The result: fewer employers racing to meet the deadline.
Speak to your audience.
At Children’s Mercy, 80 percent of the workforce is female, Jacobson said. This means putting on one’s mom hat instead of a marketer or communicator hat, and asking, “What story would you be interested in?” he added.
“Don’t tell it because it’s important,” Jacobson said. “Tell it because it’s a story that you’re excited to tell.”
This article is in partnership with Dynamic Signal.