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What is a story? Storytelling and PR tips for writers and businesses

The media work with stories. Human brains are wired for stories. But what is a story?

The ‘story’ is the basic building block of a newspaper, blog, magazine or broadcast. It’s their job to find and communicate stories, but if you understand what a story is and why it is so important you will find your media relations will be much more successful. Similarly, if you can learn to tell a good story, science says you can improve your blogs and marketing. 

But what is a story?

A story is something that an audience will want to read. A lot of people confuse press releases, product announcements, product literature etc. with stories. These are just the tools that people use to tell their story to the media. A good story is:

  • Fresh. Editors hate it when other people get a new story before them. Readers don’t like reading old news – try reading a year old newspaper to see what I mean.
  • Relevant. It needs to speak to readers (and editors) so it needs to have recognisable human elements. Examples are ‘scientists makes breakthrough’ or ‘manager turns round failing company’. Readers like to identify with people in stories and to learn something from them. Editors like subjects that fit the theme of their publication. You don’t see much celebrity gossip in the FT or business news in Hello.
  • Important. “Company makes new computer” isn’t really that important. “Company makes smallest / cheapest / fastest/ etc. computer” is. Obviously important doesn’t mean earth-shattering, but it does mean you have understand why someone would want to publish and read your story.
  • Entertaining. If you work in an obscure field, find a way to make the information accessible and attractive. Making predictions about the future is one way – “thanks to our new chip, some day, computers will be half the price they are now”. Another is to tell a story – think about the discovery of penicillin or Edison’s lightbulb. It’s not the science you remember but the moment of discovery. Good analogies always help. “If this plane were a car, it would be a Ferrari not a Range Rover.”
  • Focused. Journalists think readers have very short attention spans. They like to tell only tell one story, from one angle at a time. You might think of this as ‘spin’ but it’s really about effective communication. I did a piece on a great new aircraft called the Eclipse 500 and the editors changed it to a story about the CEO of the company (who used to work for Microsoft) because they thought that was more interesting.

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What stories work for you?

Try reading a newspaper or magazine and seeing how their stories meet these criteria. Try doing the same thing on your last press release. 'Shipping News' is not my favourite film, but there’s a nice bit in it where the hero has to learn to be a reporter and this is a good illustration of how a journalist identifies a story from a mass of raw data.

Stories are fundamental

Pixar's 22 rules of storytelling are both obvious and profoundly revealing. For example, rule four states:

Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

That's most literature condensed into one paragraph. Just fill in the blanks. Just add water and they swim.

The control of suspense

Alistair Cooke, the broadcaster and author 'Letter from America', was a master in the control of suspense. This is a vital element in story telling. Even in the hunt-and-peck era of web articles, reading is still essentially a linear activity. Revealing enough information to answer the reader's questions but holding back enough to keep them reading - that is the job of a good writer.

How journalists chooses stories

One result of the quest for a good story is that a magazine may not print your press release or interview verbatim. They will use it to support the story they have found. This is often the cause of dissatisfaction among interviewees but if you think about it, newspapers and magazines would be pretty dull if all they did was regurgitate whatever nonsense they were given. Understanding the need for a story will help you communicate much better.

Even so, not every journalist, editor or magazine will be interested in every story. You will not know whether they are running a competing story or don’t get it or just don’t like it. If they don’t do something with your story – even if they seem to be interested at first – move on.

We published this piece originally on 9 February 2006. I have updated the article with new links, content and images.

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Matthew Stibbe

Matthew is founder and CEO of Articulate Marketing.