The Method for Telling Great PR Stories: 6 Insights from Storytelling Expert Stuart Horwitz

Aug 27, 2015 Beth Monaghan

A great story is the soul of any good communications campaign. While it may sound easy on the surface, there are so many ways for a story to go wrong. The wrong headline, the wrong voice, the wrong message or the wrong medium can ruin the best stories. So what makes a good one? Sure, you need a hero, a villain, a crisis and a resolution, but the pulse of a great story is one thing: connection.

In my ongoing pursuit of great stories, I went to the source. Stuart Horwitz was introduced to me as a book doctor, and that he is. He’s written two books, Book Architecture and Blueprint Your Bestseller and he helps other authors through his company Book Architecture. But here is the real reason you should listen to him: he writes books about the seemingly boring topic of book structure – and makes them compellingly readable and even, yes, funny.

Following are the PR insights I took away from my discussion with Stuart, along with a heavy dose of direct quotes to retain that compelling voice that I just mentioned. Enjoy.

Insight #1: Its not a message until it gets repeated.

At InkHouse, we like the simple storytelling construct called Freytag’s Pyramid (the one from 1863 because it still works). Stuart agreed: “Keeping it simple is good and I try to keep it simple even as it gets more complex. I focus on the repetitions and the variations within the story. It’s not a message until something gets repeated. Otherwise it’s just a sea of noise. People follow along with stories when you repeat themes and vary them over time, creating aha moments they didn’t expect but that feel right.”

Insight #2: Authenticity!

Do you have a work voice? Stuart says to find your real voice: “There’s a lot of hullabaloo about voice, but your true voice is the one you hear in your head. It’s the same as your speaking voice. Writing is an act of communication. People draw arbitrary lines between what they say, email, text and what they write. That’s when they start getting artificial as opposed to authentic.”

Insight #3: You cant be all things to all people.

Knowing your audience is the first step in any PR campaign, and this starts with realizing you have more than one audience. On audience hierarchies Stuart says this: “The temptation to be all things to all people must be countered. The stone has to hit the surface of the water somewhere, and then you get the ripples. Figure out which five to six audiences are important, then drop the bottom three. And pay special attention to your number one audience.”

Insight #4: Empathize with your audiences.

Connection begins with empathy. Stuart: “You have to figure out who doesn’t know what you know and who needs to know. Then you want to use a voice that will connect to that audience. Voice + audience = communication. When you’re talking to your different audiences you using different voices; subtly we do that all the time because we’re trying to make ourselves understood and every relationship is different. Figure out who you really want to sell to and pitch to and then go with that voice and the rest of it be damned.”

Insight #5: Make your audiences journey fun.

This insight came out of my question about Stuart’s favorite storytellers in any medium. He said, “I really like songwriters because of their economy. Everyone has a limited attention span so start with the words you mean. The other thing about songwriting that I enjoy is that it merges words and music. What else can you use other than words? Images, videos or even a slide deck is helpful in engaging more than one sense. You need to make the journey fun so people forget that they’re being sold. If they forget themselves for a few minutes, if they get taken out of themselves and are entertained, sales are bound to be enhanced.”

Insight #6: Dont insult your audience.

Failures of empathy can draw anger – just ask Bugaboo. How do you respect your audience? Stuart: “It’s your fault if your audience doesn’t understand your message, not theirs. You want to make your word choice accessible and you want to make the construction of your story logical. Those are the things you do to respect people because they don’t have experience in your field the way that you do, but it doesn’t mean that they aren’t intelligent. People don’t want to be underestimated. If they feel that they are being talked down to it will start to turn them off.”

My favorite part of talking to Stuart is his ability to see straight through to authenticity. He said, “Smart people aren’t afraid to be smart. Creative people aren’t afraid to be creative. Meet them there.” Our ability to convince is rooted in our ability to meet people exactly where they are and that requires a very human connection.

Find Stuart on Twitter @book_arch.

Topics: Messaging, Public Relations, PR, Storytelling
Beth Monaghan

Since the early days working around her kitchen table, Beth has grown Inkhouse into one of the top independent PR agencies in the country. She’s been named a Top Woman in PR by PR News, a Top 25 Innovator by PRovoke, and an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year finalist. Beth designed Inkhouse’s signature Storytelling Workshop to mirror the literary hero’s journey and to unearth the emotional connections that bind an audience to a brand or idea. She also uses narratives to build Inkhouse’s culture, most recently through two books of employee essays, “Hindsight 2020” and “Aren’t We Lucky?”

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