Story Seldom Told

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Writing in today’s Irish News Professor Stephen Brown of the University of Ulster explains the important of story telling. He’s right. And if you haven’t realised it, it’s all about content. It’s all around you. In every break in the game.

Years ago when I worked at the University of Ulster we produced a nifty wee news service called UUNews4U. Our boss hated it because he couldn’t understand it.

This was a veteran old schooler who considered a good day’s work a series of hefty memos dictated to senior colleagues about the issues of the day. That’s how work was done then.

Someone would write you a memo. You’d write one back. In the days before email you would throw it into the internal mail and let Gary the postman wing it off to the unsuspecting victim. If you were really on your game you might get a spluttering response that very same day.

Once a senior academic in the Faculty of Art and Design was so outraged over a kicking I’d given him in memo format we had to have a lunch arranged at the department’s expense to smooth over the outrage. He had sent a one line reply telling me my memo was so outrageous he was considering his options before he replied. The content was king. I was on the receiving end too especially from one vindictive admin wonk who I was sure pulled the legs off flies when he wasn’t being a pedantic nerd. Often his points had merit, but he was an objectionable being.

This was the guy who point blank refused to make textual amends and content additions to prospectuses onto a disk or electronic version to pass on to us for editing and publication. He preferred to make hard copy handwritten, glued, stapled, inked and scratched manuscript changes that were often indecipherable. He then wrote the ubiquitous memo criticising any errors, typos etc. So much for a content strategy. There were meetings and meetings and memos about the simple expedient of updating the content in electronic format for multiple uses.

Anyway, back to content. Our nifty news tool consisted of an opt-in email service in which we aggregated together links to all the main stories mentioning the University. Some were on the website, some in clippings files, some on external sites etc. The beauty was we tied the whole thing together in one circulation email, and because it was opt in we couldn’t be accused of spamming people.

My boss would get the email and he would get the secretary to print off all the stuff so he could read it. And then he would find something to criticise us for. I always pointed out that it was opt in and therefore people were receiving information of interest that they wanted unlike his perfectly crafted memos. I explained then that content was king – I had written in a dissertation that the exchange of information was a transaction that people valued and would value farther in the future as the web developed. How true.

He failed to grasp the point that we were being economical and resourceful with our content. Stuff was out there and we were maximising its use to build our brand internally and externally. The more tech savvy academic saw the cleverness in it. Yes there were bits and pieces that folk had already seen but they didn’t have to click on that story if they didn’t want to. But he didn’t see that because at that stage even the mouse was still a thing of mystery. He slowly but surely ensured that UUNews4U died a slow death.

In my next life I became a blogger. I wrote an entertaining blog on the GAA for the clothing brand Square Ball. The blog attracted a few thousand follower, eager for my fortnightly take on things sporting. We used it as a Trojan horse for the brand, presenting a firm tongue in cheek look at the GAA and all its pomposities that was linked intrinsically to the products we sold. It was reaching the parts other communications couldn’t.

I had messages passed on via intermediaries that senior people in various positions of importance weren’t comfortable with what I’d written. The thing also about Talking Balls was that it too was ahead of its time. It marginally predated the social media era. It was tailor made for Twitter, which hadn’t yet taken off. The now semi active Twitter account of the same name has shown there is still a market for the wry look at things. In fact it was named by the Irish Examiner as one of the top 50 influential Twitter accounts a few years back. My boss would have been horrified. I can just see him now reading through a print out of the twitter feed.

The important thing again was that content was king. I was able to reuse and repurpose material in a story-telling fashion that was good craic. The brand was about fun and that’s what our agenda was.

Since then I have written a range of material for a whole plethora of clients. Slowly but surely people are realising that telling the story can engage people.

If you watch the Dragons Den for example, the pitch is a condensed story, told in two minutes. The investors are often taken with the person and their tale as much as the brand. Often the Dragon invests in the person because of their story.

I myself feel like Cassandra doomed to tell the truth, condemned to disbelief as I tell this tale. I’ve already been that road on several occasions but circumstances have proved me right. The lesson is this. If you want to move your business on, you need to tell the story and tell it well. You can start by telling it to me and we can take it from there.