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Working with Limitations to Tell a Good Story: Necessity is the Mother of Invention

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Once upon a time, in a village far, far away…

That’s how the stereotypical fairytale begins, right? Well, storytelling isn’t just for children; it’s an important part of a successful public relations program. With continued dispersion of attention, stories are what resonate. But, have you ever tried to tell a client story in the format of fiction, paintings, images, videos, or a performance, and do it within two hours by using an animal as the hero? Well, that’s just what I did with my colleagues from Atlanta and Orlando, and I learned a valuable principle – if you force yourself to work with what may seem like unreasonable limitations, you’ll be surprised at how creative and strategic you can be. After all, necessity is the mother of invention.

In October, Edelman U.S. Southeast organized an off-site training at the Atlanta Zoo using the firm’s Story Lab format, an one-day, immersive program that enables a person to find their inner storyteller. By working with professionals from many disciplines, we learned how they transformed an idea into valuable content, and how we could replicate that skill. Joining us were Thomas Mullen, novelist, Danielle Wolff, Emmy-nominated screenwriter, Michael Neilson, photographer, and Kristen Davis, independent decorative painter. The format was an engaging session, very different from the traditional lecture presentations in China. Our assignment was to the use the zoo as the basis for our story about a client.

Inspired by seeing animals around the park, we decided to create a children’s book using fun language that told an educational story about how Eddie, a smart and reputed elephant, welcomed animals to the zoo and tried to helped them settle into their new home. Initially, Eddie wasn’t able to answer everyone’s questions. For example, Larry the Lion from Chicago arrived with a limp mane resulting from a tough trip south. Mary the Monkey was confused as to where she might get the best bananas in town. Frustrated, Eddie turned to the YP (disclaimer: an Edelman client) and found a wealth of information from beauty salons to grocery stores. Soon Eddie was praised for his ability to know what to get where. After two hours, we concluded this simple tale, and found how easy it was to build content that easily positioned the YP’s benefits.

The next time you need to create messaging for your client, remember the Eddie the Elephant exercise and these three tips from our panelists:

Think about your audience – Be conscious of what people need and what you want to communicate. Identify their hot-button and their consumer habits. Only when you answer those questions can you move forward with content.

Ask “what if” – Realize you have more ideas than you think. To trigger the idea inside you, ask, “what if?” about the subject or project you are involved with. For example, “what if the butter brand was really a bar of gold?” Using that energy can trigger lots of word associations that urge the brain to think beyond the obvious, so you come up with something different. For example, “our butter is worth its weight in gold, but costs only pennies.”

Create conflict – No one wants to watch a movie about a village with happy people, although everyone wants lives to be like that. Ironically, a good story involves more than happiness and usually gets interesting when something adversarial happens.  This easily applies in PR where we start with a story about an industry issue, but position it against how people are affected and how a company’s services and products can make a difference.

What tricks do you use to inspire a story? Write to me and let me know.

Rain Wang is an Edelman global fellow in Atlanta from Shanghai.

photo credit: popofatticus

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