This blog post is based on a conversation between Kat Arney, founder of First Create The Media, Peter Penny, life and career mentor, and the #CommunicationBuddies, a virtual discussion group hosted by Graham Combe and chaired by Professor Tony Sedgwick.
Telling stories to each other is a key part of what makes us human. Stories help us make sense of the world, put things in order in our own heads and the heads of our listeners, and aid us in thinking about the form of our lives. Telling stories isn't just personal though – stories play an important role in science and business communication, from explaining concepts to pitching for projects and funding.
The importance of story in comms: Boring comms waste lives
Communicating ideas in story form can stop presentations from being mind-numbing, and become more than just lists of facts or milestones. Boring communications waste lives, by frittering away the listener or reader's precious time. They also allow important ideas that could impact wellbeing, lives and health to slip by unnoticed. The ordered structure of a story not only helps the listener but also works as a cognitive tool to help the teller order their ideas.
Building the story
As in fiction and drama, comms stories have a beginning, a middle and an end. They draw the listeners in and make them want to know what happens next.
Good comms stories use characters – patients, diseases, drugs, researchers – and show what happens to them. They make the listeners feel something and want to do something. Depending on the context, this could be excitement that makes them want to invest, conviction that makes them want to spread the word, or passion that makes them want to campaign and make a difference.
Getting the level of detail right is vital in comms. Too much information swamps the listener and buries the critical bits of information, and too little misses out what is important. The level of detail will vary according to the audience – do they want the Lambs' Tales from Shakespeare, or the story of King Lear? The right number of significant details gives the listeners, be they investors, journalists or healthcare professionals, enough to hold on to, and that might mean cutting favourite facts or slides. The presentation should end leaving people informed and wanting to act.
Preparing the pitch
Pitching is a fundamental part of the communications process, and it's important to be as Olympic fit as Princess Anne was in the London 2012 bid. As an Olympian, she was able to talk from a point of knowledge and experience. She presented what the International Olympic Committee needed to hear; that London was able to meet the needs of the games, and could put the logistics and infrastructure in place.
A pitch must meet the client's needs, deal with any pain points, and be in the style that will be most useful. This could mean a traditional presentation, or a Q&A session. Reviewing the presentation from the client's perspective as well as the presenter's perspective can be useful, perhaps by putting a member of another team in the position of the client. This makes sure that it is written in the client's language, and helps to highlight anything that is missing.
During the Covid-19 lockdown, meetings and pitches have quickly become virtual. This will continue as long as social distancing is in place, and may even become part of the post-virus 'new normal'. While virtual meetings allow life to continue, they do bring their own challenges. Virtual meetings do feel more 'real' than voice-only calls, but they can be exhausting. Fewer non-verbal cues and body language come across, and those that do can be harder to process, all of which takes more energy.
If virtual meetings are going to become the way forward, all participants need to become comfortable with taking part. There are a number of ways to get the most out of virtual presentations: