Suzanne Henry Q&A
I frequently encounter the work of Suzanne Henry and her firm Four Leaf Communications LLC in my Scoop.it curation of organizational storytelling. I truly admire her emphasis on storytelling in public relations and communications and am so pleased she is participating in this Q&A series, especially since she went above and beyond in responding to my questions.
Bio: I have a blog at www.FourLeafPR.com/blog that discusses storytelling, but in the context of a public relations effort. After being in the field for 27 years I also have decided it’s time to write a book. (Don’t worry. It will be brief.) It will be an e-book of positioning, messaging and story exercises, and processes organized by common communication challenges. It will be available in Fall 2012.
Q&A with Suzanne Henry:
Q: Your Web site states, “Centered on the idea that organizations can boost their presence in their chosen markets via business storytelling.” You note your epiphany in 1999: He (or she) who tells the best story wins. What triggered that epiphany? Has business storytelling been at the core of your business from the beginning? In what ways have the concepts of business storytelling evolved for your firm over its dozen years in business?
A: I did a lot of media pitching during the dot com era in the late 1990s. I remember in fall of 1999, I was tasked with telling two stories for a large PR agency in Washington, DC. They had two companies as clients. An online vitamin retailer and a company called Equal Footing dot com.
The online vitamin retailer was run by a man who was in direct conflict with his father. They used to work together in the healthcare-supplement field, but the son broke away. Both had the idea to sell health supplements online. Pretty good story, no? Especially the family stuff. Only the son didn’t want to talk about his disagreements with his father. He wanted to talk about selling vitamins online. So, that’s what I pitched.
Equalfooting on the other hand would talk about anything. Equal footing was like the ebay for construction equipment. If you were a builder or contractor, you go online and bid for things you needed to build. They needed a lot of money to develop this site. So, I pitched to the Wall Street Journal how they were seeking to raise $250 million from investors, and wouldn’t it be cool to see what that took? I pitched a shadow story, where a reporter could follow them around and see what it actually took to raise that kind of money for basically what was just an idea — they would attend internal meetings, see proposals, sit in on investor pitches — the whole thing. Pretty good story, right? I had two reporters at the Journal wanting that story.
I did not have two reporters fighting over the online vitamin retail company.
And, that’s when it hit me — he who tells the best story wins.
And, here’s the twist: the feud story between father and son came out anyway. But, he didn’t tell I, so it didn’t come out in his way.
And therein line the second part — the best story always wins. You may have in mind two or three messages you want to get across. But, if there is a better story than yours — it will always get the ink.
Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/ narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?
A: I initially was attracted to using storytelling when I was conducting a lot of media pitching for a large agency in Washington, DC. I found I was much more successful at engaging reporters when I dropped the script and started to talk like a person would at a cocktail party. It occurred to me then that there was something significant about this kind of communication. So, I began to study it, off and on, for the last 12 years.
What I love the most about storytelling is that it reminds us that we are a human being talking to another human being. Messaging, which has its place, too often disintegrates into language that sounds like a faceless entity is spewing an agenda and a position that is one sided. A story offers the listener to willingly get drawn into a journey that has meaning for both the storyteller and the story listener. It is less one-sided than messaging.
Q: What people or entities have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: In 2002 I took Robert McKee’s Story seminar, which is basically a 3-day screenwriting workshop. But, it delves deeply into storytelling and why certain things work and other things do not. My biggest epiphany about storytelling came from this event. McKee [pictured] is adamant that some change must occur to a person for a story to be a real story. If you only have beautiful scenery, events, and trials, and lots of characters (even particularly well-developed characters), you have shared a series of anecdotes. Unless someone changes (he calls it “something happens”), then, really, nothing happened. And, when I think of every movie, book, or cocktail conversation that stayed with me over the years, the stories that show how someone evolved is what made it a memorable story.
Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?
A: I follow Robert McKee’s definition of story (something has to happen to someone that causes a change) and Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (the monomyth). I believe the storytelling “template” is actually rather simple. But, it is sharing details one hasn’t heard before, sharing a change that resonates with today’s world, and including unique twists and turns that make the “template” come alive. I also believe the most compelling stories are about people (or animals that mirror human qualities — I don’t want anyone accusing me of not saying Watership Down isn’t a good story!). So, for businesses or nonprofits seeking to use storytelling, they must remember they need to share their causes, products and services through people — how they helped them, changed their lives, etc.
Q: Your Web site notes “we only accept clients for which we can truly make a difference.” How would you characterize the type of client for whom you can make a difference? To what extent does storytelling enter into these decisions?
A: Storytelling plays a big part in whether or not we can accept a potential client. If someone doesn’t have a story — or is confusing sales and marketing with public relations — we know we won’t be able to get that client any traction, visibility-wise. So, we politely decline.
Q: While storytelling in branding, marketing, and advertising gets a lot of buzz these days, it seems we don’t hear as much about storytelling in public relations. In what ways does PR lend itself to storytelling? Do you have a sense that more PR firms are focusing on storytelling? Do you ever see storytelling poorly done in the PR realm?
A: I believe more PR people are using storytelling to introduce companies, nonprofits and academic institutions to their audiences. Public relations is meant to help communicate what a company or nonprofit has to offer, how an issue might influence, and bridge the gap between “the people” and that entity. Stories are great ways to help create that bridge. Stories evoke emotions, tap into our imagination and empathy, and help us gain context. All these things help influence and guide people to a way of thinking. So, if PR people aren’t using storytelling they either will adopt it soon or find themselves behind the curve. Also, storytelling can be a terrific tool to overcome information overload and lack of relevancy. If PR people don’t find a way to become interesting and relevant immediately today, they won’t be as successful.
Q: What has surprised you most in your work with story?
A: It surprises me that it’s such an easy sell. Every marketing director to CEO to whom I’ve tried to convince to use more stories has jumped in with both feet immediately. I thought people would equate this “technique” with Mother Goose. But, I was surprised at how much and how easily it resonated with every level of an organization. I think it’s because storytelling humanizes communication. And, how can you argue with that?
Q: What has been your favorite or most meaningful storytelling project or initiative and why?
A: My most meaningful storytelling project has been probono, actually. The Virginia Piedmont Regional Science Fair (which in full disclosure is chaired by my husband), asks me to help them with their media relations each year. Two years ago, I used the story of how my husband came in second at the International Science Fair when he was a teen in the late 1960s (he built a computer), which got him noticed by IBM and GE. The latter hired him right out of college at age 19. (He was a bit of an overachiever, graduating early!) He’s been helping science fairs out ever since. That personal connection story really resonated with our local media. His experience and his passion for supporting science, engineering and technology education in our area — because a science fair made such a difference to him — gave a concrete example of why it’s important to support and inspire young people today.
Q: Watch Tyler Cowen’s TED Talk and react to what the speaker says are the problems with stories.
A: This was a very interesting TED Talk. He gets into the different nuances of different kinds of stories. But in the end, I still say the common thread is people are changed. I do agree that stories can be used to manipulate over enlighten. (Politicians are famous for this.) So, I think it’s inappropriate to change or leave out details around something that happened just to shoehorn a lesson to make a point.
Q: What future trends or directions to do foresee for story/storytelling/ narrative? What’s next for the discipline?
A: I think storytelling will become the norm for both nonprofit and corporate communications and it will cease to be a separate communication discipline. In other words, storytelling will simply be a best practice in achieving greater reach, visibility, and influence.
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/ narrative with readers, what would it be?
A: My one piece of advice is to remember that you are seeking to tell a truth, not every detail that got you there. Being overly accurate can kill the power of a story, weighing it down with meaningless details and slowing things down so much people lose interest.