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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 17-04-2019 16:40

Storytelling: using narrative to engage

It's only when a speaker or writer creates an emotional connection with a story that the audience can relate to what they are saying and, what is also important, remember it later on.

Storytelling has become something of a buzzword, and as so often happens with this kind of word, no one actually knows what it means. People use it everywhere, throwing it around at random, rarely hitting the mark.

As a concept, storytelling has been around forever. In caves, early humans sat around the fire listening to stories as a way of passing on knowledge and gaining understanding. As children, we listened to stories from books or ones made up for us.

I recall pleading with my mother to tell us stories of her youth, which we loved to hear about. She was brought up on the top of Headington Hill, in a rambling house on Gypsy Lane. As a child she used to collect the ears of wheat that were left after the harvest in the fields which are now occupied by Oxford Brookes University. It is hard to imagine that today.

More recently my mother, Rosanne Bostock, had to give a talk to the Oxfordshire county Women's Institute (WI). It was a talk about the NGO she co-founded and has been working at for the last 13 years, OxClean. As its name suggests, Oxclean is a charity that aims to keep Oxford tidy.

An experienced speaker with only a five-minute time frame, Rosanne had prepared a short informative talk about OxClean, how you could volunteer to help and how it relates to the national charity with the same purpose, Keep Britain Tidy. The focus of the talk was practical and involved considerable emphasis on high-vis safety vests and how the volunteers did not need to be insured because, although they were litter-picking along the side of the road, they were never in any danger.

When she rang me to practice her talk, I pointed out to Rosanne that while it was informative, it wouldn’t engage her audience. I asked my mother to think of who her audience might be probably middle-aged and retired women looking to give something back to the community. These women were at a moment in their lives when they might have a bit more time on their hands: the perfect candidates to volunteer for OxClean. And they were bound to be both experienced organisers in their own rights and also used to being part of volunteer organisations.

I tried to remind her why she started OxClean in the first place and soon she was taking a trip down memory lane. My mother has always loved Oxford. Born and bred there, she spent most of her adult life in the city, and as she always says, it is one of the most beautiful cities in Britain.

But it did have a major problem with litter, which Rosanne noticed when she retired 13 years ago. And so my mother got together with other like-minded locals to set up an NGO to campaign to keep Oxford clean. Working with local schools as well as the council and other civic organisations, OxClean operates on a skeleton budget and mobilises a small army of volunteer litter-pickers at the highlight of its year: the OxClean Spring Clean in the first weekend of March.

I persuaded Rosanne that while the WI would listen to her talk about high-vis vests and litter-picking politely, they would only engage with her cause if she could tell it to them as a story. For them to connect emotionally, she would have to show her audience what this cause meant for her. Only then would she be able to convince her audience to join her on her journey and with any luck persuade some of them to volunteer too.

It is only when a speaker or writer creates an emotional connection with a story that the audience can relate to what they are saying and, what is also important, remember it later on. We are all saturated with too much information that is too poorly processed. But if we can tell it as a story, even when it is hard data or figures, then it will stay in the minds of our listeners or readers. As humans, we are hardwired to remember story, so next time you give a talk or write an article, try to make an emotional connection with your own story to create a narrative so that your audience can engage and become involved with your story as well.

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Joanna Richardson

Joanna Richardson

Joanna Richardson is a clear communications consultant. A British native, Joanna is an Argentine citizen who has made her home in Buenos Aires. She is president of Plain Language International Association (PLAIN, plainlanguagenetwork.org).

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