If there is one buzzword that has come to dominate the marketing world over the last year or so, it has been the term ‘storytelling’. It sometimes feels like you cannot move online without falling over another thinkpiece on how traditional marketing techniques have been made irrelevant by storytelling.
But, what do we actually mean by ‘storytelling’? And what relevance does it have for the CSR and Charity sectors?
The Principles of Storytelling
Any discussion about storytelling first needs to start by identifying what me mean by ‘a story’. If a story is to be effective, it needs a number of core elements. It will need ‘Characters’ (personas who a viewer can identify with), ‘Conflict’ (a disagreement or argument between characters or between a character and an outside force), ‘Struggle’ (some element of drama that is produced by the conflict), and a ‘Goal’ (an end result that brings resolution to the story). Even then, a story containing all of these elements might still prove ineffective if it fails to stir an emotional response from the audience.
Storytelling is not just a tactic for big budget brands and advertisers with deep pockets. It should be something that CSR practitioners and Charity Marketers build into the heart of all of their external communications. It is no longer good enough just to drily recite the number of people your organisation has assisted or the amount by which you have reduced your carbon emissions in a given year. Instead, you need to ‘turn that data into drama’.
If there is one medium that is ideal for great storytelling, then it is video. The real power of video is that it can deliver the core elements of storytelling – human personas, drama/conflict, resolution/catharsis- in a more potent way than any other form of content.
MarketingProfs recently published an article on the “six superpowers of storytelling” that video can give to marketing & communications professionals. Among the great benefits they outlined were the power of video to humanise and simplify complex subjects, vividly demonstrate your credibility, while also providing the kind of visual stimulation more likely to stimulate action within an audience (the latter point obviously being of vital importance to the Charity and CSR sectors).
There are further elements that Charity and CSR marketers should build into their storytelling videos, such as fleshing out the details of the key character in your story, illustrating the impact of the campaign, then ending on a strong Call-to-Action that will rally the audience. Here we will take a look at some videos which exemplify the principles of storytelling.
The Prince’s Trust ‘Parallel Lives’ campaign
The Prince’s Trust is a British youth charity that helps young people get into employment and education, and their ‘Parallel Lives’ campaign aims to highlight the life-changing impact its work has had on generations of young lives across the UK.
What I like about this video – and what makes it a compelling slice of storytelling – is that it employs a split-screen technique to show the two different paths (one productive, one chaotic) that a young person might take in life. The Prince’s Trust say the video demonstrates “the flip side of what could happen to vulnerable young people who don’t get the right support when they need it most”. As well as advertising the efficacy of The Prince’s Trust, the video also has drama, conflict and tension – all elements essential to a good story.
Peter McVerry Trust’s “Moving On” film
The Peter McVerry Trust is an Irish charity dedicated to tackling homelessness, addiction and social disadvantage. Their “Moving On” short film tells the tale of two young Dubliners moving out of the trap of homelessness and into the comfort and safety of their own home.
While it is a lengthier piece than the others we’ve featured here (it clocks in at 14 minutes), “Moving On” is a masterclass in storytelling. All of the principles we discussed above are present and correct: there are characters we can identify with (Patrick and Emma), conflict and drama (their struggle to find a home while also juggling all of the other challenges in their lives) and resolution (their resettling in a new housing project funded by the Peter McVerry Trust). The film gives an insight into the true nature of homelessness in Ireland today and it achieves this, not through stats and data, but by putting a human face to the issue.
Thrivor “From Cancer to Corsica” campaign
In 2014, the life of Justin McLean – a previously supremely fit 40-year-old and father of three daughters – was thrown into turmoil when he learnt that he had cancer. Upon learning of this devastating news, Justin resolved to fight back … by realising his lifelong dream of cycling across the island of Corsica.
Thrivor is a social enterprise established by Justin McLean and some of his supporters with the aim of “helping cancer patients not just survive, but thrive through their journey”. They have produced this incredibly powerful film called “From Cancer to Corsica”, portraying Justin’s refusal to be a victim and his overwhelming determination to do battle with the cancer attacking his body by achieving his cycle.
“From Cancer to Corsica” is a magnificent example of storytelling, both beautifully filmed and emotionally gut-wrenching. The full 26 minute version depicting Justin’s battle is well worth your time, but we have posted the shorter excerpt here, which still manages to convey the tension and intensity of Justin’s struggle.
Barnardos Ireland – “Mam, why did Santa skip our house?”
The video that Barnardos Ireland produced for their 2014 Xmas campaign might be more lo-fi than some others we have featured above, but it still embodies the principles of storytelling that charity marketers must heed if they are to build an emotional connection with their audiences.
The title of the video (“Mam, why did Santa skip our house?”) refer to the words of a 6 year old boy called Ben. Through the short film, we learn how Ben is funny, sensitive and a bundle of energy, but he and his valiant, hardworking mother face the challenges of trying to break out of poverty and trying to find secure accommodation. Ben’s mother is struggling to pay her bills while also trying to create a magical Christmas for her son, but help is at hand through Barnardos.
All of the storytelling standards (human characters, drama, resolution, ending on a call to action, etc.) are present in the clip. But, it also proves you don’t need massive budgets to tell a compelling story; Barnardos say they created the video using the Adobe Spark tool for practically no spend whatsoever.
The relevance of Storytelling
They might be constructed using vastly different styles, but all of these stories have certain commonalities: an identifiable persona, facing a real-life battle or struggle that (through the intervention of the charitable organisation) they succeed in overcoming. The principles of storytelling are of vital importance to CSR practitioners when communicating what social impact they are having (particularly as mainstream audiences often find it difficult to work out exactly what is meant by terms like ‘Corporate Sustainability’ and ‘Sustainability’). But, storytelling is a crucial weapon in the armoury of charity marketers, especially in this time when the charity sector is under fire over issues around governance and financial impropriety. By communicating emotionally-resonant real-life stories about the people they help, charity marketers might be able to cut through the current cynicism and start rebuilding public trust.