Why storytelling will remain a – uniquely – human skill

20th February 2023

Earwigging on the tube recently, I overheard a conversation between two friends. The first had just returned from a hen do in Barcelona – with people the other friend had clearly never met – and proceeded to tell her friend all about the weekend. As the story went on and on (and on), the friend gradually switched off – nodding along, smiling vacantly, and asking half-hearted questions that only proved she hadn’t listened to a word of what had just been said.

We’ve all been in that situation – either the poor storyteller or the bored recipient – and it got me thinking about the power of good storytelling.

We are all storytellers by nature, and nurture. We’ve been told stories since we were children, and we continue to hear and tell them almost every day of our lives.

When we hear a good story and engage with it – particularly with the characters – our brain releases the empathy-related chemical oxytocin, unlocking our capacity for attention. And while a good story hooks us in, the novel element to the story encourages us to read, listen, or watch, on.

Stories create a narrative in our lives, bringing to life thoughts and motivations. In fact, they’re so important they even have their own week dedicated to them (celebrated each January in the UK). And they are just as critical for building and shaping a brand; helping to bring to life its mission and the impact it wants to make.

Many brands have cottoned on to this already – probably none more so in the UK than John Lewis with its Christmas adverts. Who can forget the little boy waiting by the clock in John Lewis’s 2011 Christmas advert ‘The Long Wait’? It’s a story we could all empathise with, and – I’m not ashamed to admit – still makes me tear up over a decade on.

From a PR perspective, good storytelling for brands must be grounded in meaningful differentiation, have a strong point of view, and focus on the genuine impact. Often this means focusing on the real people – or businesses – at the heart of the story. Not only do these case studies act as proof points, ensuring the story stands up to scrutiny, they also make the narrative more relatable for the end audience.

But is storytelling solely a human trait – or could AI tell a better story? That has been the focus of much recent debate about AI platforms such as ChatGPT given their increasing ability to write in an emotive and convincing way. James Hennessy, a journalist for Business Insider, puts it well: ‘It opens up the unsettling possibility that at least some of the connective tissue of storytelling and fiction writing, assumed to be largely human pursuits, can be partially replaced or automated with machine logic’.

While ChatGPT is certainly impressive, I’d argue that even as sophisticated as it is, no AI can substitute the human ability to story-tell. Only a human can communicate a certain tone, meaning or emotion which underpins a story, and ensure that is adapted for the intended audience in a way that will resonate with them. As Guardian columnist Kenan Malik wrote, ‘meaning for humans comes through our existence as social beings, embodied and embedded in the world’.

Because storytelling in PR doesn’t just mean writing well (although this certainly helps), it means making sure the story is grounded in differentiation, has a clear point of view, has defensible proof points, and – most importantly – focuses on the human meaning.

By incorporating all these factors, stories become far more impactful and effective. And from a brand’s perspective, telling stories will not only allow them to engage with their audiences more effectively, but convey their key messages in a more compelling, and more memorable, way.

|| By Kitty Guillaume ||

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