By Sheri De Carlo
Industry leaders, in today’s rapidly evolving world of marketing, advertising and public relations
– in the words of Wayne Gretzky – will ‘skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.’ Studying the science of storytelling is not new. What is new is technology with the ability to see what’s happening in the brain as communications messages are received; it has never been more available and better, and is at the intersection of communications and neuroscience – these are exciting times!
Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), along with guests from McMaster University’s Master of Communications Management (MCM) program, welcomed expert speakers, seasoned practitioners and leading researchers, who provided valuable insights into creativity and storytelling – which are rapidly shaping and changing the public relations profession in fundamental ways – at Elevate PR Conference on December 5, 2017.
“Creativity is critical to what we need to do on a day to day basis. You have to be courageous,” says Dr. Terence Flynn, Associate Professor at McMaster University and Adjunct Professor at S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. “That’s why some stories work and others don’t. All traditional communication [message to receiver] doesn’t work. The brain doesn’t process them. Stories work. Ideation is a critical part – being someone that can think horizontally, or laterally, in the box, or outside the box – it’s important to really think,” says Flynn. “A good story takes time, it is authentic, it’s complex. It has to be research-based.”
“Give yourself the permission to be creative. I’ve heard people say I don’t have a creative bone in my body. People don’t believe they have it in them,” says Ralph Benmergui, an award-wining broadcaster, senior political advisor, director of communications, and creative problem-solving facilitator. “I’ll tell you a story. I was working at Yuk Yuk’s for $1 a night in the 80s (it cost a dollar to get in). There was this guy and he got no laughs, yet he kept getting up off the mat, and we were wondering why does this guy keep coming back, he’s not funny. But he keeps coming back and when he’s not on, he’s watching everyone else. And one night, you hear laughter, he’s doing great, he did really well. His name was Lou Dinos and he’s still a working comic in the States today. It’s the same with creativity. You have it. Be highly subversive. Remember innovation is subversive.”
“Why do some stories capture your attention? Why do some novels capture your attention? Why do some movies capture your attention? And others you walk out and don’t remember anything because it’s that complex,” says Flynn. “To try to understand why communications aren’t working, it is important to understand the relationship between communications and neuroscience. It narrows down to two important things: the communications format people are sending today. The brain takes up to 25 per cent of energy. The message to receiver is overloaded in a short period of time and is falling short. The best format is story. What are the neuropathways of stories that will achieve what you want to do. The brain is the best bullshit detector in the world. It is pre-programmed not to be persuaded.”
“Creativity is not going to kill your career. It’s going to give you more interesting opportunities to do,” says Benmergui. “Take a chance. Be yourself. Think of a tweet as a person. Tweets should be first person, not self-congratulatory. You have very little time to get someone’s attention or the press release is on the way to the garbage can. Be sincere. You’re not talking to idiots. Two paragraphs. Don’t bury your lead. What is the one thing that’s going to make me want to tell your story?”
“When we’re beginning to be persuaded two things happen: we identify with the story, put ourselves in the story. It doesn’t impact everyone at same time,” says Flynn. “Technology allows us to begin to understand that. We can measure the level of oxycontin in blood and what happens in brain waves. The most important variable is trust. If they’re not trusted, you can begin to build trust. Some if it is endorsement. Are they credible? Are they relatable? Are they empathetic?”
“The two most important requirements are trust and empathy. As I trust you, the brain begins to release oxycontin. If we trust someone and they evoke empathetic emotions, we will trust them. You had me at hello! If we distrust someone and they’re not empathetic, no oxycontin. The pure science is if I like someone and they engage in trust and they are empathetic, I will like them, and it is the same for the storyteller. Trust and empathy are the two most important qualities of effective communicators succeeding in lowering the resistance of the audience. Communications is designed to evoke or enact some level of change. What are we doing to protect people that might be vulnerable to this? We must layer on transparency.”
“With new technology we can now measure how a person’s brain changes when presented with a message that resonates with them,” says Dave Scholz, Managing Partner at Léger. “This is an emerging tool that we are using to help communicators create messages that can cut through the clutter of all the media around us.”
“Insula is a region of the brain that says I can identify with a story and this transports someone into the story and effectively reduces the resistance wall in the brain. The brain is our engine to alert us to things that may be dangerous. When the resistance wall starts to lower, there is an opportunity to make a change with a credible storyteller, if we have high resistance the likelihood of getting to behaviour changes lower,” says Flynn. “Health communications has issues with this; people have perceived invulnerability and self-efficacy so the resistance wall is higher. High rigidity results in people being less likely to change. It has to have some level of affect. The story has to find emotional connection to lower the wall of resistance and counter biases. Humans are irrational. We buy on emotion and justify with fact. There are about 27 different variables needed to affect behavioural change. Every communicative activity we engage in as professionals should have outcome attached. Getting people to change how they did, how they think. To influence or change behaviours and attitudes, Story is the most important format we have. We are overwhelmed. A tweet that is corporate speak isn’t the right platform. The brain is working harder than 25 per cent trying to process. It’s not about getting older. It’s about the brain saying too much.”
People spend a total of 17 hours a week reading, responding and sending work emails both at work and at home, per a recent Canadian survey. The survey also says the average office worker receives 121 emails daily, almost 50 per cent of which is spam. In today’s world of marketing, advertising and public relations, overwhelming the brain with content is too much and not enough at the same time. By using creativity and having an understanding of how communications messages are perceived, may just be the benchmark of public relations practitioners who engage in next level strategic thinking in the future.
“Brand name is personal. PR is personal. We’re asking people to take time out of their day to spend time with us. It’s very, very, personal,” says Mike Leon, Managing Director at Brand Heroes. “Personal stories connect consumers to a believable true connection.”
Be bold and courageous. Tell a meaningful story that inspires dialogue and connects people with your brand. A winning brand strategy creates a memorable impression, encourages loyalty; and succeeds in winning hearts and minds. Keep it real and authentic, build trust, and shine a light on the values of an organization. It is in this way that you will raise awareness and enhance a positive reputation within the organization, and in the community, and far beyond borders that social media has changed into a global arena. In reaching a global audience, it’s a new day – yes, these are exciting times!
“Try to find great ways to do good things for good people. Bring your whole self into the endeavour. You want to do it for the good guy,” says Benmergui. “In public relations what you’re really trying to do is find a great way to do good things for good people.”