Fight dull project descriptions with storytelling

Mary Jo Finchum/Tree Full of Owls

Public relations professionals often fixate over choosing the best message, format and medium to reach their target audience. Ironically, one of the most powerful communication devices is the one used the least – classic storytelling. Fortunately, storytelling seems to be making a comeback.

Don’t worry, it’s not the kind of “storytelling” that a guilty child might use when explaining a questionable situation to a parent. This type of storytelling is for business. The information is factual and informative but written in a narrative style that makes it interesting and appealing to a wide audience.

It has often been said that facts are great, but a story is better. Storytelling has many applications in public relations, but I find it particularly advantageous when writing case studies.  In the nearly 100 years that the engineering firm I work for has been in existence, it has completed more than 25,000 projects around the world. We use short descriptions, or case studies, of many of these projects in our marketing materials, proposals and presentations to describe our depth of knowledge, sell our experience, and win more work. Rather than bore the reader with a dull listing of project facts, we package them into a factual story. It describes the problem and explains why the project was needed, and outlines the steps taken to solve the problem. Finally, it shows how the project benefited our client, and more importantly, how it benefited the client’s customers.

Stories traditionally have a distinct beginning, middle and ending. The beginning grabs the reader’s attention, whets the appetite and draws the reader into the story. It’s the “Once upon a time,” element.  Basic facts are established and characters are introduced. The middle establishes the main elements of the story, the plot or scenario. The ending of a story wraps everything up and explains the outcome. It’s the “They lived happily ever after,” conclusion. Starting with these basic elements, creativity is the only limit to how you tell your story.

Using our case-study format, the beginning of our story describes the problem or issue that our client originally experienced. It explains the reason why our engineering services were needed, whether it was to design a new power plant to meet a growing demand for electricity, redesign an intersection to improve driver safety, or provide a study that recommends the best type of flood protection for a city.

The middle of our case study describes what steps Stanley Consultants took to resolve the problem and provide a solution. This section contains a few specific details about the project but not too many. There is often a temptation to list every service provided, and describe every phase of the project. Resist that urge. Keep in mind that you are telling a story, not writing a book.  Reserve the middle section to describe the innovative, unusual, and complex aspects of the project. If the project has a social impact such as helping the local economy, improving pedestrian safety, aiding a city’s air quality, etc., then it is included in the middle of our case study. Keep the focus on how project helps others.

Use the ending to describe how it all panned out. Hopefully the project was completed on time, under budget, and the client was pleased with the outcome. At this point there is a temptation to describe in glowing detail how great/experienced/low cost (fill in the blank) your firm is. However, you will be better served by describing how the client benefits from the successful project. And better yet, describe how it benefits your client’s customers. That type of information really hits home with clients.

Effective storytelling is an art. Stories make our messages easier to remember and have been used throughout history to help explain concepts more effectively. They can help strengthen the connection with your existing clients and can also help to create new and meaningful relationships with potential clients.

Mary Jo Finchum is the public relations administrator for Stanley Consultants.