A story about storytelling

By Crofton Steers

Once upon a time, a young man worked for Canada’s government. It was a bit of a family business, as his father did it before him. He, like his dad, worked in communications, helping Canadians understand the work of government and how it could help them. The young man did his best and worked in many places, on different interesting files. Often, he found himself responding to questions from intermediaries, like the media or a Minister’s Office, and sometimes it felt like these distractions were stopping him from talking to Canadians. He grew tired, wondering if this work was a good fit for him.

One day something happened, he was approached by his organization and asked to help with “storytelling”. Here was a word that resonated with the young man, a word that conjured up memories of the storybooks his father read to him as a child. Having studied literature in school, he loved stories in all forms. While the opportunity sounded challenging, he liked the sound of it but - there was a problem - he wasn’t entirely sure he understood what was being asked. 

What could storytelling mean in the context of government?” he thought. 

In government communications, “stories” often meant media articles in the newspaper. Is that what was meant here? Maybe he was expected to find interesting content and pitch stories to the media.

Storyteller Crofton Steers reads a book with a thoughtful expression on his face
Storyteller Crofton Steers reads a book

“Brand storytelling” was also a big term in the marketing world, getting people to emotionally invest in organizations, linking it to certain values. Was that what he needed to do? 

Or could it be simpler?

As the young man explored further, he spoke to different people and began reading articles and books. He learnt that storytelling was powerful, as it appeals to your audience’s emotions and that it is sticky, as its messages resonates more profoundly than simply providing straight information.  

He also began to realize that storytelling might really just be as simple as… telling stories. But maybe telling a story wasn’t so simple, especially in a big organization. 

He pulled out a pen and paper and started thinking about what a good story should include, no matter how you tell it.

First and foremost, he thought, a story should include a character, a person that you can invest in and follow. While it is possible to humanize an organization, an animal, or even a toaster, the most straight-forward story is about a person. People care about other people, and identify with them. 

Secondly, a story should include a setting. It could be the place where the story unfolds or maybe it could just be a setup of the situation, kind of like setting a table before a meal.

Ok, so the stage is set and the main character is there. What happens next? What would make it a story? “Events!” the young man thought. But they can’t just be normal events. The character had to go on a journey, face adversity, grow. There has to be obstacles, things that get in the way and have to be overcome. This was what was often known as the “narrative”, a word the young man would even see used outside of storytelling.

Storyteller Crofton Steers looks at a painting of a princess and dragon
Storyteller Crofton Steers looks at a painting

Finally, the character could either succeed in their quest or they could fail. In the end, a lesson would be learned along the way and the character would grow. The emotion generated by the story, the lesson and moral of the story, would then stay with the audience.

It was at this point that the man realized that this storytelling model could be used to communicate anything in a way that emotionally engages the listener, reader, or viewer. Storytelling could help explain government initiatives through the eyes of the people it helps, or even the eyes of the people doing the helping.

The young man put down his pad and thought about all the government programs he had worked to communicate over his career. He thought about how storytelling could have helped him in the past and then focused on putting together a new approach for his current situation. His organization supported the approach and they implemented it together. It was well received and, while not perfect, the young man was proud of it.

It was a happy ending for him, but also a new beginning.

Government work is not romantic by nature. It can be cold with layers of facts, figures, policies and processes obscuring that, at its core, it is about people helping other people.

Together, as communicators, let’s tell their stories.

Storytelling in government is an evolving field that can take various forms, from videos to podcasts to social media content. Messages conveyed through story are much more likely to be retained that using traditional communications methods.

It is a tool available to all communicators, just keep in mind structure when developing your story.

Be sure you have a:

Whenever possible try to keep the language plain and simple.

All of this and more is discussed at the Storytelling Community of Practice (accessible only on the Government of Canada network).

Living Digital also has a recent article on a storytelling initiative worked on by the author with additional information.

Check out these great resources on storytelling:

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