To Connect with Audiences, Stories Need Empathy
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The best stories have the power to break through information overload. But evidence indicates this is a tall order. Microsoft once suggested people will only give the hordes of stimuli they face every day – be it billboards on the highway or digital ads – a mere eight seconds’ time. Other things, like works of art in a museum, still tend to get less than 30 (though there’s evidence this is enough time for viewers to be moved by a piece).


Our collective attention span has undoubtedly shortened in the last few decades. And we are bombarded with so many options, it can become confusing to know what truly deserves our time. The guilt many of us feel about it could be unnecessary. If something really isn’t interesting, why should anyone pay attention?


In public relations, we are vulnerable to thinking it’s obvious to others how great our clients or employers are. To mitigate this bias, I build stories the same way I would set the scene for a friend about something that happened to me that day, bringing an event to life by appealing to as many senses as possible. The goal is to make the public feel, not simply know, something about a client (or whomever or whatever it is we’re sharing about).


Research tells us the human brain is hardwired for stories. Neuroeconomist Paul Zak observes that “personal and emotionally compelling” narratives stimulate the release of oxytocin, the neurochemical responsible for empathy, opening a powerful conduit for information. Everything from press releases to blog posts and website copy can and should be harnessed to “hack” the brain’s oxytocin system. 


This isn’t about padding or sensationalizing. Instead, the art of telling a good story is showing why each piece of news or stage of a client’s development matters personally to an audience.


Citigroup executive Ray McGuire is a candidate for the 2021 mayoral election in New York City. McGuire’s growing campaign drew attention in December for a campaign ad featuring a narration by film director Spike Lee. Cameos aside, its most compelling element wasn’t so much Lee’s voice as a theme the ad introduced: running. 


McGuire jogged four or five miles around the city during filming, interspersed with stills and video of New York and its citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic. When he took over the narrative to speak about his childhood, a boy playing McGuire was also shown running to school and through his neighborhood. The message was clear. Running – both figuratively and literally – takes perseverance, consistency and strength to push through challenges. If McGuire wanted to creatively show he was tough enough to take on this role, the symbolism was powerful.


There are several takeaways here. The use of multimedia in communications is clearly valuable in building a story. Visual content is more engaging with audiences and can help relieve demands placed on target audiences and pitch-weary journalists. In addition, the length of time a creator is asking from their audience should be limited to what is needed to convey the point, and nothing more. “Short and sweet” is a highly applicable phrase to PR and marketing.


By far, the biggest conclusion is that people best understand what they feel connected to. Professionals need to find ways to bring even the everyday and the simple to life. The future of storytelling in PR, or how we “break through,” is about grounding communication decisions in empathy and connecting audiences to the bigger picture, beyond the hard facts. 


This article originally appeared in PRSA Strategies & Tactics.