Storytelling isn’t just for companies; local governments and public administration offices also need to tell their stories. The only catch? Choosing the right approach.

In 2016, Alessandro Baricco, the Italian writer from Turin, gave a series of talks at the theatre project in Rome known as the Mantova Lectures. One of these talks was on the topic of Alexander the Great and his incredible story. Essentially, according to Baricco, the Macedonian hero managed to “convince” his soldiers to follow him in the war against the Persians, because he had a story.

It was a fascinating story of children born of gods, pride to be redeemed, and cruel tyrants to be ousted. And as long as Alexander had a story to tell, he was able to use it to create one of the largest kingdoms in history. When the force of the story no longer held up, the soldiers were the first to stop believing in the dream of Philip II’s son. Excluding the historical reconstruction, the theme of the talk was that telling stories is fundamental and perhaps one of the most important human gestures that can be made.

However, we must not confuse storytelling with fables or propaganda. Alexander the Great was certainly not the son of any god, but there was no malice in supporting this story, partly because Alexander the Great really believed in it and partly because it was acceptable in the light of the values to which the story referred. Precisely because he played so much on these values, making them somehow understandable and shareable, Alexander the Great’s story was more persuasive for the soldiers, who didn’t concern themselves with the what or the how, but the why.



What is storytelling?

Abandoning historical suggestions, we need to define storytelling. First of all, it is a methodology that uses narration to frame the events of reality and explain them according to a logic of meaning. Or, more generally, it is an art form, but also a tool to portray real or fictitious events through words, images, sounds.

This technique of communication exploits, in particular, the emotions that find their own way of expressing themselves effectively and comprehensibly in the act of telling. It is through the emotional component that the message is conveyed and the more that you can develop a relationship of empathy with your audience, the more effective your story will be.

In this sense, storytelling has some points in common with emotional marketing. Both leverage on empathy and aim to speak to that part of us that is perhaps less rational and more tied to instinct and emotions.

Emotional marketing as defined by professor and author Bernd H. Schmitt, is an experience seen as memorable by the customer, in a way that exceeds his expectations by anticipating even his unconscious desires and satisfying them. It has a functional goal that is linked to sales results that storytelling should not originally have. In recent years many companies have adopted corporate storytelling as a communication technique to reach their current or potential customers.

There are so many examples.

Apple, for example, uses very clear and precise storytelling to convey not only the technical characteristics of its products but also the corporate values that distinguish it from other brands. Think about the Mac/PC campaign in which the benefits of the product are illustrated without using numbers or statistics, but a personification of two distinct approaches to digital technology. In doing so, the Cupertino-based company passed on its values without having to list them, having managed to evoke them.

Another effective example of storytelling is the Ikea campaign that showed a series of moments and episodes about family and home that viewers could easily recognize. In doing so, the Swedish company made sure that consumers could identify with the protagonists of the different ads and in doing so could consider Ikea furniture, not as an inexpensive product and therefore temporary, but as a true and sentimental part of their homes.



The advantages of storytelling yourself

But why does a company decide, as a communication strategy, to tell stories? Mainly because it is extremely effective. If it is true that the products resemble each other, at least in functional terms, the needs differentiate them in the eyes of the consumer in order to encourage them to prefer one over another. Moreover, as Donald Calne, the Canadian neurologist, points out, the substantial difference between emotion and reason “is that emotion leads to action, reason to draw conclusions.”

This means that it is not only the objective characteristics of a product (which in most cases are fairly standardized) that influence the choices of individuals, but above all the emotional connection, which gives rise to the desire to own a brand’s product, to which the consumer is linked because of a series of shared emotions and values.

Empirical data confirm this phenomenon, showing that a purchase choice is 95% based on unconscious mechanisms and only 5% on conscious and rational mechanisms. This is because, as neuromarketing teaches, when buying something, the brain immediately activates a mechanism of comparison between two areas responsible for positive and negative sensations, based on experiential and emotional information related to previous memories.

Such a procedure would explain the irrational component of the consumer’s choices, who makes a decision on the basis of which sensation and emotion prevails, which refers to past experiences. This is well known by those who operate within the luxury goods market, which bases most of its communication on highly aspirational messages. Emotion, in fact, is fundamental in luxury good sales.

Without the narrative, it would be difficult for consumers to justify such an expenditure. In some ways, customers are instead purchasing the dream that is created around the product or service. For this reason, each brand strategy consists of two types of communication, one emotional and one informative which work side by side and on different aspects.

Companies can choose how to organize their communications based on the targets and their need for the product, and they can decide to focus on the product benefits or instead, the brand values that may be communicated to the consumer.



Storytelling and Public Administration: an unexpected application

Obviously, storytelling, among its benefits, should also persuade individuals to buy a good or service. Similarly, the Public Administration can and must provide for narration in its communication strategy.

This strategy is also supported by AGID, the Agency for Digital Italy, which aims to ensure that the objectives of the Italian Digital Agenda are achieved, and as such, so that it contributes to the diffusion of the use of information technologies in order to encourage innovation and digital transformation in Italy. In fact, within the site dedicated to its latest project, ComunicaItalia, which is designed to help communication professionals to promote public digital services, the Agency has provided a specific section dedicated to storytelling.

But what why should a Public Administration include storytelling within its communication strategy?

The first reason, indicated in the AGID Guidelines for the Promotion of Digital Services, is that storytelling creates closeness between the Public Administration and the private citizen. This is due to the fact that effective storytelling relies on the ability to create empathy with listeners. Thanks to this increased empathy, the messages that are conveyed are perceived as more relevant and, therefore, are more memorable for citizens.

Not only that. Such a message has the advantage of being even more understandable. It is not by chance that storytelling, in some ways, has always been associated with myth, which is the tool that people have long used to explain things that would otherwise be incomprehensible. The AGID also underlines this aspect, which is key especially when it comes to digital services.

Another advantage of effective storytelling is the possibility of building a solid and lasting relationship of trust with the target audience, which in some cases can even go so far as to share the universe of values and principles of the company or, in this case, of the Public Administration.

Finally, building a good public story allows the PA to “restart the engines,” that is, it provides the opportunity to rethink how internal communication flows, highlighting the positive values to be transmitted so that they become points of reference capable of influencing daily behaviors both inside and outside the Administration.



How to create storytelling for the Public Administration?

Storytelling for the PA is not so different from storytelling for a company or brand.

First of all, you have to decide what you want to inspire with your story. For this reason, it is essential to define the essential information to be communicated about the public services offered to citizens. Clearly, this information must be organized hierarchically so as to prioritize the most important information. To do this, you must have your objectives in mind, as well as the recipients to whom you wish to communicate. Once this is done, you need to find the storytelling technique that best suits your content and purpose.

There are many different types of narrative techniques that can be used.

For example, the story can be developed by having the citizens identify with a character in the story: this is the case of the so-called “hero’s journey,” whose scheme provides that the protagonist must face a series of challenges before reaching his goal. This structure is very useful if you want to focus on the involvement of individuals while explaining how new products or services operate and which allow the hero (the citizen) to avoid paperwork, etc. with just a few clicks.

Another technique is a story that makes the benefits of a product or service clear based on the different needs of different beneficiaries.

Another effective technique is the so-called “false start,” the narrative structure that has an ending that is already written (often failed due to inefficiencies or difficulties of various kinds) and that, instead, presents an unexpected turn in a different and surprising way. This helps capture the attention of the citizen on negative situations that he knows well and to impress him with services capable of improving his life in an unexpected way.

Another approach is a story that shows how things went and compares them to how they should have gone, so as to show the significant improvements offered by the digital services.

There are still many techniques and all of them are functional, as we have seen, for a specific purpose; however, there is one that is particularly interesting and that is visual storytelling,  the narration made through images, infographics, and videos. This narrative approach is fundamental because the visual component in content is fundamental, given that the short attention span of the average user. When telling the story of your products or services through images, it is necessary to identify a visual style appropriate to the Public Authority and that incorporates the visual imagery of your audience of reference.

In addition, you need to keep in mind future trends, so that the visual content is as effective as possible:

1. The chosen images must be strongly evocative, so as to involve the observer and to encourage him to continue to view the content, which becomes memorable;

2. Infographics are an incredibly effective tool for making what you want to communicate more understandable. On average, content that contains infographics ensures 94% more views than content with only text elements (source: Forbes);

3. Videos are fundamental for an effective communication strategy. It is no coincidence that, by 2021, it is estimated that video content will account for 82% of internet traffic (source: Cisco).

4. Each of these elements must be associated with a greater interaction that ensures that the audience has an active role. In this way, it will be possible to increase the involvement of individuals by providing a personalized experience.


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