Pat Southwell opinion: Those who tell stories rule society

Opinion: Why those who tell the best stories rule society

Pat Southwell, director of strategy at Berkeley, argues that drama, adversity and “concentrating on the negative” is the key to great storytelling in comms.


Stories are powerful things. They make us laugh. They make us cry. They change the way we think and act. We teach our children through nursery rhymes. The world’s great religions are based on allegorical tales. We willingly devote hours of our lives to box sets, news and the lives of others on social media. Revolutions have taken place thanks to stories – and movements born.

This is because we’re emotional creatures as well as rational ones. In fact, as UK and global politics shows, perhaps we’re more of the former and less of the latter. After all, “people in this country have had enough of experts”, according to Michael Gove. We just want strong emotive narratives to ignite our passions.

In politics, this can be worrying. But it underlines something that has always been true. Stories aren’t just entertaining – they’re essential. They form who we are, how we feel and what we do.

Many people think telling stories is easy. Ironically, this is because the best storytellers make it look so effortless. But it takes a certain mindset and dedication that doesn’t always come easily. Furthermore, to tell stories that deliver a moral, message or call to action is even tougher.

While I was running a recent storytelling session, someone asked me how they could get into a storytelling mindset to support their communications. My answer was simple. Concentrate on the negative. Instead of telling people what your brand offers, focus on the problems people face. Instead of saying “we help people do X”, say “people do X badly”.

While this is wildly simplistic, it’s perhaps the most important thing communicators can do to start the journey towards becoming a storyteller. By focusing on a drama or challenge your audiences faces, you stand a chance of engaging with them in a way they will understand and want to learn more about.

But far too few communicators do this. They rush to show off everything their product or service can do. They sound like the loud mouth at a party who can’t stop talking about themselves: how big their house is, how fast their car is and how beautiful their wife is. No one cares. No one listens.

Don’t be that person.

To be a master storyteller is to wield great power. As Plato said: “Those who tell stories rule society.” If this is the case, as communicators we should never forget the power of stories to engage audiences and drive action.

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