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The Importance of Story, Part 2: Characters and Narrative

February 10, 2015
Welcome back to Public Information. Last month I began the new year by introducing the concept of telling your community stories through narrative. This month I want to get into the nuts and bolts of how you do this.

What I’m about to teach you is a basic skill taught to every professional journalist. When telling important information, frame it through the lens of personal experience.

Take this piece from the New Yorker. This story is actually about the barely-reported Armenian genocide of the early 20th century (heavy stuff, I know – sorry). Now the author could hit you with just the facts – the millions killed, the generations lost, the economic impact to World War I ear-Europe. But those things, while concrete, don’t elicit much response. They’re just facts, dates, names existing in forgotten times.

Instead, he talks about the people affected. He identifies universal characters and aspects (the love of one’s grandfather, a beautiful building – often a character in itself -- the yearning we all experience for retribution and belonging).

What this author does is build a complete story. He gives us people to identify with and situations loaded with metaphorical meaning we’ve all experienced at some time. In short – he built a narrative, and because he built a narrative, you remember the important data points. We can do this same thing with our government work.

Take, for example, a recent piece I did on a local sculptor who is building public art for a park renovation project in Milton. Normally, what matters in government is the cost and the product delivered. And yes, in fact, we are paying him for the work.

But what matters to everyone else in the city is the experience. What is this work? Where did it come from? Who built it? So let’s tell them a story (in video format, which I believe has the greatest potential for impact – again, something I’ll cover in subsequent columns).

Now, it just so happens that the sculptor, Michael Dillon, lives in Milton. He puts his heart and soul into every piece of art he produces, so let’s show residents the experience he hopes to create in their public space. Let’s show them the incredible amount of hard work and creativity he brings to literally every inch of that forged steel.

Here’s the thing: Now the cost doesn’t matter so much, right? Now the meaning of the final product is elucidated, and when residents experience it, they know its story. It’s not just a hunk of metal anymore – it’s a love letter from a resident to his community. And you’re not going to forget about how it was made or what it represents.

But we only know this because we introduced Michael the character and let him explain, through his actions, how he physically expresses his sense of community pride. Pretty neat, huh? That’s the power of storytelling. It’s what we’re built to do.

So stop thinking about reports and end products. Start thinking about people, about universal themes, about shared experience. That’s how you’re going to connect with your residents.

I’ll see you next month. 
Jason Wright is Communications Manager for the Georgia Tech Research Library. Up until November 2015, he was the Director of Innovation and Engagement for the City of Milton where he oversaw all aspects of the city's branding and communications efforts, including transparency, automation, design, photography, printing, web services and social media and public outreach.

Prior to Milton, Wright spent seven years working in the magazine and newspaper business. Most recently he was editor of both the Milton Herald and Alpharetta–Roswell Revue and News, where he wrote, edited, photographed for and oversaw design of the weekly papers. Prior to that, he worked as a writer, editor, designer and photographer for local, regional and national publication.