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The Importance of Story

January 14, 2015
Hello, and welcome back to Public Information. My plan, over the next few months, is to kick off the new year with an exciting and engaging concept for sharing information about your community. It takes many forms (as you will see over the next few months), but the basic idea is simple: build a story.

What do I mean by this? I mean take the things your city or county is doing, identify characters and themes, and tell a story that explains the outcomes of all the work.

What do I not mean by this? Producing report after report of boring, dry information in spreadsheet form (you know, the kind for which governments are known).

It’s pretty intuitive if you really stop and think about it. What generates the biggest response – the actual mission reports of Apollo 13, or the movie? Unless you’re a rocket scientist, I’m guessing you connect emotionally with the characters and tremendous adventure of the film over the 950 page mission log (which is available here, by the way, if you’re a space nerd like me).  

Here’s the thing: they both contain essentially the same information, just presented differently. One is compelling, the other is complete. I’m not saying one is better than the other, and in fact, they can both service very important purposes in different ways. However, if our job as government communicators is to actively engage our residents and stakeholders, do we not owe it to them to offer the information in the most compelling way?
I’ll give you an example taken from my own work. Our firefighters serve the city every day in myriad ways. I can report their call volume, their lives- and property-saved ratios, their maintenance numbers all day every day. We have the data, and it’s all public record. However, no one will care. It’s all just numbers on a sheet.

But what if I identify a small story that shows just how committed they are to our residents, the community and the environment? It doesn’t have a lick of data in it – just good feelings. But it creates that gut connection with our residents and says everything we would ever need about the importance of duty and service in our Fire Department.

Here’s just such a video:


You’ll notice is been viewed by a couple hundred people. I know that’s not a huge, unbelievable amount – but it’s certainly more than would ever sort through a spreadsheet or fire incident reports. And it just keeps racking up views the longer it sits on our YouTube channel.

Now, how I made the video will be covered in subsequent columns. And next month I’ll talk about identifying characters, narrative arcs and emotional plot points. But just for this month, I want you to stop and think about some great stories in your community. How much response do you think you’d get if you told these instead of dry reports?

That’s it for January. I’ll see you next month. 
JASON WRIGHT
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.