Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today. —Robert McKee
The other day I heard 4 radio commercials in a row. The first three were fecund with facts: operating hours, street addresses, phone numbers, websites, prices, and free-parking. I can't tell you who the advertisers were. The fourth commercial was short on fact, but long on story. I was instantly engaged and focused. The advertiser was "The ROOFA" (That's how we pronounce The Roofer in Maine) and this commercial is June's Best Local Commercial in Portland Radio. Listen now:
The Roofa demonstrates the wisdom of investing 150 words of a radio commercial into story rather than facts. Despite the exponential increase in the methods for disseminating information, our brains have taken a much slower evolutionary track. We still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense of the experience. For instance, the whole bible can be distilled into 10 commandments but it takes the 775,746 words in the stories of the bible to cement the 10 commandments into our imagination. We still make sense of the night sky by infusing stories into the random distribution of stars. Effective radio commercials do exactly the same thing.
I asked Donna Galluzzo, Executive Director of The Salt Institute for Documentary Studies, for her critique of The Roofa commercial. The Salt Institute teaches the art of storytelling to writers, radio producers, and photographers. Here are her thoughts:
Dan Wilson's radio commercial for The Roofa works because it has some of the most basic and necessary elements of good storytelling. Dan is a believable narrator and main character. You can tell his accent is the "real deal" and not a put on or bad rendition of what your typical "Maine-ah" sounds like.
Dan pulls the listener in right away by sharing a true memory from his childhood. Because his story is a memory that many of us can relate to, we can both feel a bond with as well as trust the storyteller. A key element when you are looking for "believability." Using the names of stores and brands that did and still do exist, Dan once again creates trust and believability in his storytelling. That makes us want to keep listening and it keeps our ears keen - after all who knows if we are going to hear mention of some place or some thing that we experienced living and growing up in Maine, just as Dan did. And finally, Dan uses humor throughout his commercial. This is one of the best ways to keep your audience's attention and to entertain, which is what great storytelling is about after all - entertaining the listener.
Here are five tips for telling a story that can help create effective radio commercials in the fashion of the Roofa. These tips appeared in a New York Times Blog that discussed the work of expert storytellers William Lee and Rick Patrick:
1. Keep it simple. The brain gets overwhelmed when trying to process too much information.
2. Openings and closings are very important. When Master Lee and Mr. Patrick organize their shows, they make sure to begin and end the evenings with their strongest material since this is often what stays with the listener.
3. Be mindful of your story’s spine. If your story has six parts, all six parts must be essential. Beware of tangents: if something goes too far astray, you will probably lose your audience’s attention.
4. Make sure not to alienate your audience. When speaking about delicate subjects or things that have the potential to offend, carefully plan your approach. Mr. Patrick tells a story about a pedophile priest in his hometown, but he has crafted the story in a way that draws listeners in before he reveals the sensitive details. “When I was 15, something happened in my hometown that you don’t mention,” he begins. Later he draws the audience in further by adding, “You all know you had one in your hometown, too.”
5. Tell the truth. According to Mr. Patrick and Master Lee, if you are not telling the truth, listeners will know. “A certain amount of lying is ingrained in the business world,” Mr. Patrick said. “We’ve all heard ‘everything is fine’ right before the company’s demise.” In those instances, it’s a good idea to look for an excess of jargon. Remember, good stories can be told in simple language.
I'm not sure if The Roofa is a fan of Rudyard Kipling, but The Best Commercial of The Month reflects one of Kipling's great quotes, “If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten.”