Poppy Magazine
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Poppy Magazine

Humour makes us human

To sell your brand, you need to know your story. But you don’t just dream up your story: you come to discover it. You must share the stories of the individuals who make up your organisation. To share them, you must tell them well. And to tell them well, you need to be authentic, relatable and believable. Humour can help, says Fiona Herbert

Words: Fiona Herbert
Photograph: Rex Shutterstock

Storytelling isn’t lecturing. It does give information, and it might give advice, but it’s not crammed full of facts and figures. The most important thing is that it engages. With brand storytelling you need to know your brand, your missions, your values, your culture, your history and, of course, your audience. You need to know the point of your story, and you need to know how to craft it. In order to let me help you tell your stories, I’ll tell you mine.

I moved to Scotland 10 years ago. I’d been living in London, where I’d moved under the impression that it would be glamorous. It wasn’t. I lived in Hackney — before the gentrification.

I found the Scottish Storytelling Centre when I was looking for a fudge shop. I asked: “A storytelling centre? Is that a thing?” It was. Up until that point I’d been a teacher, and although I do love teaching, I’ve always loved writing and acting. Here, I could get back into being creative. I loved the immediacy that storytelling can offer you. It’s an immediate art form, and one that can establish bonds between you and your audiences.

So I set about finding out how to become a storyteller. I was told I needed a wide repertoire of tales, with experience telling to a wide range of audiences in a wide range of locations.

On the buses

About that time I discovered that Edinburgh Bus Tours were looking for tour guides. “Brilliant,” I thought. “It will all be covered in the training, and there’ll be a wide range of audiences — adults and children and people of different nationalities. It’ll also cover a wide range of locations because we’ll be moving!”

I went along to the training and had to learn a lot of facts, and then tootle around Edinburgh rehearsing before sitting an exam. I passed, was awarded a baseball cap, and was finally ready to tell stories to a paying audience.

On my first day I greeted the driver with enthusiasm: “Hi! I’m Fiona, what’s your name?”

“The driver,” he drolly replied, after an excruciating pause.

Now, this was a very angry man. He had been working for the company for several years, and hour after hour, day after day, month after month, he’d listened to the same snippets of stories. It had done him some damage. As a result, whenever we got to an area of Edinburgh that was particularly crammed with historical interest, he would accelerate.

But could you blame him? This is how the script opens: “Waverley Bridge. 1894–1896. Engineered by Cunningham and Westland. Built on 42 cast iron columns, it incorporates the heart of the original metal bridge of 1870 built by the railway company’s chief architect, J.H. Bell, which in turn replaced the original bridge of around 1845, probably by W.H. Playfair.”

Learned by heart. I lasted one summer. Latterly my driver had been replaced by a new man whose wife had set up a walking tour company, so I joined her, and I learned a very important thing: get to know your audience.

Relating to your audience

Instead of having to stick to a script in front of large groups of strangers, I would have small groups of people. I would be able to find out where they were from, what they were interested in, their ages, their nationalities, and I could tailor my stories to suit them. I could also go at my own pace; I didn’t have to rush. I left out all of the facts and dates and names and statistics, and I told the stories.

I started, then, to build up on my experience in schools, libraries, pubs, festivals, and was eventually listed in the Professional Directory of the Scottish Storytelling Centre as a professional storyteller. There was a problem though: I was developing a reputation as a historical storyteller, and that wasn’t what I ever had in mind. I missed being funny.

In 2011 I entered a competition called Tall Tales. It’s an annual competition in which the audience votes for the best story. I invented a story using a series of lies about Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. I looked at all the names of the closes, got them in the right order and created a narrative based on false reasons for all their names. It was clever, it was imaginative, it was original. But it didn’t win.

That’s because it wasn’t relatable

I have since learned that if you want to get that laughter that really connects you with your audience, you have to give them something to which they can relate. To really bond, laughter comes from recognition. That type of humour bypasses all the defence and logic of the left brain and goes into the right brain where we really live — the home of our imagination and emotions. If you can connect with your audience that way, they can really connect with your stories. And this can come in any number of formats, not just getting up and telling a story.

I told a story that year at The Stand comedy club in Edinburgh. It was a true story of how my sentimental delusions about dolphins had been shattered when I was beaten up by one. I sustained a hairline fracture. I also endured wearing a rubber wetsuit that made me look like a badly crafted black pudding.

If you want to get that laughter that really connects you with your audience, you have to give them something to which they can relate. To really bond, laughter comes from recognition.

I got quite a few laughs, but you may be wondering what the audience could relate to in that story; not many of them had swum with wild dolphins or sustained hairline fractures having been beaten up by one. But there was something to which they could relate: the shattered delusions and the humiliation. We’ve all had delusions shattered at some point, and we’ve probably all been humiliated before, so these were common emotions to which the audience could relate. The audience was laughing at my expense; no doubt a ridiculous mental image was created. But look at advertising — the best adverts I know mix the ridiculous with the relatable.

A mutual enemy

The following year, I signed up to Tall Tales again. This time I was going to be relatable. I was going to use a mutual enemy, a mutual foe, a source of hatred which we could all share: Edinburgh Trams.

I created a story called ‘Tramworks Troll’ in which I encountered a troll that had been made homeless by the excavations of the tramworks going on in the city. I met her, and I was going to help her. I found her refuge at the sewage works, but she asked me if she could stay with me until Edinburgh Council stopped digging up the roads.

At that point I knew I’d won the competition; at the time, nobody in Edinburgh thought the council was ever going to stop digging up the roads. The laughter came down, and I went away the winner, but my point is this: it wasn’t the idea of the troll that won me the award; in fact, the troll wasn’t actually relevant at all. The common frustration that we all had against Edinburgh Trams, however, was. If you can create a story that creates bond and emotion, your credibility will soar.

Don’t pitch: entertain

Is humour always appropriate, though? Well, they say that just about any story can be told as either comedy or tragedy, and sometimes laughter isn’t the best medicine; if you’re entertaining on a hernia ward, it’s probably not appropriate.

But I think the times when humour is completely inappropriate are rare. You’ll find that within just about every story there is going to be some gentle humour. People tire of anger and sadness. Yet we are faced by the horror of this world daily; how quickly compassion fatigue sets in when we open up a newspaper today.

If you can create a story that creates bond and emotion, your credibility will soar.

Humour is quite a way to go instead. It has been used to sell life insurance. It has been used to raise awareness of bowel cancer too. Humour works. In advertising, it establishes rapport. It makes adverts memorable. It helps comprehension and likeability. Audiences prefer to be entertained rather than pitched to.

I’m not telling you how to advertise — there are agencies for that. What I can tell you, though, is that you need to know your stories before you even approach agencies, and the best way to learn them is by listening to everyone in your organisation, from the cleaner to the CEO. Only then will you evolve and learn from your mistakes. Ask your colleagues and your clients questions that don’t involve one-word answers but rather ones that inspire stories. It’s no secret: people love to tell stories.

I’ll end with a short tale of my own. A while back I was telling stories in an old folks’ home. They hadn’t been getting on that well with one another — there were frequent rows and many tears. The manager had asked me to come in and tell stories. I told a few and then asked them for theirs. One of them had been a night warden in Clydebank during World War II. Another had been a housemaid at Holyrood Palace. Another shared a recipe for fruitcake that her mum used to use. They all started bonding with each other. The only reason they had had so many arguments before was because they had never heard each other’s stories.

As I was leaving the manager said: “That was great — I never get to hear any of these stories until I’m at their funerals because there simply isn’t time.” But we should always find the time. In storytelling, the best humour can bond us and help us make sense of life. When life is at its cruellest, it can be used as a salve. It can be used to defend or attack. A joke is the shortest distance between two people. Humour makes us human.

This story is taken from the third issue of Poppy. Our print run is strictly limited but, if you are based in the UK, you can request a printed copy via the ReadPoppy.com website.

Fiona Herbert is an award-winning storyteller who offers performance coaching and narrative consultation. She runs storytelling and creative writing workshops for children, and for adults provides training in storytelling for both personal and professional development. She helps both commercial and non-profit organisations develop their own stories and the skills to tell them well. Visit www.fionaherbert.co.uk for more information and to get in touch.

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