When you find yourself drawn into a good story, you can bet it incorporates at least one of three themes that we as humans seem programmed to care about.  It’s the tension between the polar opposites in these themes that keeps us interested, and understanding them can help you reach your stakeholders more effectively.

  1. Survival versus death. This is the ultimate one. We will pay attention to any story that might help us learn how to stay alive.  And we care not just about biological survival but also economic survival (Will I have enough money to live well in my retirement?) and psychological survival (Can I get through this crisis without losing who I am as a person?)
  2. Empowerment versus powerlessness. We want to have control of our own lives, and we hate to see the little guy oppressed by those at the top.
  3. Connection versus isolation. Love. Family. Friends. Community. We are social creatures, and we need to connect. We need to be part of something. This extends not just to other people but also to understanding how we fit within the universe or the ecosphere.

A really great story is built on all three of these themes. Pick any movie that has attracted a large audience and you’ll find them.  Let’s take the 1997 film Titanic as an example. Even if it’s not one of your favourites, it did hold the record as the highest-grossing film of all time for 12 years, until Avatar knocked it off the perch in 2010.

In Titanic, we want to know if Jack and Rose and the others on the ship will survive the night, even though for most of them we already know the answer. (Survival versus death.) We want to know if working-class Jack can succeed in spite of those who want to keep him in his place, and if Rose can break free of the constraints of her wealthy society. (Empowerment versus powerlessness.) We want to know if Jack and Rose will be able to be together. (Connection versus isolation.)

These questions keep us watching the movie for 3 hours and 14 minutes.  If it was just some impressive cinematography of the ship, not even my engineer father and brother would stick with it for that long.

Now, if you work in research or technology, you may be wondering how this can help you communicate more effectively with your audience.  Where is the love story in data storage, after all?

But if it’s an activity that someone cares enough about to fund and work on, these themes will be there somewhere.  

Does the data storage help to enable cancer research? Survival versus death. 

Does the network let children in remote areas gain access to a better education? Empowerment versus powerlessness. 

Does the high performance computing help astronomers find out more about the vast universe surrounding this little speck of a planet we live on? Connection versus isolation.

Find at least one of these themes, and you have found the key to connecting with your stakeholders.