The Vonnegut Approach to PR

While watching a YouTube clip of a presentation given by the late American writer Kurt Vonnegut in 2005 I was struck by the simplicity of effective story telling.  For his presentation Vonnegut presented his audience with a blank blackboard onto which he drew two lines; a G-I axis: good fortune-ill fortune and a B-E axis: B for beginning, E for end.  He also explained that the average human experience lay somewhere in the middle and that the majority of stories can be represented by drawing a line between the two.  What was most impressive about the presentation was that as he started to draw a line his audience could guess the story he was referring to.  From Cinderella to Hamlet the stories were represented through the simple graph on the blackboard.


What this shows is the simplistic beauty of a compelling story.  As PR professionals, working across many varying industries and sectors, we are challenged with telling our client’s story to an external audience in a manner that garners attention and interest.  This can be an easy task when we are presented with fascinating raw material or a hard news angle but there are occasions when it is more challenging as there may not be an immediate news angle or the subject matter may be complex, turgid or specialised.  The question is, how to make it compelling?

On closer examination Vonnegut’s graph is a simple reflection of the human experience and as such it is easy for the average person to relate to it.  Good and bad fortune with a beginning and end is the daily journey we embark on as we drag our groggy heads out of the bed each morning and launch ourselves ‘once more unto the breach’.    While we may not experience such tumultuous days as Cinderella or Hamlet we do meet our own ups and downs and have to greet good and bad fortune and ‘treat those two imposters just the same’.

To follow Vonnegut’s graph we must develop compelling PR stories that our audience can relate to.   For our purposes we can replace the fortune axis with a C-S axis: challenge-solution.  This way we can present our client’s story in a way that the reader can recognise in their own everyday experience.  Each one of us is faced with challenges and in the face of these challenges we find solutions.

What makes us relevant and important to our clients is our ability to identify the challenges that our clients face, like the launch of a new product, a change of senior management, crisis situation, the discovery of a new innovation, and tell that story to its resolution.   This results in strong media coverage, positive word-of-mouth, or in certain cases the cessation of a difficult communications issue.

What is concurrent throughout is the rules of story-telling remain the same.  You must identify the story arc, the rise and fall of the line between the challenge and solution, and plot it against its beginning and end.   As we sit with our clients and listen to them talk about their organizational goals and day to day operations we must constantly be thinking about the story arc. We can identify the treasure trove of stories that may not be as obvious to an insider.

The questions we must ask ourselves are; how would the line move across the blackboard?  What is our client’s ‘man in hole’ story that people will pay attention to and react to and how did the story change over time?  The simple beauty of our profession is that once the story formed and you can visualise the story arc then pitching the story is the easy part and the result is pleasing to all concerned.


Click here to watch Kurt Vonnegut’s Youtube video