Ann Handley on Telling a Great Story

November 2, 2018

Ann Handley arrived to the Conference armed with her favorite book by her favorite author — E.B. White’s “Charlotte’s Web.”

She started her energetic General Session on Oct. 9 with a discussion of the children’s classic from 1952, using it to frame a larger discussion on storytelling.

“‘Charlotte’s Web’ opens with the best line in literature anywhere,” said Handley, who’s a Boston-based content strategist and digital marketer. “‘Where’s Papa going with that ax?’”

That line, spoken by a little girl named Fern Arable, invites curiosity and sets up the tension in the pages ahead, said Handley, the author of several acclaimed books, including “Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content.”

She believes the ensuing plotline is of particular interest to professional communicators. As the tale goes, Fern spares Wilbur, a piglet and runt of the litter, from her father’s ax. Wilbur eventually goes to live in the barn owned by Fern’s uncle, Homer Zuckerman. There, Wilbur befriends a barn spider named Charlotte, who takes it upon herself to spare the pig’s life by writing messages in her web that attract local publicity and inspire the admiration of the county residents. 

Handley listed two reasons why the book is so important for PR professionals. For starters, it’s the narrative. “It’s a kid’s story supposedly — but it’s not,” she said. “It’s a beautiful story. [White] does a great job with very spare language and weaving this very beautiful story.”

Then there’s Charlotte’s work. “Her job was to save Wilbur’s life — to change the perception of her brand, Wilbur,” Handley said. “This started with a crisis — this pig was going to die.

“[Charlotte] wasn’t just getting people to sign up for an email list or download a white paper or any of the things that communicators and marketers have to do,” Handley said. “She was trying to save a life. In my mind, she is the world’s best PR professional. This is essentially the most brilliantly executed integrated marketing campaign ever.”

A Maine state of mind

One lesson from the book is to move — metaphorically — to rural Maine, where “Charlotte’s Web” is set. It’s also where White relocated his family after growing tired of the stressful New York City life, a place that allowed him to concentrate on his actual writing and not get caught up in the day-to-day rigors of being a journalist and author.

“The most important way to think about any communications strategy is to be that storyteller first and PR person second,” Handley said.

As she put it, “There’s a lot of noise out there. There’s a lot of content we are producing. Stories being told about brands.” And how effective is it? Research by her company, MarketingProfs, shows that only 35 percent of communicators feel as if their content actually produces results.

“We’re too focused on getting as much stuff out there as we can,” she said. “We keep telling the stories, we publish the blog posts. At some point, we think something’s going to change. It doesn’t change.”

She talked about communicators who feel as if they have to keep producing content “because we always publish a blog post on Tuesday … or we have some bucket to fill.”

Instead, Handley suggested thinking this way: “What does our audience need from us? What can we provide that they will value, that they will love? This is exactly what we need to be doing.”

She also discussed the value of “pathological empathy,” the move to gaining a deeper sense of who our audience is and helping them with something that will give them value.

And this isn’t about having them be part of the conversation your organization and brand is looking to have.

“You don’t want to be part of it — you want to lead it,” she said. “You need to figure out for you and your brand … figure out [what] will resonate, and you want to lead that conversation.”

Handley never strayed far from “Charlotte’s Web” during her 45-minute talk. Another lesson from the book for communicators is to remember to “find the ax.”

“This is where the best stories live. Find the ax. Find the problem,” Handley said. “If you find the challenge, then you find the story. You can’t have a story without a problem.”

John Elsasser

John Elsasser is the editor-in-chief of Strategies & Tactics. He joined PRSA in 1994.



Thomas George Campbell, III, APR+M says:

Great article. Wish I would have been there to hear her session.

Nov. 28, 2018

Post a Comment

Editor’s Note: Please limit your comments to the specific post. We reserve the right to omit any response that is not related to the article or that may be considered objectionable.


To help us ensure that you are a real human, please type the total number of circles that appear in the following images in the box below.

(image of six circles) + (image of four circles) =