November 14, 2018

What are the ingredients of great storytelling?

Jenny Dyson, Ruler and Creative Director of Pencil, a creative agency specializing in brand storytelling in the UK, shares her experiences turning content from one conference into a rich, multi-channel story for her client, One Small Thing. She also shares practical advice for nonprofit communicators looking to translate their organization’s work into clear, compelling, and authentic stories.


Sarah: Welcome back to the Smart Communications Podcast, I’m your host Sarah Durham. I’m here today with one of my oldest friends, Jenny Dyson. Welcome Jenny.

Jenny: Thank you for having me, hello.

Sarah: Jenny is the ruler of Pencil, which is an agency in the UK. Tell us about Pencil.

Jenny: We are a creative agency specializing in brand storytelling. We focus on narratives of all kinds. So, it could be a branding exercise where it’s a visual narrative, it could be that we create a whole narrative for a content strategy across and entire season for a fashion retailer. Storytelling comes in many forms so we try and meet as many of the clients needs as we can, so long as there is some kind of narrative that goes with it.

Sarah: So Jenny and I have known each other since we were maybe eleven years old, we go way back. Maybe even

Jenny: I think it might be even more than that.

Sarah: Maybe earlier than that. We’ve lived this kind of parallel lives and when we get together, which we try to do regularly although she lives and works in London and I live and work in Brooklyn, we compare notes and we talk about what’s happening in the communications world, what happening in the branding world. And, while I mostly work with non-profits and she works with some non-profits we find there’s often a lot of overlap, and a lot of good lessons to learn. One of the things we were discussing recently is the idea of taking an idea, taking a kernel of content and blowing it out into many different channels and telling that story in more three-dimensional ways. I think this is something you’re specially expert at, and actually there are a lot of great examples up on your website. What the URL, what’s Pencil’s website?

Jenny: It’s

Sarah:, we’ll link to it in the show notes. So, Jenny was telling me about a project that they’re working on for a non-profit in London.

Jenny: It’s in the UK.

Sarah: In the UK, called One Small Thing. So, tell us a little bit about that organization and about what you’re working on in terms of storytelling for them.

Jenny: Okay, so, I’m quite new to the project, so I’m still kind of learning about the charity itself. So, to talk about One Small Thing, rather than say it in my own words I’m going to talk about what it says from their point of view, because I might fudge it. So, One Small Thing works with staff in women’s prisons and in the community, developing approaches grounded in understanding fostering positive outcomes for all. And what they call that is trauma informed practice. So, my friend, Edwina, she established One Small Things to champion trauma informed practice with criminalized women. It’s run by the Center for Crime and Justice Studies.

Jenny: The reason I got involved was because I was having a conversation with Edwina about what she was doing. She was on her way to a conference where she had a friend from America who she’d met who works in prisons, she’s a psychotherapist and many other things, a hugely impressive woman in her 70’s, who she’d met while traveling and visiting prisons in the U.S. She was doing some research to find out how women, specifically, are treated in prisons. Stephanie runs an incredible program, its called Healing Through Trauma. And, what One Small Thing is doing is trying to education people who work in the prison system to really help them understand trauma. And to start thinking first of trauma rather than first of this person is a criminal.

Jenny: There’s huge amounts of misogyny in the prison system. We know prison is a horrible place, we all know that, but there are certain things that goes beyond what’s humane, I think. And that’s what I found so extraordinary hearing some of the stories that she was telling me about what she’d witnessed. About a prison in America where there had been a training session set up, and it’s encouraged that the residents of the prison also help learn about trauma, it’s not just about the prison workers, it about the residents. There was an awards ceremony for the residents who had passed this incredible training. And the people who were being given the certificates by Edwina were all in cages, and they were in a space where she couldn’t talk to them all at once because they were all in these cages. They had all experienced something really humanizing but then there was this terrible kind of disconnect of, well hang on what’s going on here, this is not how to treat people.

Jenny: So what I think One Small Thing is about, is just, if you offered a cup of tea it makes all the difference. If you have someone say to you “How was your day?”, it makes all the difference. Those sorts of principles, basic principles of kindness, should apply in prisons as much as in the real world. So that’s something she’s trying to help, and that sounds very basic but it goes much deeper than that.

Sarah: So, they had a conference and you had this idea to go to the conference and film it and capture content from this conference, and then kind of blow it out across a lot of channels and tools. What was your vision for that?

Jenny: Yeah, I went to one of the session that they had in London and the presentation was so moving and so inspiring to me, as someone who doesn’t work in the prison system. I suddenly thought, God this goes way beyond what this charity is about and the kind of direct consumer of this information, who are the people in the prison and criminal justice system. This is fascinating, and its really moving. I think this should be a series of content episodes. We should record the next training session. We should turn it into a podcast series. We should film it like a Ted Talk. We could even make a book from it.

Jenny: Now I think because I am basically a writer, that’s how I trained, I trained as a writer and a photographer originally on newspapers in America. It just felt like a no brainer that we should take that opportunity to go and cover it as much as we could. We also grabbed people who were in the audience, we ask for their permission to photograph them, we interviewed them about the day. So, that’s a whole load of content as well that we have, where we’ve got case studies for people that we can then put on the website, or we can run it in the newsletter. I had this crazy idea about the whole Instagram thing. And then I asked the people in the audience, what’s the best way to communicate with you guys, how should One Small Thing speak to you, what’s the best platform. Is it Instagram, is it online, what is it? And they were like well, we’re not allowed Instagram or social channels in prisons. So, I was just like, okay. So obviously things like that you don’t necessarily realize.

Sarah: There’s a few lessons in what you’re saying too, I want to tease out. Because I think that there’s so many organizations where when you go and you experience the program, you go to the training, you go on a tour of a facility. Any direct service organization has real life things happening with the people they work with that are deeply moving. And many organizations organize events around that, or tours, or things like that, ways to bring that moving direct service experience to all kinds of people. It’s challenging to do, because you don’t want to tokenize anybody who’s in the program. But, if it’s a training or facility where people can go, that’s one of the most persuasive ways to help people connect with the mission. And in your case, because you’re a creative person, and you think as a copywriter, as a filmmaker, or as an editor, as a storyteller. You sit in those kinds of things and you think about all the ways this story can be told.

Sarah: So one of the questions we get asked sometimes is, my board member has a marketing team, how can I get those people to do pro bono work for us, or how can I get my cousin who’s a great filmmaker to connect more. I think this a good example of one of the things anybody who’s got those kinds of resources can do, is just bring those people to the experiences, put them in it and let them brainstorm. And you also did on the fly market research, right? You were talking to one of their primary audiences and asking them what channels and tools do you use, what’s the best way to reach you. And probably got better insights from five minutes of talking directly to people in this, then you might have gotten any other way.

Jenny: Yeah. It was great to just be able to stand in front of the audience who they’re speaking to and are targeting, and just have that conversation. It just cut out a whole lot of potentially wasted time, resource

Sarah: Surveys and time spent designing stuff

Jenny: Audits. So it’s like, oh, okay now we know they already do newsletters. It means we can create some really lovely, rich content for the newsletter system. And everyone in the audience was like, yeah, we can’t wait, it’s gonna be great. It’s nice to involved people too. I think a lot of the times it doesn’t matter if you’re a not profit or if you’re a retail business, it’s really good to involve the customer, the client, it’s important to have all those people in your plan. And certainly for me my ethos has always been, in terms of when you’re helping people sell a product, put the customer at the heart of your story. You know, put them in the middle of it, put them in the center and think, how do they want to consume this, what’s the best way to reach them, how can we engage with them, how can we get them to emote, how can we inspire them. Because if you don’t have that then you don’t really have a story, then how are people going to connect to what you’re trying to do.

Sarah: Storytelling is a kind of an over used term. In some places I feel like there are a lot of conferences to talk about that, and things like that.

Jenny: I think that’s because content is such and awful word. Content has to fill websites, that’s really where it came from, is what’s the content in the website and plan. And story sounds so much better because it humanizes it. But now, yes, you’re right. People have jumped on it, so you get all these influences who are storytellers. And actually they’re just telling their own narcissistic story of how fabulous they are, that’s not, well it is story telling but it’s

Sarah: So what are the ingredients of a great story. If you’re a communications staff person and you’re trying to think about how to tell compelling stories. One ingredient is humanity, telling a story that feels authentic and real to the people that you serve or the communities you serve. Does there always have to be sort of a problem and a solution? Does a good story always have that narrative ark of a challenge and a success? Or are there other shortcuts to great storytelling that you’d like to use?

Jenny: Oh gosh, without drilling down too much, I think I’m might be a bit broader than that. Yes, as you say, there has to be humanity. You have to make it feel real, so there has to be authenticity to it. The other thing that I think is really important, as much as that, is that you have to have a point of view. You have to have something going on that is your messages. So yes, if you want to tell a story about things that you have achieved, there are many different ways to do that. You could do it, as you suggest, which is a little bit of jeopardy and turning something bad into something good. That’s a really clever way of doing it because it takes you on a journey. To case studies, where you can show the effectiveness of something, I think that’s a really clever way of doing it because then you bring the humanity into it.

Jenny: I think it’s about originality, I think it’s about USP. As a brand, as a business, what’s your USP? So, every time you’re coming up with a story it has to feel fresh, so that’s just giving it a new point of view.

Sarah: One of the pressures we try to put on non-profits, is to try to communicate in ways that are audience centric, not organization centric. A lot of organizations when they start to tell their stories, they tell a story where we do this, we do that, we do this, we do that. Whereas, in the kinds of stories I think you’re talking about, maybe the client speaks about their journey and the role that the organization played on that journey. Or, the donor speaks about why they were moved to support this issue, or why they think this issues is so important. There’s the perspective of who’s telling the story, but when you shift the perspective and the person telling the story is really living it, in a human way, as opposed to having it done to them by an organization or something else.

Jenny: Yeah, you have to anchor it to the people.

Sarah: Right. It’s anchored in people, and it becomes human in a way where you move away from jargon. You don’t know the jargon of the prison industrial complex, I’m sure that your friend who started this organization does.

Jenny: Yes.

Sarah: And it’s good that you don’t know it, because a compelling story would not be laden with jargon.

Jenny: No. And, actually what I would say that One Small Thing does. One Small Thing is trying to improve the lives of women within prisons, one small thing at a time. And that’s coming down to changing the actual criminal approach, so how women are treated.

Jenny: To give you an example, this is something that really struck me. When thinking about trauma and women who have experience abuse, all kind of terrible things, the triggers for women are; I’m sure you can imagine what the triggers might be, but for example, being restrained, being shouted at. These basic things that happen to them all the time in the prison system, that which maybe are a trigger point for some terrible trauma that might have happened to them that has got them into this place and into this situation in the first place. So, being able to understand that and being able to convey that in a way, to tell that story. You have to speak your truth, you have to be true about it, you have to have really genuine examples of this is a situation, here is a story, here is an example of this happening.

Jenny: You also have to be able to tell it, as you were saying, from different perspectives. So, the person who is the expert, it’s always good to have the person that has the evidence that it can show this is what can happen. But, also the person that it’s happened to, because then you can have both sides. And obviously from a kind of branding point of view, and kind of being an editor, you want the narrative art to be able to be held within the organization. So your tone of voice is really important as well.

Jenny: There are some charities in England, there’s one called Comic Relief, which is completely amazing. What they do is they make people laugh. They use humor to raise money for really serious, really traumatic things. Famine in Africa, all kinds of deprivations in the UK, kind of myriad of things that they will then use that money for. But Comic Relief, such a clever thing. It’s not what you would expect.

Sarah: Yeah, and a great way to tell an authentic story. Right?, to use comedy. So, if you were advising somebody who was running day to day communications at a small organization, or a large organization, but just didn’t have a big budget or a lot of resources to take an idea and figure out how to tell that story. Are there any tips or tricks that you would encourage them to think about?

Jenny: I would recommend a few things. One is, never underestimate the power of print. People talk about print dying. But, actually a poster, a flyer, you can post things through people’s letter box. That’s a really clever way to get your message out, and you get to control it that way. As long as your messaging has authenticity to it, and is compelling and has some kind of aesthetic joy to it; just because you might be doing something that’s about a very serious matter doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be thinking about presenting it in a joyful way. I mean, there’s a tension there. Isn’t there? You must have that when you’re doing all of your branding, but yeah, I would really think about print because that’s a very low cost, potentially.

Sarah: And an unexpected medium these days.

Jenny: Yeah. And, also tell your friends, tell your friends to tell your friends. Just keep talking about what you’re doing, because the next thing you know you might find someone who has a creative agency who might really want to help you tell your story because they are inspired by what you’re doing. Which is what’s happened with me.

Sarah: Yes. So the more you tell your story, the more you connect with other people who are excited by your story, the more people like Jenny surface and help you tell your story.

Jenny: Yeah. And ask for help too. If you don’t ask, you don’t get. If there are agencies, it’s worth looking at brands and seeing who are the brands that you love, who are the businesses that are telling good stories. It might be your local coffee shop, but you can always find clever case studies wherever you are and that might help inspire you. You might then think, oh, maybe I’ll just speak to them and do a collaboration with the coffee shop. Then next thing you know you’ve got some whole localized thing going for your venture.

Sarah: Or ask the coffee shop who does their marketing and maybe that agency will do some pro bono work, or some discounted work for you.

Jenny: I think especially when you’re working in commerce a lot, it’s a really refreshing thing to be able to work in the non-profit sector. It’s hugely inspiring and it feels good.

Sarah: Yeah. Great. Jenny Dyson. Thank you for joining me.

Jenny: Thank you for having me.