PR = Persuade Responsibly: The Science and Ethics of Innovation Storytelling


Thinkstock “With great power comes great responsibility.” Not only was this Uncle Ben’s transformational advice to Spiderman, it remains a particularly applicable adage when it comes to technology PR.

The science of persuasion has been around since Cicero, and his influence on modern-day PR is palpable to those who appreciate that sort of thing. There have since been several modern articulations of the science of influence, including the six universal principles of persuasion outlined by Dr. Robert Cialdini of ASU.

In recent months, there’s been a tidal wave of attention given to the additional power that storytelling brings to persuasive communications. And when the story is picked up and repeated by a community of influential people—what B&O calls “viral storytelling”—we move from a mere marketing campaign to becoming a movement.

But sometimes, it’s tempting to get caught up in the power of the story we’re telling without stopping to think through where the story will take us. One recent example of this is the downfall of a well-intentioned electric vehicle infrastructure company, Better Place, as detailed in a recent Fast Company article. Not only did Better Place build up a compelling set of messages and multi-faceted narrative, but it also established an entire corporate mythology around one core mission statement: to end the world’s addiction to oil. Sadly, the story outpaced the reality, and ironically, while the broader vision for EV infrastructure is being realized today, the company itself wasn’t a necessary component of its own vision. Ultimately the story—and the company—collapsed.

This is another example of Dr. Cialdini’s counsel that the science of persuasion needs to be applied ethically and honestly. That’s why it’s important to embark on any technology storytelling exercise with a few important ground rules firmly in place:

  1. True—all claims must be defensible with evidence
  2. Compelling—the story needs to resonate emotionally and consider the human impact of the technology
  3. Intuitive—the story needs to be understandable by non-techies so they can appreciate its potential and participate meaningfully in the discussion
  4. Differentiating—the story needs to add something new to the existing discussion and avoid merely jumping on the latest bandwagon
  5. Validated—the story needs to include a discerning view from impartial, external experts
  6. Viral—the story needs to include compelling, open-ended questions that invite genuine discussion and examination

Stories have the power to shape behavior on an individual, corporate, industry and even global level. Storytellers—good ones—have an enormous impact on how technologies are perceived and used. Given the importance of using all our existing resources intelligently, it’s nice to know that technology PR professionals are in a position to help the world truly become a better place.