What do you want to make them feel?

When creating stories, we consider a few carefully chosen theories connected to human psychology and design thinking. A theory that we’ve most recently started experimenting with for storytelling is an ancient Indian performance arts theory. This is the Eastern theory of ‘rasa’. We started exploring the Rasa Theory because it directly involves evoking human emotions in the storytelling process.

Emotions are very important in decision-making and memory; Someone may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.

What a business makes a consumer feel is directly linked to how people remember that brand: It is also linked to how they connect desires and emotional needs to what that business has to offer. This is why we think emotions are especially relevant to storytelling for businesses, and why we are interested in the Rasa Theory.

‘Rasa’—defined closest in English as ‘aesthetic flavours’. Although recent to our storytelling experiments, the Rasa Theory is by no means new; It originated in India sometime between the first century BCE and the third century CE, from where it spread throughout the South Asian region and as far as Bali and the Javanese islands. Rasa is the aesthetic flavour contained in a creative work—it is not what is mentioned outright or described, but rather, evoked in the minds of the audience as moods created through a mix of emotions. The classical Rasa Theory describes nine rasas—sensuality (shringāra); humour (hāsya); sorrow (karunā); anger (raudra); heroic (vīra); terror (bhayānaka), disgust (bībhatsa); wonder (adbūtha), and tranquillity (shānta). These pure rasas make sense for the dramatic arts where emotions are heightened beyond the everyday and made universally intelligible. But, when we bring the Rasa Theory to storytelling, we look at a much wider spectrum. For example, bhayānaka rasa from apprehension to blood-curdling terror, or vīra rasa in expressions of power, confidence, as well as courage. We’re also observing the polarities of each rasa considering both the negative and the positive. This means we find karunā rasa not only in sorrow but also in empathy and compassion; while we see raudra evoked through retribution as much as fury.

Image: 2018, Anne-Marie Gaston. Bharatanatyam Evolves: From Temple to Theatre and Back Again. Manohar Publications

Even when we’re exploring beyond the original theory this way, we still find profound cues to each rasa expression in the art form where it was born—classical Indian drama. Dramatic expressions of each rasa are among our strongest cues to how they can be evoked; Like the shrinking expressions connected to bībhatsa which led us to discover it beyond the emotion of ‘disgust’ usually attributed to this rasa, and find it in evocations like humility. 

✺ Want to understand where we’re taking this in storytelling? Email hello@publicworks.store or sign up to our monthly email to get a taste of our storytelling (Subscribe: https://www.publicworks.store/).


When your business wants to speak emotions; Poetry for brand stories

Poetry is a powerful form of storytelling that goes beyond the peripheral layers of our mind to reach the more unconscious levels. This penetrating quality of poetry comes from the extreme emotivity inherent to the artform. Poetry triggers emotions through careful disposition of words. It is the mapping of a story felt in emotions with the use of words. We know how important emotions are in decision-making and memory; Someone may forget what you said, but they’re less likely to forget how you made them feel. This is the strength of a poem; This is where poetry and commercial storytelling begin to convene.

Poetry is a feeling-first artform. You work in the dark with your eyes closed, but your heart wide open. And, this is precisely why the heart also becomes the place where poetry meets the reader. 

Poems can trigger mental imagery, musical sounds and even a sense of place. A poem is an experience with the potential to surround and immerse. This is why a story delivered with  good use of poetics can be very successful in conveying the subtleties like value and desirability. For example, the poem below was created for a story which focused on a product with an unusually striking colour; it  worked as a way to draw attention to what made the product so desirable, in connection to emotions, scenarios and memories that the target audience would most likely associate with. 

The Sunday white walls,
the blue glass sky,
and the only man walking slowly down the narrow sea road—
all barely alive.
The cat, the houses, and the street
have all been put to sleep
in a warm, comfortable defeat
from the April heat.

But, the pink bougainvilleas!
Oh, those pink bougainvilleas!
They’re ringing dangerously wild, 
impossibly alive.

Bougainvillea pink— 
like laughter in the wind.

This poem was created to evoke a sense of fantasy and place. It aims to transport the reader and create a dream-like nostalgia for this place that we want them to visit and experience.

There’s a morning worth waking up to; but, it’s lost in the Eastern sky behind the Kabala trees.

And, you wonder what makes the peacocks cry the way they do; in a sound that is a union between beautiful and sorrowful, otherworldly and wild.

The old man who lives across the street said that peacocks belong with the spirit of the old god Kadira—a warrior turned forest-dweller, turned ascetic, turned deity.

The old man is a poet—so he must be right.

The ocean and the sunset are laws you learn to instinctively follow, when you’re living in the Deep South.

There’s something about showering under the palms.

There’s something about walking under the stars.

There’s something about sitting in nature with your heart held out.

There’s something, there’s something…

There’s something about Kabalana days.

When a brand uses poetry in its communication, it engages the audience directly through emotions, and this is great; But, is poetry for all brands? We don’t think so. Not all brand personalities are emotionally rich and diverse. When we work with clients, we first work out the framework of the brand personality before we get into creating any stories. Depending on the outlined brand personality and voice, we create stories that would be appropriate for the client’s company, and bear resonance with the identified target audience.

Poetry is not for every audience, nor brand. Is your brand an emotive one, or a more cerebral one? Does your audience have an affinity towards literature and the arts? These are some of the many questions you need to answer before using poetry in your brand stories. 

If you’d like to find out more about how we use poetry for brand stories, send me a message or reach out to my studio Public Works. We’re always happy to engage in a conversation that involves poetry, storytelling and business. 

Managing brand stories with sensitive messages

Sometimes, brands find themselves in dangerous waters when trying to engage their audience through emotionally-charged popular narratives. Often enough, we see businesses initiating or tagging onto sensitive conversations involving race, politics, skin colour and gender; some nail it, others damage their brand catastrophically, and most end up making their conversations seem unauthentic. Remember how the race to position themselves right within the Black Lives Matter movement came out for most brands? Those who did not filter the narrative through their own brand personality, or present it through their true views and ideas, had their audiences disengaged, and sometimes even enraged.

Back in 2017, this famous failure of a brand story sparked unanimous reactions of disappointment and had Pepsi cornered to an embarrassing withdrawal of the ad and a public apology. Composite. Pepsi Global/Youtube, HanorahHardy/Twitter

Engaging with popular narratives is a good thing to do; It shows that the brand is alive, current, listening and responding to the world that its consumers live in. But, not every brand can tag onto every narrative. It must be authentic; there must be history, connection or reason; And most importantly, it must be delivered right through the brand’s personality and tone of voice.

When we were working with Rithihi—one of Sri Lanka’s most beloved saree boutiques—it became important to engage with certain topics that were sensitive. At the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in India as the death tolls were sky-rocketing, it was insensitive to talk about the beauty of sarees handmade in areas like Banaras, Kanchipuram and Ludhiana, that were devastated with disease. It was important to address this, and convey the brand’s authentic emotions towards the catastrophe; However, it was a highly emotionally-charged topic and there was already growing criticism on how some brands were delivering their messages.

Public apology by Robt. & John Murray, NY, 1775 LCCN2002705582.jpg
1775, PPOC. Library of Congress

A well-articulated brand personality and voice are the most important tools you have when navigating through complex or sensitive narratives. They are your frameworks to be truthful and authentic.

We created a newsletter with stories that celebrated the skill and beauty of artisanal communities affected by the pandemic. The message was approached through Rithihi’s values, while the response to the situation was framed through the brand’s personality framework. The stories, as always, were delivered strictly through the established brand voice for Rithihi. As a result, the message was authentic in reflecting Rithihi’s true views and sentiments, and well-received; it led to creating many meaningful conversations between the brand and its audience.

Read the newsletter stories responding to the sensitive pandemic situation in India

These kinds of emotionally-charged narratives are where a brand’s true strength in communications is tested. Rithihi continues to have interesting and engaging conversations with its circle through relevant topics and narratives that really speak to people; The brand personality framework and the voice that we crafted for Rithihi have been the key tools in getting these stories right. This is why we often point to Rithihi as an example of a brand that effectively uses the tools that we developed to have meaningful conversations. If you want to find out more on how we consult and create stories to help brands navigate through complex narratives, send me a message.

Read more

Newsletter stories inspired by pandemic-driven new normal of weddings

Newsletter stories addressing lock-down induced business limitations

Endings—where stories leave the audience: Part one

I don’t judge a book by its cover, but I definitely judge it by the ending. I always read the ending of a book before I delve fully into it. If the ending is weak I usually become hesitant about investing my time on that book; And, I don’t think I’m alone there. 

There’s no question about the significance of endings when it comes to stories. From the perspective of the observer, the ending is their last interaction with the story—the place where they leave the created world in the story, and return to their reality; It’s their moment to decipher meaning out of the story experience; the final takeaway. From the storyteller’s perspective, it is the last impression you get to make in your audience’s mind. It’s what we leave the audience with; it’s where you send them off to arrive at meaning. 

1909, Meredith, George. The adventures of Harry Richmond published by Constable, London.

As storytellers, we pay special attention to the ending for two major reasons; First, because we owe the audience an ending that returns the value of the time they invested into the story. This is why weak endings—worse, lazy and inconsiderate endings like ‘it was all a dream’—break the trust between the audience and the storyteller; in the case of brand stories, you can see why consistently weak endings definitely harm the consumer perception of your business. The ending must deliver something worthwhile to the audience. The second reason why we pay special attention to endings in the storytelling process, is that it is the component that audiences most consistently retain. Think about how much you remember from the ending of your favorite movies versus their beginning. People usually remember endings better. In commercial storytelling, this is why the ending is where a prompt, also called a ‘call to action’, is most commonly brought in. 

If an audience invests time into a story, the storytellers must deliver an ending that reciprocates the value of their time. Weak endings break the trust between the audience and the storyteller. Your stories should never waste their time.

How do you make sure that an ending is good? How do you ensure the quality of the final takeaway you give your audience is retained consistently? You give the audience something of value. You give them insight, entertainment, inspiration or a solution to fulfil a need; you reciprocate the investment they made with their time. With our work at Public Works, we often use a combination of image, sound and word to create effective endings that deliver heightened emotivity and interest to the audience. 

In the second part of this story, we’ll talk about our process to create brand-appropriate endings and how story endings connect to company values and personality. Endings are one of the most important, effective and interesting aspects in storytelling; to understand how you can create stories with endings that lead to better business, get in touch with me at our storytelling studio Public Works.

Making and managing meaning

When people ask me what we do at our storytelling studio Public Works, I often start with our defining line—Making and managing meaning. What does that mean? How do we ‘make meaning’ or manage it? This is a little story that explains how meaning is made and managed. 

I live near a church. I’m not a religious person; but, I love most spiritual centres as they often have an architecture that points you towards something greater and beyond the everyday world. This church exudes that same sense of otherworldly serenity into our neighbourhood; On the nights that its choir sings, everything gets covered in a layer of twinkling magic made by gospel music.

This church has a big bell with deep tolls that resound throughout our neighbourhood. Every morning, sharp at six, at high noon, and six in the evening, this bell would echo identifying the beginning, middle and end of each day—significant points in our communal framework of existing within standard time. On Sundays—the day that the church encourages its community to spend in spiritual growth—the bell was sounded thrice at seven am before mass. It sent a message to everyone—including us non-churchgoers—to remember to take a step back from the race and spend time in communion with our inner world. It made perfect sense; it was beautiful, and most importantly, it was meaningful. It was meaningful—not because hitting a big metal dome had any inherent meaning to it, nor because the bell-ringer was a divine being that brought meaning to it—but, because it was made meaningful.

The meaning came from the conscious intention in the act that stemmed from the church’s values, a rational relevance built with a universal framework of time that everyone understood, and the ritual consistency with which it was done. Because of these considerations, it became meaningful not only to its direct audience of churchgoers but also, to everyone else around. 

Earlier this year, the church changed its bell ringer. The new bell ringer rang at five minutes past six, or sometimes even ten past six. He rang it thrice, four times, and occasionally nine or ten times; On rainy days, two feeble chimes would escape the bell before the act was abandoned in an obvious hurry. The lack of intention and consistency was evident. The church bell lost its meaning to a significant degree. Its message no longer had clarity and joined the meaningless chorus of traffic in the neighbourhood. Although the church itself remains beautiful—and I have no doubts that it continues to serve its devotees the same spiritual connection—it lost one of the most meaningful interactions with its neighbourhood. 

Brand conversations are also like this. A successful brand conversation is built upon conscious intention that comes from your company’s values, a rational relevance built to your audience through the message, and the ritual consistency of a well-rounded brand personality, language, voice and tone maintained right throughout. Without these elements, your brand stories will also remain lost in the digital noise, deleted unread from inboxes, or overlooked on the feed.

In our work methodology, we construct specific tools like the Public Works’ Brand Articulation Framework that facilitates meaningful conversations. Essentially, they connect the brand personality and values to the interests and concerns of an identified audience. When on-brand messages that are current, interesting, and relevant to the target audience get presented with a consistent brand voice, the conversations become meaningful. This is what lies at the core of creating stories that generate sales and business for our clients. Want to find out more about how we work? Read more about our process here.