Can stories be made as contagious as viruses?

What makes a story worthy of your attention? What makes it worth sharing with someone else? What kind of stories can move people to act upon an idea? This is something we’re constantly studying and analysing. When clients tell us that they want a story that ‘goes viral’, we know that it’s never as simple as creating great copy and visuals. We’ve been looking at why some amazingly told stories never catch on, what makes some stories gain momentum only years after and how some ridiculous ones get spread around enough to make us question human intelligence. 

Last year, we had an interesting insight to how stories spread when my partner Alain Parizeau got into the book ‘The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,’ by Malcolm Gladwell. Gladwell compared how ideas spread around to how viruses transmit, drawing quite interesting parallels between the two phenomena. We both thought that Gladwell’s analysis was quite spot on; especially because we were right in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic at the time. Gladwell’s thoughts on how stories or ideas spread very much like a virus hit home with us as we watched the pandemic unfold in real life. Although the book was written over ten years ago, the insights were still very relevant. 

Gladwell pointed out three key consistent elements in ideas that would reach a tipping point and ‘go viral’, so to speak. Although described and coined differently, Gladwell’s three-ingredient formula for the transmissibility of an idea made perfect sense with what we have been studying about stories ourselves. These were, having the right community, relevance and context. If you’re interested in learning what makes a story that spreads like wildfire, here’s a quick look at what we know. 

1918, Douglas Fairbanks speaking in front of the Sub-Treasury building, New York City, to aid the third Liberty Loan. Paul Thompson. War & Conflict Book.

Find the few who want to tell your story
After hearing my partner analyse Gladwell’s first factor of a viral story—the law of the few—it became apparent to me as the phenomenon we all now know as ‘influencers’. What Gladwell calls the ‘law of the few’ identifies how a small number of people do the most important leg work in making a story popular. This is not difficult to understand today because we’ve all seen how social media influencers and celebrities make stories go viral within a matter of minutes. But, not everyone can afford to get Beyoncé to advocate their brand. So, how does this apply to your business? As part of our story design process, we always get clients to define their target audience, and within that, identify people who have actively shared the brand’s stories, participated in activities or events, and made attempts to connect with the brand in some way; These people become very important in the process of spreading brand stories to wider audiences. We think brand faces, or influencers are great, but only when these personalities are true embodiments of the brand’s own values. After Gladwell’s book, we started paying more attention to another group of people from the brand audience—these are the connoisseurs of the product or service of our clients’ business. Involving these experts from the audience is a great way to get the conversations going while building reliability and trust between the brand and its audience. 
Creating stories that are specific to the interests of these different niche groups is a sure way to get them involved in a meaningful conversation and get the story spreading for the right reasons. This, we find, is a far more effective way to get a story to spread, than placing an advertisement in a newspaper. 

From our experience in creating stories for brands, we know that precise targeting of conversations, even to the degree of niche topics for hyper-specific audiences, is a great strategy that delivers results. This is because the storytellers then have the ability to analyse exactly what the audience is into at that given time, identify key narratives that are moving them, and create stories that bridge the brand and its consumer.

Make it relevant to make it memorable
Something we can’t compromise when creating stories for brands is relevance. This means creating stories that actually bear relevance to what the audience is experiencing in their lives. When my partner was dissecting Gladwell’s book, this is what was highlighted as ‘the stickiness’ factor. A successful story is memorable. What makes a story better remembered is how effortlessly it can be retained in memory; This is especially true in the current media landscape, where we are inundated with information all day long. If a story appeals to what a consumer’s mind is already occupied with, it is much more likely to be remembered. This is why relevance is so important to brand storytelling.

How do brands build relevance? Research, research, research. We always encourage our clients to understand what their audiences are going through in life, even at the most gross, peripheral level that a brand can access. Even a little research is better than no research. Researching the audience is one of the most important steps in successful storytelling, and we’ve shown clients how their investment in audience research can go a long way when it comes to creating stories that drive sales and build brands.

Context is everything
I remember how quiet our city street became when more people started working from home. One afternoon, a vehicle was parked outside our studio with a loud speaker attached to the roof; promoting something. The message and the company being advertised may have been relevant to us, and under different circumstances, we would have even found the story memorable; But, it was lost because of the inconsiderate ways of communicating, and the displacement of the message in our neighbourhood. This brand story simply had no context to the audience it was speaking to. We simply wanted the driver to leave the neighbourhood and for the quiet to return. It’s hard to think of any context where this form of brutal advertising strategy would be effective. So, the context is not just who is spreading the message; it’s also where it lives. The level of empathy, tact, and patience a company has when telling stories influences the contextual success; to gain someone’s attention, and maintain it. 

So, the answer to the question ‘can stories be made as contagious as viruses?’, is ‘yes, they certainly can’. Often enough, we see this happen organically; But, devising a story to reach that tipping point and go viral, is a complex enough process that is worthwhile studying and understanding. If you want to find out more, talk to us at Public Works. We’re always up for making a great story.

When words have the power to make or break this world

Akuru Collective is Sri Lanka’s first and largest typographic collection. This amazing group uses their love for letters to pull off some groundbreaking work for type and language. AkuruCon and local editions of international type forums like AtypI (Association Typographique Internationale) and Typoday are all their initiatives to bring in global typographic knowledge to Sri Lanka, and create valuable discourse out of the island.

We were excited to write and design their manifesto from Public Works. The final outcome was a pretty great example of what you can do with great design, even when the budgets are tight. The manifesto was printed using Riso technique and was written to highlight what brings this unique group together and where their sights are set.

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Feeling places; city stories

Places have stories. The language that place-stories are told in is complex, multidimensional and surrounding. Discovering the story of a place is not as easy as picking up a book and reading, or watching a documentary about it. You have to find it. You have to wait for it. You have to see it unfold as you watch its people wake up and go about making their morning. You have to pick it up through bits and pieces in conversations overheard on the street. You have to catch it in the nostalgia of someone who was born in that place, but had to leave. You have to dig it out of someone who hated it. You have to taste it in a tea shop frequented by its street labourers. You have to feel it seeping in through your pores while sitting alone at dusk, in its oldest quarter.

We were commissioned by @urbanislandcolombo to create bite-sized stories of three Sri Lankan cities; Colombo, Kandy and Galle— each with its distinct cultural aura. We were working with the already set identity of the concept store; At the same time, the stories had to be created to sync up with a contemporary island narrative that Urban Island was building parallel to the tropical modernism movement. Incorporating elements of cultural interest is already tricky. In order to avoid mainstream depictions of these places, the chosen elements could not be too popular; At the same time, they couldn’t be too subversive and completely miss the commercial audience’s understanding or experiences of these places. The stories had to sell; And, they did.

Although we created the stories specifically for postcards, Tshirts, cushions and poster prints, their popularity had Urban Island using the stories or their isolated elements on many different items. With the idea of travelling and discovering new places changing drastically in our post-pandemic times, we’re curious to see how people will continue to remember and hold on to places.

We were excited about this project for two reasons; it was a project that combined both our individual expertise in writing and visual art, and it was an opportunity for us to crystallise some of our favourite experiences and places in Sri Lanka. The series was to target both Sri Lankans and travellers. We understood that for travellers, the city stories series should be about taking back a fond memory from their time in Sri Lanka. Our strategy for the Sri Lankans, was to make the series about celebrating a memory about their hometown, or a place they have a connection to in their country.

The challenge for the writer was capture a special story, feeling, icon or an experience about each city, in just a few words; and, because we wanted to make the writing for this project to take the form mini poetry, the challenge also meant there had to be some form of rhythm or rhyme. 

The project was fun to work on, and from what we hear from the Urban Island team, the series is becoming somewhat of a cult favourite among their shoppers.

A mind flowing free in thread and colour

Joan is a fascinating multi artist with a Sri Lankan burgher heritage. She lives in Denmark now, but returns to Sri Lanka every year to her family estate in North-West of the island. When she commissioned us to write a piece about her life and work, I went and met her at that beautiful old estate. We spoke about her exquisite embroidery work, and her love for painting. Joan’s life was a fascinating viewpoint into lives lived in Colombo over fifty years ago.

Hidden amidst the foliage of the outskirts of Wennappuwa, there is a coconut estate that is a breathtaking composition of human and nature. Coming in, you will be pleasantly warmed in the sunlight pouring through the cane palms standing guard along its impressive driveway. It nestles a charming planters’ bungalow with arched windows opening into sun spangled verandahs. Further in, a beautifully dimmed living space and cool sleeping chambers await. Between the fun play of the vintage furniture, rare heirloom treasures and a twist of Scandi-inspired postmodernism, there is an obvious air of creativity floating through the bungalow.

When you meet its hostess—you instantly know her as the source of that creativity. Joan Leth Pedersen is in the autumn of her years, and radiantly beautiful with a sense of style that could only speak for an intensely creative being. She’s the kind of hostess who excites you with her meticulous devotion to fine hospitality—you just know it’s going to be a good day.

Joan was born in Sri Lanka to Burgher parents who moved to the UK to educate their children. They also travelled between their island home and Malaysia for work in the plantations business. She met her husband, Jens Leth Pedersen in Malaysia fifty eight years ago, at a New Year’s Eve dance, ten minutes to midnight—he has remained smitten since. An accomplished hand embroidery artist with truly remarkable artistry, Joan practices in Denmark where she lives with Jens. But, for eight sunlit weeks a year, the family estate in Sri Lanka remains her home in paradise.

This year, Joan has brought down a large portion of her archive of handmade embroidery based wearable art. This is for a rare media exposure of her works. “It’s impossible for me to put a price on my work”, Joan declares, “because they are my babies,” she laughs. “But, seriously, it’s because my art has never equated to money. It’s not about that for me, it’s never been,” she explains. Joan believes that artistry does not always have to have a commercial element to it—in a sense, an artist does not have to cater to the incessant needs of a society. Art can simply exist—much like beauty or nature, without having to fulfil the human desire to own, to consume. Her work has an ethereal charm about it and draws inspiration from flora and fauna, abstract shapes and colour-play. Stylistically, she finds kinship with Chinese, Danish and Venetian embroidery techniques. But, the most impressive is her own style—an embroidery technique that Joan invented fusing patchwork and threadwork to bring about an unusual effect. Here, cut out fabric pieces are ironed on to ‘glue paper’ and pieced together with embroidered thread work to finally reveal one mosaic-like image held together with perfect thread work. “I don’t know how long it takes to do one piece—it takes hours and hours and hours. But, I love it, and I can immerse in it completely.”

Something striking about Joan’s work is its unapologetic femininity. Her work bears unrestrained female charm with soft colour palettes, dainty motifs and intricate filigrees. But, it’s anything but ordinary. The embroidery itself is unusual in its exotic mix of styles and technique while Joan’s decisive direction in their placement on the garment, and how they work with the female body also add to the unicity. “I always think of where this embroidery will go on a body, and I tend to embellish the unusual corners or the unnoticed curves…it does not always have to be on your upper chest tucked away to a side.”

Her process is fluid and natural, much like her work. “When I get an idea, I just have to do it,” she says echoing all impassioned artists. Her inspirations flood in through nature. In Denmark, the contained cool of Scandinavian landscapes influence her abstract oil painting and designed knitwear. While in Sri Lanka, the island’s paradisiacal abundance seems to translate to Joan’s vivid watercolours—often florals—and finally, to her intricate embroidery.

“Embroidery was always in our family,” she recalls the beginnings into her most accomplished form of artistry. Joan remembers being captivated by her mother’s hand drawn book documenting the baby clothes that she embroidered. She also remembers how she first fell in love with that incredible feeling of being enveloped in an exquisitely made outfit, through the finely embroidered dresses handmade by her mother. Later, she went to complete an embroidery and knitting course at the Denmark College of Handicrafts where she scored full marks, before plunging into the arts in full vigour. She went on to exhibit in unusual locations around Europe, such as the abandoned church in Aalborg commune, and the court house turned museum Tinghuset in Nibe. Beyond embroidery and knitting, Joan also began to see her art within the context of fashion. It came naturally to her, because style was simply in her.


“I always think that clothing should be a complete expression. Personally, I like to make underwear to match my work in order to avoid store-bought pieces that peek outside an otherwise perfect outfit!” she exclaims echoing a practice that still forces her to custom make intimatewear for every wearable item that displays her embroidery or knitting. In her heyday in Colombo, Joan was featured in the fashion and lifestyle pages of the local dailies for her bold sense of style and fashion. Her wedding gown with a spectacular floor-gracing train with hundreds of hand made flowers pressed out in silk in three layers, made fashion headlines and was borrowed by news pages. Style was definitely her thing.

With Joan seated on the verandah of her family bungalow, it is almost visibly evident in the background, how her mind has flown free through the space, touching it with her devotion to beauty; The fiery heliconias set off against the earthly terracotta of the vase, the perfect geometry in the arrangement of hand-painted porcelain…they all vouch for her. As her life approaches a tranquil sunset, Joan has developed a yearning to share her art as a teacher and a mentor. “I have taught several times in my life, and it has always been rewarding. I still keep in touch with some of my students.” She hopes to share her expertise and extraordinary techniques with young fashion designers, textile artists, embroiderers and entities in textile related arts, crafts and design—those who would appreciate it and hopefully, reinvent it in their own way. But, there’s more to it than that too. Joan sees that mastering your creativity as a way to live a wonderful life. “Creativity has helped me to live life on an even keel…being immersed in creativity means that troubles can’t trouble you. So, I’d like to share that.” And with that, Joan offers the greatest gift a creator could leave behind in this world.

This story was published in The Sunday Times in Sri Lanka, which you can still find online here.

On a lush earth

This anniversary edition book was commissioned by Elpitiya Plantations of the blue chip conglomerate Aitken Spence Group. After twenty five years, the company has overcome serious challenges and moved from being a loss-making venture in deep debt, to Sri Lanka’s top rated plantation. The Elpitiya team was optimistic, inspired and victorious—a sentiment worth capturing in the anniversary book. The company’s evolution was told in this story bringing in the most important milestones, people and decisions that made up the company’s history. It ended in a high note of optimism, inviting new partners and collaborators to work with Elpitiya as the company entered the next phase of its development. The story received a fantastic response from Elpitiya plantations, and was distributed to its entire network in Sri Lanka and to partners abroad.

My favourite part of this project was the reactions that the Elpitiya team had to the writing; When I saw their emotional expressions, and was told about their experience of goosebumps while reading the ending, I knew that my job as a writer was done right.

The entire project came to fifty four hours of writing and editing in total. Below are some excerpts from the entire work.

They say love conquers all; All but, superhuman laws that are beyond our control. A drought of resources within a challenging global market context and a tea market meltdown at the worst possible time pulled Elpitiya down a bottomless well of debt.

It was the lowest of the lows.

Some leave it to the divine, others to fortune; but, us planters know that it is the drops of love we put into the land that would cloud the skies gravid come next season.

The little green buds have burst out in full bloom. Against all odds, Elpitiya has emerged out incredible. Amidst accolades and celebrations, the faces of friendship were remembered.

It was a beautiful day.

Being in an industry as volatile as the plantations, tunes your sixth sense to the elements of nature, to invisible forces, to something very much like instinct that is alive in the air. Eventually, you begin to recognise that same thing, in the depths of human spirit; in people’s courage, determination and faith. This is why people are Elpitiya’s most treasured asset; Because without them, the vast green fields of Elpitiya would have remained barren terrains.

A planter’s reward comes in gold. In twenty years Elpitiya has transformed a burden to a fortune. As the Elpitiya family takes a moment together, a second of collective breath to feel the magnitude of their efforts, it dawns on us that the fields are golden for as far as our eye could see.

Some said it was not possible, but we made it. The view from the top catches new vistas and a fresh sunrise in the horizon.

What an incredible place to be.

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“We’ve come to the top, and the dream is to go higher. The way to do it is to not stand by, but keep moving, keep changing, keep reinventing, and thinking of new paths. There’s no stopping us,” promises J. M. S Brito, Chairman of Elpitiya Plantations, channelling the spirit of everyone.

Strong with a faithful force, a potent land, and groundbreaking new ideas, Elpitiya is ready. The plans are many. As they set out, there is talk of adventure parks, perfumery, hospitality, tourism, real estate…there
is nothing stopping Elpitiya today.

It’s not going to be a lone journey, the team at Elpitiya knows. Fresh friendships, unconventional partnerships, and new patrons are welcome to join the expedition; Because now is a time for collaboration, creativity, and grand innovation.

The air in Elpitiya is ringing with excitement.

Can you hear it?

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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.