Stories for creating emotional connections

What was the scariest film you watched as a child, pre teenage years? Jaws gave me bad nightmares, as did Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, but perhaps most nightmarish of all was the PIFs. Remember those? You do have to be over a certain age, but anyone who grew up in the 1970s or 80s probably does remember PIFs because they were the stuff of nightmares. ‘I am the spirit of dark and lonely water’ is the opening line of the horror film that is the Lonely Water PIF from 1973. A few minutes long at most, but it certainly got its message across loud and clear (great voiceover by Donald Pleasence too).

I will come onto how this is relevant to learning and talent in a bit, but first you need to indulge me about PIFs.

PIFs were public information films commissioned by the UK government and produced by the Central Office of Information, often on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive. Short, sharp and very shocking (with the exception of Apaches, which at 26 minutes was longer, but still sharp and very shocking, showing six children dying six different deaths on a farm) the aim was to terrify people – children and parents mostly – into doing certain things – wearing seatbelts – and not doing certain things – bringing animals back from holidayplaying near electricity, and so on.

Almost as shocking as the films is the context in which they were shown – in ad breaks during daytime television and in schools. Had they been actual films, there’s no way they would have received a PG or 12 certification and maybe not even a 15 for some of them and yet many of them were shown in primary schools.

Some are just plain funny – Don’t Put a Rug on a Polished Floor and Get Yourself Seen, whereas others hit you in the gut, such as Railways: Robbie. They all look pretty dated now, but due to the macabre content and offbeat delivery style, not to mention the brilliant voiceovers, many of them have achieved cult status. They tell a story and the messages are totally unambiguous.

Fast forward to public messaging today and what do you get? Is it still worst case scenario condensed into a 2 minute horror film like Lonely Water or Think!Seatbelts – Julie? You do still get hard hitting videos about the dangers of drink driving or texting while driving, for example, but style and content have moved on. There has also been a shift towards more positive messaging – demonstrating desired behaviours that lead to desired outcomes. Don’t Text and Drive is an example of that. Or this ad from Prostate Cancer UK: A Future Full of Good Things “Layla”.

So why am I thinking and writing about PIFs and how does it relate to learning and talent? Have I just gone off on a complete tangent?

I’m embarking on a series of public sector case studies and as I think about my interview questions, the messaging and the aim of the project, I am struck anew by how much public messaging has changed in the past 50 years or so, particularly around health and safety. Now the emphasis tends to be on what people need to do to stay well and safe – get tested for x because early detection rates leads to better recovery rates, for example. I wrote a case study for client a couple of years ago about a new test for oesophageal cancer where the narrative and stats were all about the benefits of early detection and action. Scaremongering was out, as were mortality stats. Why? Because fear stops people from visiting the doctor, from getting tested. The thinking is that more positive messaging leads to healthier behaviours and outcomes.

It’s some of the thinking behind solutions based journalism, an approach to news journalism that focuses on the solutions to social/environmental issues, rather than just the problems themselves.

But, shock tactics can be much easier to write. Shock stats can almost tell a story for you, although it’s not going to land if people don’t want to hear.

At the end of the day, both versions require good storytelling. The story needs to have a strong narrative, a clear message and a call to action. It needs to have a beginning, a middle and a climatic end and it needs to create an emotional connection with the audience – this bit is vital. It can be easier to tap into the emotive side of a story when the message is around health and safety – learning interventions that will help save lives or keep people safe, for example.

But when it’s about learning that has business impact? That can be harder in terms of emotional connection, but everything is possible when there’s a clear message, some stats to bolster the message and personal stories. Interviewing people, bring their voice and their stories to the fore really helps a story come alive. ‘This is how learning has helped me realise my ambitions.’ ‘This is how learning helps me in my everyday work, leading to better outcomes for customers.’ ‘This is how learning has solved x and led to y.’ And so on.

If you’re interested in public messaging etc, then I came across some interesting links when thinking about this piece, particularly around Covid. Here are two of them:

Roisin Woolnough, head of content, Insights Media

This article was taken from the 13 May 2024 edition of our Insights Media Insider newsletter, which you can subscribe to here.

Picture credit: Travis Saylor