Pirates, Data and Storytelling ...


By Elisa Zallio, Junior Account Executive, Hoffman Europe (London)


I’d like to tell you about Emilio Salgari. He is a barely known, Italian writer from the late 19th century; he wrote adventure stories for periodic magazines, usually about fallen noblemen turned pirates to take revenge on their enemies — and, obviously, they’d fall in love with the enemy’s daughter or niece or something around those lines. I know how cliché it may sound. However, my 10-year old self could not care less!

Reading Salgari’s books is one of my fondest childhood memories. I spent hours buried in the wonderful worlds he described — from the Caribbean seas during the Golden Age of Piracy, to the Malaysian islands at the peak of English domination — and imagined myself fighting amongst buccaneers and raiders, assaulting Spanish vessels full of gold with the Black Corsair, exploring the jungle with Sandokan, the Malaysian Tiger.

The way Salgari described these exotic seas, it felt like I was there myself. He would tell you about the strange plants and animals you could find, as well as a bit of history, mixing facts and fiction. To write such realistic descriptions, you’d think he had traveled there himself, the same as Joseph Conrad traveled on the Congo River before writing Heart of Darkness. But here’s the thing: Emilio Salgari never sailed further than the Adriatic Sea.

Despite dreaming of a career on the ocean, he didn’t graduate from the Nautical Institute of Venice and became a journalist and novelist instead. A novelist exploited by his editors, who forced him to write non-stop until, poor and exhausted, he took his own life on April 25, 1911. I remember being so sad when I first learned about it.

So, if Emilio never travelled, how could he write stories so compelling and descriptions so true it transported you right into faraway lands? Simply, he did his research, and he did it well.

The secret of fantasy is a pinch of reality

There are people who think that research puts a muzzle on creativity, but it’s just the opposite. Salgari’s stories are so compelling because of his research, because of those tiny details — like the signs of a hurricane approaching — that he found in books and in recounts of sailors luckier than himself. Putting a tale into context makes it more powerful, and you can find many great examples of that.

Think about George Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which takes a lot of inspiration for its settings and character from the history of medieval England. Or Neil Gaiman, who researched multiple mythologies and places in the USA to write his American Gods. Hell, there’s a reason Christopher Nolan teamed up with real astrophysicists to write Interstellar!


None of them had first experience of Westeros, ancient gods or space travel, but they mixed their creative talent with knowledge, research and data from other sources. I challenge you to say they have not created masterpieces thanks to this. And I don’t see why we shouldn’t do the same in public relations.

Data knows best

Believe me, up until a few years ago I was the first to rank creativity more highly than data. Now I spend hours studying the Google Analytics of our clients, because I discovered how helpful it is for writing great content — as in content that works.

Let me explain. As PR and marketing professionals, our job is to create content that is not only pleasant to read, but that can also encourage the reader to move to the next step of their customer journey. In order to do this, the content needs to be compelling, it has to speak to what the reader cares about and – cherry on top of the cake – provoke their emotions.

Not long ago, we could not be certain of what our audience did and didn’t care about. Focus groups and surveys can be a great indication, but they are both vulnerable to the fact that what people say is not often what they truly think.

And that is why data is so powerful, because raw numbers are purely objective, completely sincere and can tell us what is truly going on in the minds of our audience. So, once we are inside, we can discover what they care about and what to do to attract them.

Now, I realize I’m sounding a bit creepy, with all the mind reading and stuff. It is creepy, no doubt. There’s a reason why the EU is enforcing GDPR and why databases are some of the most sought-out prizes by cybercriminals. On one hand, data is the best instrument a marketer can use to reach the right audience and — crucially — tell the right story; on the other, we have the responsibility to treat this data ethically and to be aware of its value.

But this post is getting long, and I’d hate to finish on a negative note. We cannot ignore data and what it makes possible, from building a marketing campaign to helping Liverpool win the Champions League. As a storyteller, I feel compelled to know data — maybe not at the level of a NASA analyst, but enough to understand what secrets the numbers are trying to tell me.

The story is always there, in the formulas and the graphs, and it’s just waiting for us to listen.

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