The Power of Storytelling: Q&A With Cheryl Durst

Association CEO Cheryl Durst offers insight on the power of sharing stories—and why she still believes in long-form journalism.

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“Did I ever tell you about the time a couple on their way to a KKK rally left me with their child while they went back through airport security to pick up the fanny packs, dog and toy snake they’d forgotten?”

Cheryl Durst knows how to tell a story. She weaves in all the right details—like how she spotted a confederate flag as the woman said, “Excuse me, Miss Black Lady, will you watch AngelJune while we find our things? Just smack her if she acts up.”

The tale is just one of many in the Durst repertoire.

This is a woman who knows how to use narrative and is serious about the power of storytelling, calling it an essential life skill. And it’s no different at work. “Content marketing is like a really good play. It has a beginning. It has a middle. It has an end. It has antagonists. It has protagonists.”

As EVP and CEO of International Interior Design Association, she tells a powerful story of her members and the industry as a whole. One of the main plot points? Commercial interior designers don’t fluff pillows. They create experiences.

As EVP and CEO of International Interior Design Association, she tells a powerful story of her members and the industry as a whole. One of the main plot points? Commercial interior designers don’t fluff pillows. They create experiences.

And she knows the value of sharing that story to members (as well as their clients and future members) through books, videos, social media, awards, enewsletters and a newly reimagined member print magazine, Perspective.

But Durst also knows the story has to be in absolute strategic alignment with “what an organization does, with what its members do, with what the industry does. That’s the biggest test, that it doesn’t look or feel artificial, but that it’s really authentic.”

Q: We’ll start with a big one: What are IIDA’s top goals with its content marketing?

I’m a firm believer that everybody has their own idea of what they do as a job, as a profession, as a career. One of our duties as an association is to remind our members of the value of what they do.

The other goal is around knowledge about interior design. We don’t just hoard it and keep it for ourselves. We know that our members share Perspective with their clients. And so it’s about giving our members one more vehicle to better articulate their value.

We also want to have a content marketing program that’s really cohesive. Whether it’s social media, whether it’s the events—it’s tying it together. I see that as our next step—making it really one cohesive, compelling story from the association. So we’re constantly supporting our mission and our vision as an association—which is knowledge, value and community.

Q: What does content marketing do that advertising and other kinds of marketing don’t?

Advertising and PR can get what I call “shove down your throat-y.” Content marketing allows an organization to use its most authentic voice. And there doesn’t need to be a lot of spin, you don’t need to set the stage. You can be very authentic with content marketing.

Q: Who is just absolutely nailing content marketing right now? And what are you stealing from them?

AARP is doing a phenomenal job of being very authentic. Obviously they’ve got a great moment in time—what is it, every 6 seconds somebody in the United States is turning 50? This is not an organization for old people. It looks like an organization you want to be a part of. And the information they have—not about aging, but about well-being, about travel, about financial planning. They take the whole gamut of where a person is in their life and make it really relevant to who they are as an organization.

My other one would be the Society of Human Resource Management. Once upon a time, people would say HR people, they must be the most boring people in the world. But they’ve been very deliberate about the viability of HR as a career. They have a phenomenal certification program, they’ve got incredible research. What they’ve done to position that profession has been really incredible. And they tell a great story.

Obviously cause-related organizations like Susan G. Komen are doing a phenomenal job of creating community—which is at the core of every not-for-profit. And that’s become so important in our society. We all are looking for that community that we want to be a part of.

Q: How do you see IIDA’s content needs and goals changing as it becomes more global?

There’s still that quest for information, there’s still that validating the profession, but also connecting designers from all over the world to best in practice. So whether it’s happening in Kenya or Kansas City, people want to know what other designers are doing and how they’re successful.

We don’t want to make that fatal mistake that we’ve seen other associations make—that what happens in the United States is the best possible way for it to happen. Clearly, in other parts of the world, design is more a part of the DNA—for instance in Italy or in Scandinavia. So there are lessons to be learned—that we’re learning daily—from our members outside of the United States.

Q: And that goes down to how you’re interviewing and sourcing…

Exactly. For us, acknowledging the diversity of practice. It’s not just reporting how design is defined in large firms, but how it’s happening for sole practitioners, or for firms doing retail or hospitality, and not just workplace.

Every association out there is trying to pull in millennials and even Gen Z. How can content help?

It’s about satisfying that “I want to be an expert” piece. If you read our content, you will become better at … something, whatever, fill in that blank.

Associations are really looking at that FOMO factor—that you need to read this so that you can be a part of this movement. Increasingly, younger members really see membership in an association as being very activist. And so that’s very grassroots, but you can’t be an activist unless you’re a well-informed activist.

Q: Why did you decide to reimagine IIDA’s print magazine, Perspective?

It needed a refresh. A magazine should not sit on a shelf. There should be multiple touchpoints, no matter where members are in their design careers. And we felt that we were moving away from that. It was getting a little too precious, so we wanted to bring that accessibility aspect back.

Q: And what do you hope that readers will get out of the new Perspective?

Well, kind of jokingly, I say that you should feel like your IQ goes up at least three points when you read that magazine. Also though, I want there to be a connectedness to the magazine. I want our members to be possessive about it. To be territorial about it. This is about me, and design, and how I practice design.

The magazine is incredibly tangible. They can hold it in their hands. It’s very visual, but it’s also very literate—one is not exclusive of the other.

Q: You got your degree in journalism, correct?

I did—once upon a time, when it was called print journalism.

Q: It seems to give you a different vision of content and content marketing…

Words matter. Storytelling matters. A lot of people will say words are just words and you’ll just tell a story, but there are still rules when it comes to what you’re trying to get across to your audience. We may tell the same story, but it will have a different voice when we tell it on social media. It will have a different voice if it’s a longer-form piece in Perspective. It can have a different voice or even inflection when it’s a quick news item in a chapter or member newsletter. Being cognizant of how you’re telling that story and where you’re telling that story is so critical, and maybe even more critical because we’re inundated with so much information.

Want more storytelling smarts? Read the full interview with Cheryl Durst in orange magazine.

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