The next cliche business term: “Storytelling”


Is it just me or is the term storytelling starting to lose the shimmer it once had? Case studies are being packaged as stories and we are virtually adding “once upon a time” in front of a list of feature sets all in the spirit of being better “storytellers”.

Before I wash my hands of this madness I should say something. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself if I stood by apathetically as the term is tossed into the haystack-like heap of cliche business terms we reluctantly use during nervous interviews or when we don’t really understand what we’re talking about. I can see it now: nestled somewhere between  ‘synergy’ and ‘gamification’  at the top of the pile. It’s a shame that something which felt so rich and full of potential has become a bit sterile. Consider this my stand for the integrity of the storytelling craft.

Here’s my two cents, in the form of two requests I’d make of any professional that wants to use “storytelling” to stand out from the crowd.

Products make lame stories.

Storytelling from the perspective of a brand can’t be about turning a marketing pitch or a value proposition into a format that has a beginning middle and end (though that would be a nice leap forward for many attempts at ‘brand storytelling’ I see floating around). Stories have to convey values and speak to something bigger than making a prudent purchase. It has to be about identity. Not just the identity of the people you want to reach, but the identity of the brand. What does the brand really stand for? The answer to this isn’t a brand guidelines document – those are characteristics. Values are bold and potent. People aren’t moved to share things that reflect the understated corners of they psyche. They share what conveys a portion of their identity that they can’t articulate. A good story makes a statement framed by the brand, not the focus of it.

Keep the half hour time commitments for television.

Stories aren’t always told in one sitting. There is a paradigm to some extent that a story is started and finished in one sitting. Bed time stories are short so that they can be started and finished in the time it takes for a toddler (or parent) to dose off. Movies are stories played out over 90 minutes. TV shows have a beginning and end to each episode that we can take some satisfaction to a conclusion in.

However, in digital media it’s not always about a beginning, middle and end played out in one sitting. It can be told or conveyed over time. A series of micro-content and interactions that takes on many different forms can portray ideas and values to reflects an identity in a more interactive way. Rather than tossing over a single, long form asset and hoping people like it, you can evolve and change the chemistry of the story with the very people that are consuming it. It is often said that you don’t define your brand, your customers do. Telling a story over time gives you another tool to guide that perception.

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