These days the word ‘storytelling’ is thrown around an awful lot, especially in the context of creative services for business. Maybe 15 years ago, some group of marketing executives figured out that it would be more palatable to audiences for them to “tell a client’s story” than to “spin a client’s agenda”. Suddenly, ad/marketing firms all over the world had co-opted this somewhat whimsical term, which had previously been reserved for children’s theatre troupes and interviews with George Lucas.
They were right, of course. Stories are better than messages. And it’s not just more palatable to consumers, it’s actually a lot more interesting for everyone involved, even the marketers. Businesses make things and sell things, and customers buy things, and that’s not really all that exciting. But a story? Everybody loves a story.
If you take it backwards to its first and simplest state, storytelling would probably involve early humans gathered around a campfire, silently enthralled as whichever one of them looked the most like Ron Perlman relayed the harrowing tale of the day’s hunt, and/or why Thag now has just the one arm.
Flash forward a few evolutionary cycles and budding civilizations around the world are spinning wildly imaginative yarns about where the thunder comes from and where the sun goes every night. Pretty soon people are writing these things down, making them more complex and interesting, adding thematic elements and defining structure, and ranking them by sales volume on the New York Times Best Sellers list.
When people tell us stories they draw us in, they make us think about things differently. They give us context for understanding something. Stories can be about anything or anybody, real or imagined. The only real rule is that they should have an arc…a beginning, a middle, and an end. (Please keep this rule in mind the next time you’re about to tell a joke at a party.)
Done correctly, storytelling in business is about knowing what you want your audience to learn while thinking about how it will make them feel. It could be anything at all…the story of a new product for an incredibly specific application, the story of groups of employees or customers having similar experiences, the chronicling of a company’s formation or the career of one of its leaders. What do you want them to remember at the end? How do you think they’ll feel about it? The average business story may not involve witches, shipwrecks, or a cyclops – but if you know your audience and what they care about you can still make it pretty colorful.
Personally, I love listening to stories and I love telling them. I love movies. I love books and myths and legends. If we’ve met in person, I’ve probably asked you my favorite ‘get to know you’ question at some point: “What’s your story?”
People answer it all kinds of different ways, and I always learn a lot from their replies. Most people start with where they’re from, some talk about what they do for a living, or how they came to be where they are in life. Some people talk about what’s important to them, what they’re passionate about (personally or professionally), or what they feel like they were set on earth to do. A surprising number of people laugh uncomfortably and ask me what I mean. There’s no wrong answer.
When my wife, Heather, and I were first dating we developed a simple guide to decision-making: whenever presented with options for what to do or how to do it, choose the way that makes the best story.
So, swinging back around to the beginning, ‘storytelling’ has now been fully integrated into the vocabulary of business. When it’s just a label applied to traditional corporate messaging – when all that’s really happening is that a phrase or idea is being propped up in front of you and dressed up in bright colors – it’s meaningless. But when everyone involved has dug deep enough to tap into that collective subconscious…to find a common thread that we, the audience, can recognize, relate to, and see ourselves as a part of, then we’re all back around the campfire together and we’re listening. We’re really listening.
“We’re all stories, in the end. Just make it a good one, eh?”