Storytelling: You’re Doing It Wrong
Oh, marketing community, you know I love you, right?
We go way back, you and I. We’ve been together through good times and bad. I’ve always been there for you, and vice versa. But every once in a while, well, we need to talk.
Much as I love you, I have to say that you — hmm, how do I put this? — you have this knack for taking that which is good, noble, and yes, even beautiful, and turning it into yet another schlocky bullhorn for your droning mantra of “buy my stuff … buy my stuff … buy my stuff …”
Now you’ve done it with one of the most cherished, time-honored human traditions: storytelling.
For thousands of years, we human beings have known exactly what a story is (and what it isn’t). Then you commandeered it as one of your confounded buzzwords, spinning a web of chaos and confusion so thick that it might confound Shakespeare himself.
So today I’m here to set the record straight. I know it’s going to hurt. I know it’s going to feel like I’m taking away a beloved toy. But trust me when I tell you it’s for your own good. You might even thank me later.
The Sad Story of Storytelling
No one’s quite certain of the exact moment when storytelling became a marketing buzzword. I’m guessing it was probably around the time when the people we’re trying to reach started getting sick of marketing.
Oh, we started off with the best intentions. We read Joseph Campbell’s work on the hero’s journey. We consulted accomplished journalists and authors; maybe we even hired one or two. We set out to tell stories — real stories — that would inspire and delight our audiences, and the initial results were promising.
And then the pile-on began.
The product manager wanted a “story” on why his gizmo is the best thing since Twizzlers. The CEO wanted a “story” on why last quarter’s financials aren’t as bad as they look. And don’t even get me started on what the PR team wanted.
Before we knew it, our noble ideal of a good story, well told, had sunk into the quicksand of sales campaigns, quarterly targets, damage control, and C-suite egoism.
And then they all wondered why engagement started to suck.
But, like many of the stories we loved as kids, this one can have a happy ending. We can re-commit to our mission as storytellers, reboot our approach, and rebuild those relationships with those who crave a good story (and who will reward us for giving it to them).
Where do we start? By reminding ourselves and our stakeholders what a story is … and what it isn’t.
1. Stories Are About People
When was the last time you sat on the edge of your chair rooting for an idea?
What’s that? Never?
There’s a reason for that, and it has to do with the difference between telling a story and sharing information.
Many brands pat themselves on the back for telling a story when they talk about how sales figures went up or down over the last quarter, or how their latest widget is smarter, better, and faster. But they’re not. They’re sharing information.
We are hard-wired to connect with people in a way that we just can’t connect with numbers on a spreadsheet or ideas on a drawing board. Storytelling grew out of that need to connect on a personal level. For that reason, if it’s not about people, it’s not a story.
NPR does a particularly brilliant job of taking its stories to a personal level. If the story is about the growing problem of mental illness in America, it starts with the tale of a real person’s day-to-day struggles with depression. If the story is about unemployment in Pennsylvania, it begins by introducing us to an out-of-work engineer who’s working two part-time jobs to feed her family.
Content Marketing Takeaway: Bring your stories to a personal level. Introduce the audience to characters they can fall in love with, then tell the tale from there.
2. Stories Have Movement
A story is not a description. If it doesn’t start at one point and end up in a totally different place, it’s not a story.
The story of Cinderella opens with a poor orphaned girl working as a slave to her evil stepmother, and it ends with said orphan marrying into royalty (and, if you follow the original Brothers Grimm version, with the evil stepsisters getting their eyes pecked out by a flock of angry birds).
The story of Apple begins with young upstart Steve Jobs and a couple of friends tinkering in the garage of his childhood home, and it ends … well, you know.
Even if your story is a “state of” exploration of a particular issue, it needs to establish the context of what has come before and develop to a foretelling of what is to come.
That’s why so-called stories about “why our product is so damn good” aren’t stories at all. They’re brochures.
Content Marketing Takeaway: Always ask yourself where your story begins and where it ends. If the answers are murky, you have some work to do.
3. Every Story Has a Hero … and It Ain’t You
Bonnie Tyler isn’t the only one who’s holding out for a Hero. We all are.
Not only does your story have to be about people (see above), but there has to be one person in particular on whom your audience can pin their hopes for the outcome. This person doesn’t have to be perfect, but he does have to somehow hold the key to the happy ending.
While there can be other heroic characters in your tale, there can be only one Hero. Think about the original Star Wars trilogy. We have plenty of good guys to root for — Han Solo, Princess Leia, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, etc. — but there’s only one Luke Skywalker. If Luke falls off the beam, the story falls to pieces.
So yes, every story you tell must have a capital-H Hero. And no, it can’t be you. Here’s why.
I can’t tell you how many “customer success stories” I’ve read that go something like this:
“Bob was dealing with [insert challenging situation], and he was sad. Then we swooped in with our [insert product or service here] and saved the day. Now Bob is happy. The end.”
That’s not a story. It’s a brochure.
Heroes have to be relatable. The people in your audience can’t relate to you as a brand; if they could, they’d probably be solving their own problems, thank you very much. Who can they relate to? Returning to the above example, they can relate to Bob. They’re in the same situation, dealing with the same problem. Now, when you hold Bob up as some helpless schlub who’s incapable of fixing anything without you, what are you telling your audience about themselves?
That’s why we need to make Bob the hero. Yes, your brand’s products or services will be involved at some point, but he has to be the one running the show. He’s the Skywalker, you’re the Yoda — smart, capable, and vital to the story, but not the Hero.
Content Marketing Takeaway: Ask yourself who the Hero of your story is, especially when you’re putting together customer success stories. If either (a) you don’t have one, or (b) you do have one … and it’s you, get back to the drawing board.
Once Upon a Time …
Look, I get it. The content world is loud, crowded, and fiercely competitive. We’re all chasing ROI. And storytelling — real storytelling — is hard work. So why should we bother?
Because we’re willing to go where the goobers looking to make a fast buck wouldn’t dare to tread. We’re willing to put time, effort, and yes, money into quality storytelling, and leave the product-pushing to the Don Drapers of the world. All for the sake of offering our audience an experience they can’t get anywhere else.
Remember, at the heart of all content marketing is relationship — the relationship between a person and a brand that can’t be defined by a transaction. If we want to honor that relationship, we can’t just write another brochure and slap the “storytelling” label on it. If we give them what they crave — a good story, well told — not only will we hold their attention from beginning to end, but they’ll be back for more. Over and over and over again.
If that isn’t a Call to Adventure, I don’t know what is.
Find out why Joe Pulizzi, Founder of the Content Marketing Institute, had this to say about The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN:
“A simple yet effective guide to an approach that most businesses get flat out wrong. Do yourself and your business a favor and take a deep dive into this book. You won’t regret it.”
About the Author
A self-described geek who can recite entire episodes of South Park by heart, Rachel Parker has had a passion for content ever since she was old enough to hold a crayon (purple, please).
As Founder and CEO of Resonance, Rachel helps businesses publish content that connects with their audience … and converts those followers into customers. She’s also the host of the Content Marketing Podcast and author of the book The Content Marketing Coach: Everything You Need to Get in the Game … and WIN!
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