There is an uncomfortable division happening in my mind (and heart) these days between the art of storytelling and brand stories used as ‘gas’ for corporate engines that grease the behaviours of online audiences to drive revenue.
What makes this uncomfortable is that I see eyes light up when I talk about how stories connect us, how, as Ken Burns famously posits, “story is the shortest distance between two people.” A lightbulb goes off. The problem is, it isn’t lighting up because someone figured out that telling a story about hunger and linking this to an initiative that is making a difference to suffering families, no, they are lighting up because they can increase their metrics. Impressions! Click-throughs! Number of followers! They can gain insights on making ad buys to ‘win’ eyeballs, increase their Facebook Reach, and pat themselves on the back that their ‘call to action’ worked 87% of the time. Most importantly, they can tell their higher ups they are using this awesome thing called storytelling to convert, convert, convert.
It feels dirty. And it is.
Using the word storytelling as a means to explain content marketing is a dangerous new playground for brand strategists’, many of whom are extremely well-versed in the mechanics of measuring their audience in order to manipulate their content to change consumer behaviour but know little about the art of storytelling. And that’s fine. Just don’t use storytelling to dress content marketing up as anything more than it is. Marketing. You can call it strategic, design-centric, people-focused, yada, yada, yada. No problem. But if you are creating stories for the sole purpose of inciting a reaction that results in a click and a conversion to drive revenue and stats, you are not storytelling. You are marketing. And you need to stop calling it storytelling.
But why? some marketers might ask. Because you are not storytellers! Full stop.
I love this description of who a storyteller is from storyteller Limor Shiponi:
A storyteller is a community messenger who has the skill to combine text, voice and gesture expression in order to elicit a story in the imagination of the listener – which is the only place where the story actually exists. At the same time the storyteller is also the protagonist of the storytelling event, whose ultimate objective is for the storytelling event to succeed – by temporarily restoring a sense of order and balance, through opening the possibility of visiting new and old ideas – to find understanding, to self-learn, to remember, to be entertained – as individuals and members of various identity circles. A storyteller is a person who can commit, perform and serve this event to its fullest.
Let me present an example. Imagine say, your Uncle Tom, who is your favourite uncle in the whole wide world, who has made you laugh since you were a little kid, who tells the best stories and you can’t wait to see him because you know at a certain point in the evening he’s going to stand up and tell a great story. You love it when the whole family leans in, the room silenced by his telling, with everyone waiting for the surprise moment, the unexpected ending, the uproarious laughter as the room erupts in shared understanding and joy. Everyone feels like more of a family after the telling; everyone feels like something is now better somehow after Uncle Tom’s story. We feel satiated. The world is right again. The evening is remembered with emotion years into the future. But what if, during Uncle Tom’s story, someone stopped him and whispered in his ear to move closer to the fireplace so it would cast a nicer glow upon his face while telling his story? What if someone came and trimmed Uncle Tom’s beard because they felt he looked a little scruffy and less approachable during his story? What if someone stopped him just before the good part and put a different shirt on him, a different tie, changed his shoes, or powdered his nose? Wouldn’t it be weird? Wouldn’t it like, ruin the experience?
Storytelling is an act of community. It has deep themes that speak to our humanity, that allow us to feel things we are not called upon to access in our everyday lives. In the best case scenario, storytelling drives change, even in the smallest way, towards a better community, even if that community is a small family. In today’s world, with our hyper-connectivity, it could change the world.
And that’s the part marketers salivate over.
It’s also the part where the line is drawn in the sand for me. I often say that I want to tell stories with purpose; I do not say that I want to tell stories that have good conversion rates. I know that if I tell stories with meaning and value that they will convert because they are artfully told, with the dedication and care to the story itself and not to a marketing agenda.
Tell the story with value to the community and the community naturally will reward you with its attention. Don’t confuse content marketing, calls to action, and Facebook insights with the art of storytelling. The storytelling comes first, with origins in human hearts and experience, that have worth in and of themselves without an ad buy. Ask yourself, what is my story? and answer authentically, without the lens to how it will sell, convert, and drive revenue. Begin in truth and end in truth. The rest will take care of itself because great stories get shared, consumed, and organically inspire a community.