I couldn’t help laughing when I saw this rant against misuse of the term ‘storyteller’ on B&T. The media, advertising and marketing website went so far as to ask whether storytelling has become the industry’s most overused, misused and devalued term.
There are a few worthy rivals (is there a thought leader in the house?) but let’s stick to storytelling. I’ve never used the term to describe myself but, having spent 15 years being paid to tell stories as a journalist, disagree with graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister’s narrow definition of storytellers as novelists and filmmakers. His comments were obviously meant to be provocative and a quick look at the comments thread on Vimeo shows they’ve hit the mark.
Taking a much broader view, storytelling becomes an important part of our lives as soon as we are old enough to appreciate a bedtime story.
In his influential book Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner said we are 22 times more likely to remember a fact when it has been wrapped in a story. In today’s world of information overload, where it is difficult to ‘cut through the noise’, this is why the concept of storytelling has become so attractive to marketing departments. Likely it’s also what inspired Sagmeister to call “bullshit”.
Recently I wrote about the differences I’d noticed since swapping journalism for content marketing but noted both jobs were essentially about telling stories. Not worthy of an Oscar or the Booker Prize but stories all the same. Anybody who wants to engage an audience through social media, for whatever purpose, must have those skills.
I’ve since written about how I believe journalism will shape content marketing. Leaving aside economic disruption in the media industry, the ability to communicate in a way that establishes emotional connection, as opposed to banging on about your products and services, is at the heart of this current skills migration.
Marketers and advertisers have always been quick to align themselves with trends. As a business and technology journalist, companies I wrote about were forever hitching their wagons to sustainability, cloud computing, big data or whatever the trend du jour happened to be. Those claims were often tenuous and failed to gain any traction because the companies behind them had no story to tell.
For every bucket-load of these there would be one from time to time that stuck in the memory. IBM’s Smarter Planet campaign is a case in point. Of course the goal was ultimately to sell more of its products and services, but the approach was to start conversation about how information technology would impact different aspects of our lives over the next decade.
More recently, General Electric has launched GE Reports – a website full of science, technology and engineering stories. Often these stories make little or no reference to GE’s involvement in the project being discussed but it understands that readers will make the connection. [Disclosure: I wrote a small number of case studies for the Australian version of this site before moving into my current role.]
Whether or not you like using the term in relation to business communications, the art of telling a good story is in high demand and here to stay.