Since the beginning of civilization, storytelling has been a central part of human culture. By harnessing this universal methodology, learning professionals can establish an emotional connection between their content and their audience.
For as long as there has been language, the six most powerful words in humanity’s collective vocabulary have been, “Let me tell you a story.” Throughout humanity’s time on earth, stories have been the universal, and preferred, way of passing down history, culture, tradition, wisdom and meaning. They also have been used to give meaning to individual lives, family structure, societies and even civilizations. Of course, businesses have used storytelling to sell soap, cars, stocks, services and, for that matter, everything else.
No wonder then that storytelling remains one of the most powerful — if also underutilized and often misused — weapons in the arsenal of business. Its underutilization results in large part from the McLuhan-inspired temptation to confuse the media with the message and the subsequent fixation on what channel is used to tell a story rather than what story is being told, to whom and why.
There are even more critical reasons why most businesses fail when it comes to storytelling. The first is that many companies fail to realize that storytelling, like the development of corporate culture, isn’t an activity that ought to be left to chance.
People continually tell stories about themselves, their companies and their products or services. Now, those stories can be consciously guided by the storyteller or left to be shaped by random and diffuse forces. Just because you don’t choose to tell your story doesn’t mean other people, from regulators to bloggers, are going to stop telling their versions of your story.
The Changing Nature of Storytelling
That brings us to the most critical issue of them all: the changing nature of storytelling itself. There are three essential elements to every storytelling exercise: a story, a storyteller and an audience. From time immemorial, the relationship went something like this. The storyteller either brought together or was sought out by the audience, and then he or she delivered the story. The storyteller’s role was active, the audience’s essentially passive. The storyteller provided the content, which the audience chose to either accept or reject.
Today, thanks to changes in society and technology, audiences have the potential to become interactive. Often, that potential is exercised to the degree that the traditional roles are reversed and the audience actually is providing content to the storyteller.
Let’s look at two examples, one from the world of high technology and the other from the world of decidedly low technology.
From BlackBerry to Greenpeace
A few clicks on the Internet take you to the “For Individuals” section of the BlackBerry Web site (www.blackberry.com). From there, it’s just a click more to the “Owners Lounge” and another click to the “Member Stories” section, where the headline asks, “Every member has a BlackBerry story. What’s yours?”
“Members” are invited to share “tales of business and personal success to amusing anecdotes and candid confessions,” about their experiences with BlackBerry. Those members less inclined to “candid confessions” might still participate as voyeurs, scanning and voting on the quality of other members’ stories.
Now, leave the BlackBerry site and click over to www.countrycrock.com, the Web home of Unilever’s Shedd’s Country Crock. There you’ll find two buttons on the home page, one that invites you to “Spread the Sharing” and the other that asks you to “Click to Share.” Both buttons eventually get you to the same place, a portion of the site that lets customers tell Shedd’s “about a time you shared with someone or someone shared with you.”
For every story shared, Shedd’s donates one meal to a family in need through America’s Second Harvest. Unlike the BlackBerry example, these audience-generated stories don’t even have to be product-specific. “Nothing is too big or too small,” the site promises potential sharers. “Whether you made dinner for a friend or helped out at your community soup kitchen, we’d like to hear your story.”
BlackBerry and Unilever are just two examples of the growing ranks of companies using targeted advertising and marketing audiences to generate content for corporate branding and promotional storytelling efforts. If you Google “Tell us your story,” you’ll encounter a mind-numbing 15 million-plus entries.
From consumer product companies such as Coca-Cola seeking new ways to reconnect to existing customers (see Coca-Cola Stories at www.thecoca-colacompany.com/heritage/stories) to not-for-profit social activist groups such as Greenpeace, which is asking site visitors to put a human face on its research (members.greenpeace.org/globalwarming), smart companies across the commercial spectrum are increasingly understanding and exploiting the power of letting the audience tell its story.
In the Greenpeace example, the organization is soliciting stories of individual experiences with mercury pollution to add authenticity to its February 2008 study on the dangers mercury poses to the environment. “We don’t want the human stories behind this report to get lost in statistics,” Greenpeace said on its site. “That’s why we want to hear your story.” Translation: Stories with real names attached to them, told by real, unpaid spokespersons, carry more power (and political capital) than pages of statistics or the endorsement of an admittedly partisan lobbying group.
How do you add storytelling to your organizational toolkit? The answer depends, at least in part, on what you are trying to accomplish.
Stories can be used to establish, renew or promote brands, help position corporations and build and communicate internal corporate culture. They can scale, too, doing everything from helping individuals demonstrate they’re the right person for a job to selling the value proposition of entire industries.
Storytelling has 10 essential functions or roles, any or all of which have application in the world of business. It can be used to:
• Explain origins.
• Define individual and group identity.
• Communicate tradition and delineate taboo.
• Simplify complex issues and provide perspective.
• Illustrate the natural order of things.
• Overview complex history in a concise way.
• Demonstrate moral and ethical positions and transfer and preserve core values.
• Illustrate relationships with authority.
• Describe appropriate responses to life or model behavior.
• Define rewards and detail the paths to salvation (or success) and damnation (or failure).
The obvious first step is to consciously decide on what role you want your story to serve. The next is to choose the most appropriate plot vehicle or theme to tell your story. There’s a considerable debate among scholars as to exactly how many plotlines exist, ranging from a high of 36 identified by Georges Polti in his 1921 book, The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations, to the more utilitarian (if less insightful) one theme identified by Cecil Adams: “Stuff happens.”
I prefer to opt for a middle position, lumping all potential plots into five large thematic buckets: the hero’s quest, creation stories, stories of transformation, fall from grace and redemption, and the crossroads of life (used more in the sense of facing a critical decision rather than undergoing a transformation).
In the end, the important thing really isn’t how many plots do or don’t exist. It’s that you remember any plot has several millennia of antecedents that will tend to precondition the audience’s response to your story. Knowing this, once you’ve determined a plotline, you have to populate your story with the right characters, remembering that characters carry just as much preconditioned audience response. The current presidential race, with all its attempts to establish familiar narratives in the media, offers a dubious case in point.
A Question of Character
In the Democratic primaries, we had two major candidates attempting to respectively channel the youthful hope and enthusiasm of John F. (and/or Bobby) Kennedy on the one hand and the prosperous days of Bill Clinton on the other. This actually helps explain what went wrong for Hillary Clinton in South Carolina. First, there was a confusion of characters. Which Clinton, the media asked, was the candidate? This character confusion eroded rather than strengthened Hillary Clinton’s position when some voters got angry at Bill and showed it by voting against Hillary.
On the Republican side, the story was easier to follow with almost all the major and minor aspirants to the nomination casting themselves in the role of Ronald Reagan. The problem here was that voters had trouble seeing an exciting and convincing version of the Reagan archetype in any of the candidates.
The bottom line is that when you select someone to be a proxy for a classic character, you have to make sure they are a credible proxy. Inauthentic characters lead to inauthentic stories and, in an era of interactive storytelling, inauthentic stories can impact your company far worse than telling no story at all.
Once you have plot and character, the next goal is to engage the audience. In this sense, engagement is defined as the ability to create a meaningful and sustainable relationship. Engagement involves finding the right forum to talk to the audience and selecting a storytelling form appropriate to that forum. You don’t want to take 10 screens of type to tell a story on a flashy new Web site, for example, or sample a product designed to ward off the ravages of age in some youthful, trendy bar. If a story can’t reasonably meet the engagement standard, it shouldn’t be brought to market.
Always remember you’re telling a story. Whatever it is, your story must be entertaining at the very least. Good stories entertain, while great stories allow the audience to find itself in the story.
Next, keep it simple and avoid mixed messages or contradictory themes, at least when you’re communicating a story for the benefit of your organization. The more an audience has to think about what a story means, the more likely it is to develop a meaning different from the one you intended. And consistency between stories is as critical as consistency inside them. While no company can be all things to all people, every company ought to be at least the same thing to all people — and that includes both customers and employees.
Perhaps the most important step to learning how to use stories for personal or corporate advantage is to become a dedicated student of the storytelling art.
You can begin by becoming conscious of all of the stories (good and bad, effective and ineffective) you encounter throughout the day. Keep count of the stories you read, hear and tell in just one day and the varieties of forums they are found in, and you’ll discover there’s a staggering amount of storytelling going on all around you. Now, try to understand why some stories are more effective than others. Survey your family, your neighbors and your associates at work to discover what their favorite stories are and why they like them.
Next, begin to seek out the best storytellers you can find and study their techniques. These storytellers could be writers, musicians, actors or ad agencies. In the end, it doesn’t matter. The stages are different but the skill is the same. Great storytelling is an art, but there’s more than a fair share of science to it as well.
Finally, in storytelling, as in so many things, practice tends to make perfect. There are lots of different ways to tell lots of different stories, but a story only truly becomes a story when it’s repeated. The more practice you have repeating stories (assuming there is some critical feedback mechanism in place and that you pay attention to it), the better you ought to become at storytelling.