Quit forcing storytelling into an old school marketing model

Posted by Gina Rosenthal in storytelling | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

I came across this post on storytelling for marketing via Twitter. It rubbed me the wrong way, but for reasons I didn’t expect understand until I started to unpack the story.

I’ve written about storytelling before. In fact, I believe storytelling is a vital function of marketing and training in organizations. So I thought I’d enjoy a post about telling stories that are worth telling, but something about it just gnawed at me.

Here’s how the article starts:

Storytelling is the most powerful messaging tool available to us.

So far, so good. I think everyone agrees with this, there are hundreds of years of discussion on the power of storytelling.

It doesn’t matter if that story comes from blog articles, video, podcasting, or other channels. Nothing can convey the heart and soul of brand, product or personal essence like a solid story that can be retold (shared) with contemporary social tools.

I disagree with the wording here, but I think what the author is trying to say is that if you have a solid story (he mentions brand, I’d add product and services) that you can tell that story via various channels. Again, hard to argue with a method that is as old as marketing itself.

Here’s where I started having the heartburn with this post:

A product or brand story is a different beast than a “back in the day” story from grandmother, or the tale a friend tells next to the campfire. These stories require time, familiarity and willingness to participate by engagement or simply being open-minded. All of which the typical social media audience member has very little of.

There is a reason the vast majority of viral videos are less than 30 seconds. There is a reason why the best advertising on television can be retold while staying connected to the brand. There is also a reason why stories fail when you have to fall on your sword and say, “I guess you just had to be there.”

I wasn’t sure why these paragraphs bothered me, so I started looking at the entire discipline of storytelling. Surely I could just google to get a firm grasp of the basics, right? WRONG. And that’s when I understood why this post bothered me.

We are definitely blending the disciplines of training, journalism, and marketing as our methods of communicating are morphing. But storytelling isn’t just telling a story, this discipline has hundreds of years of scholarly observation. Additionally, much of that observation (at least in the US) is very Euro-centric. I think the reference to a “grandma story” may have hit my non-Euro-centric nerve…when a grandma tells me a story, I know to listen intently for the real  meaning.

Based on this, I started realizing that it’s insane to think we can google the basics of storytelling and claim to understand how to do this properly (albeit recast in the framework of marketing). And I was totally guilty of this!

My daughter has an MFA in creative writing. I asked her if she could point me to a good source to learn more about storytelling and familiarity. She told me I needed to ask the question correctly (apparently word nerds are as bad as unix nerds). She told me to read up on Joseph Campbell and to go to the library to check out some book.

I did google storytelling and familiarity. This book had some interesting insights, and this led me to understand that I know nothing about storytelling. But I want to learn!

Here is why I think this is important: we’re throwing around concepts that have concrete societal meanings. For instance, those “back in the day” story from grandmother, or the tale a friend tells next to the campfire”…those stories are important to brands and products. Just knowing how those stories are told, the characters, the world they are set in, even how they will end, these are all different types of familiarity.

In post about storytelling I put forward that product marketers and managers are responsible for the cannon for a product, in other words the official (supported) storyline for that product. (I need to point out that some of my UX friends disagree with this theory). Our audience knows our story, in enterprise tech they know it so well that they know our versions, the customer versions, the analyst versions, as well as the competition’s versions. They know our official, supported version, as well as all the variants of the story.

Because they have this familiarity with our story, they are able connect to the 30 second videos (or tweets|blog posts|images|$etc)  we put out to expand the story. If these little vignettes, many times designed to get them to click thru to a story or white paper behind a registration wall, don’t make sense, (in other words, if the microsharing bytes are not familiar), they will let us know. At best they will call us out for bombarding them with contrived marketing bologna, at worst they will mock us, worse still they will simply ignore us.

Even as I type this, I feel like I’m doing the discipline of storytelling a disservice. The biggest danger I see with marketing right now is that we steal from rich disciplines such as storytelling and education, and try to force it to fit into a century’s-old marketing formula that becoming more and more irrelevant. We have this amazing opportunity to create great stories for our audiences to connect with us. Let’s think different!

I’m off to get that book my daughter recommended. Can’t hurt right?

4 Responses to Quit forcing storytelling into an old school marketing model

  1. Amy Vernon says:

    As the person who shared the post that gave you agida, I feel somewhat responsible.

    First, I agree with much of what you say here. (Side note, I LOVE – and completely agree with -your observation, “apparently word nerds are as bad as unix nerds”.)

    OK. So I agree with both of your posts. I think the issue here is, as with the word nerds, we’re getting a little tied up in what we perceive to be the exact meaning of the word “storytelling.” I believe Neal was using it as a handy way to say, “telling a story.” And you are perceiving it as the discipline of storytelling.

    Again, you’re both right. We all use certain words as shortcuts when we know it has a deeper meaning. And we all have certain words where it drives us crazy when other people use those words as the shortcuts. I read your post three times before responding, in fact, because I found it so rich and thoughtful about the discipline. And now I want to also check out Peter Campbell.

    Interestingly, I think the two of you were getting at the same thing regarding Grandma’s stories – both of you are saying that someone is going to pay a lot more attention to their grandma or friend telling a story (at least, that’s how I was reading what you said, apologies if I misunderstand). No matter what a brand/company/business person does and no matter how incredibly talented their marketers are, the majority of people are never going to pay that sort of attention to their story.

    I love the idea of product managers being responsible for the canon of a product’s story. Really interesting and I think there’s a lot of truth in that (and I suspect I have more than one friend who’d disagree, as well).

    Thanks for such a thoughtful piece!

  2. gminks says:

    Thanks. I enjoyed the post…but…
    What I’m seeing in practical application are some consulting firms playing fast and loose with these words, charging enterprises tons of money, convincing them to short term the storytelling discipline (in the name of content marketing), and the actual result is that they alienate their intended audience.
    I think we need to blend, it’s inevitable. To do it right, I think we need to honor all of the disciplines we’re blending. And to tell good stories, we’re going to have to put in the time to do it correctly.

    I hope that makes sense. 🙂

  3. Amy Vernon says:

    I definitely agree with that. There are a lot of snake-oil salesmen out there and a lot of people who don’t care about doing quality work. Sadly, I think that’s going to be the case no matter what. I’ll make you a deal – I won’t give up on that if you don’t. 😉

  4. gminks says:

    Oh I won’t give up! Will be deep diving again soon. 🙂

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