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Does Storytelling Still Matter?

Buzzwords abound in business, and some of the worst "offenders" of buzzword culture are the creatives in and around marketing and advertising.

I remember talking with the owner of a small creative agency sometime back about how she kept hearing about "roadmapping." Everyone was talking about it--how important it was to advertising and marketing, and how if you didn't know what it was or how to use it, you were missing the boat. Intrigued and anxious to stay on top of her industry, she started reading and researching--and quickly realized, "oh, this is just strategy."

If there's one thing creatives are good at, it's rebranding!

Sometime around 2012, "storytelling" began to take off as a buzzword in marketing and advertising circles. Though a few voices, such as Seth Godin, talked about the value of story before 2012, the number of marketers on LinkedIn who listed "storytelling" as a skill on their profiles was next to zero. Just two years later, that number was nearly 250,000, prompting LinkedIn to name 2012 as "The Year of Storytelling."

But eight years is practically a geological era in marketing years. Does storytelling still matter?


But I'll go even further and suggest that storytelling will always matter.

And it doesn't just matter in marketing and advertising.

It matters for every aspect of business.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Storytelling isn't exactly a new concept. Humans have been telling stories in some form since the invention of language--or perhaps even before that, because storytelling doesn't require words. Stories educate, inform, explain, persuade, and entertain. The elements of story are recognizable across culture, language, religion, and time. Wherever there are humans, there are stories.

The series Mad Men was excellent at demonstrating how to use storytelling to sell a product. Take, for instance, just this one example of Peggy Olson knocking the Popsicle® pitch out of the park:

What does the Popsicle story have that makes it so compelling?

  • It's familiar: Everyone who's ever had a Popsicle can identify with breaking it in half and sharing it.

  • It's nostalgic: The ad evokes childhood, fun, summer--even the warm comfort of receiving a Popsicle from Mom when a stomach bug hits.

  • It's simple: The best stories are accessible, easy to understand, and quick to communicate.

  • It's generic: The only specific, really, in Peggy's ad is the product. Everything else is generic enough that the buyer can impose his or her own images into the story.

The elements of story have shaped marketing and advertising for decades (or, dare I say, centuries).

But the elements of story aren't an arcane language available only to "creatives." To view storytelling as a kind of talent that only a few people have puts "creatives" in a separate class. And as much as some creatives would like to think of themselves as the high priests or priestesses of story and the keepers of the secret knowledge of storytelling, this perspective reveals a profound misunderstanding of the accessibility of storytelling.

Put another way: If you're human, you already know about the elements of story.

Do You Know Story?

You may not have labels or terms or definitions for the elements of story, but chances are good that if I asked you to break down your favorite movie or book, you would instinctively identify the elements of story.

Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of, say, the very first Star Wars movie released back in 1977 knows that Luke Skywalker is the hero, Darth Vader is the villain, Obi Wan Kenobi is the guide, and blowing up the Death Star is the climax of the story.

Those who have read Pride & Prejudice know that Elizabeth Bennet is the protagonist, her lack of good fortune is the antagonist (or perhaps society is the antagonist? Discuss), and she suffers reversals due to the actions of Mr. Wickham, her sister Lydia, Caroline Bingley, and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.

We instinctively look for "good guys," "bad guys," plot, structure, resolution, and other elements any time we consume a story. In fact, if a key element is missing or poorly executed, we feel cheated--as if an unspoken promise was broken.

In a 1944 experiment, psychologists Fritz Heider and Marianne Simmel asked subjects to watch a short film of geometric shapes moving around on screen. The film was not narrated. The shapes had no distinguishing human characteristics.

When the psychologists asked subjects to describe what happened in the film, most of the subjects created a story about the shapes. They described the shapes with human characteristics and motives, and they imposed conflict, climax, and resolution onto the movements of the shapes.

In other words, the lack of story demanded the creation of a story. Subjects could not watch the shapes without assuming there must be some kind of story behind the movements.

So Why Does Storytelling Matter?

Storytelling matters because it's part of being human. It's a kind of currency that opens doors to better connection with other humans. Better connections lead to increased sales, stronger teams, and healthier interpersonal relationships. Working toward a better understanding and use of story can benefit your work and your relationships in a myriad of ways.

Storytelling is a leadership skill: Want to position yourself as a leader? Esther Choy lays out a case for why leaders need to cultivate their storytelling abilities. But using story as a means to effectively lead teams is nothing new. The best leaders in history have used stories to create connection among followers, drive initiatives, and provoke change, for good or for ill.

Stories help people retain information: Our brains are wired to remember stories better than raw data. Even in a subject like physics, professors recognize that students remember information better when it's delivered in story form.

Stories promote sharing: When one leader or marketer tells a story, it often prompts more sharing and storytelling. When people tell stories, they talk, connect, and open up. In a culture where social media is often a major component of a company's marketing strategy, creating ways for customers to connect with the brand can make a huge difference in retention.

Stories create an emotional connection: Stories don't just create a connection between the audience and the characters. They can also create a connection between the audience and the storyteller, other audience members, and even people outside the story event. Stories make us feel the full range of human emotion, and when we turn around and share the story with someone new, we pass on that emotion and strengthen the bonds between us.

Toward Better Storytelling

While it's true that storytelling is a human trait that does not require one to be a "creative," it's also true that storytelling as a skill comes more naturally to some people than to others. To cultivate the skill in yourself, try some of the following exercises:

  • Break down your favorite stories into recognizable elements: Who is the hero? The villain? Sometimes the "bad guy" is not a person, but rather a thing--a storm, a war, societal norms, etc. Can you identify that thing that is trying to prevent the hero from getting what he or she wants? What does the hero want? Does the hero achieve his or her goals?

  • Practice telling stories: Chances are good you have a few stories you tell over and over. How can you streamline your stories to hit the elements more effectively? Practice retelling stories and watch your audience for reaction.

  • Write: Even if you aren't a "writer," take some time to record some stories of your own. Try to identify the elements in your stories.

  • Listen: Every family has that one person who is a masterful storyteller--someone who just has a knack for drawing attention to some riveting tale. Or try visiting a library, museum, or cultural center where a professional storyteller is presenting. Listen to those stories and analyze them later.

Storytelling matters. Even if the creatives of the world rebrand storytelling sometime in the next few years, it will still matter. To connect through story is intrinsically, basically human. And whether for sales, management, or just better relationships, we could all use a little more connection.

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