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Interrogative on Storytelling

Asking more questions about storytelling will get you a lot closer to creating truly great ones.

You can’t talk about branding or public relations without tripping across promises to tell stories. It’s catnip to clients who feel like their stakeholders don’t understand or value them properly. Storytelling can substitute creative technique for substantive content, or so goes the sales pitch.

But successful storytelling has nothing to do with creativity.

A story is good or bad depending on its structure and substance, first and foremost. You don’t need a lit professor to tell you that good stories share common qualities: protagonists, conflict and uncertainty, human drama, internal consistency and, most of all, describe things that are real and believably true. This truth applies equally to news reports and the plots of romance novels.

It’s also what makes it harder for companies to tell great stories because it requires a willingness to embrace all the things that brand and marketing communicators don’t like, such as change, risk, and transparency. A great story is the antithesis of what’s covered in your typical press release or slick video.

In other words, the medium isn’t the message. The message is the message.

It your agency promises otherwise — offering creativity as some panacea workaround that will magically prompt greater awareness and credibility forf garbage you want to promote that nobody cares about — they’re either lying or don’t know what they’re talking about.

Here are 3 questions that can help you come up with better stories:

First, who wants to hear your story? This is the exact opposite starting point from deciding what you want the world to know. Your story needs to answer questions and interests of its intended recipients, which means the topics may not be those that you bought in that last glossy agency presentation. It also must be timely and have relevance to what’s going on in their lives and not your need to coordinate launch timing for a new product.

PS, if what you want to do is labelled “thought leadership” before you’ve filled in the blanks, it probably isn’t.

Second, how is it any different from other stories? Think about how many times you’ve shared stories about your company being “first,” “best,” or having accomplished something that you’ve said was “strategic.” None of those terms have any meaning because every company says the same things. It’s not helpful that everyone is reading the same market analyses from their consultants but it’s a good reminder of how challenging it is to be different.

It also means that nuance, complexity, or your own spin on some well-worn topic is not going to fly; instead, what stories can you tell that have not been told before? The world thought X but it’s really Y, or This is something that you’ve never heard of. …You need to think in these terms before you start creating content.

Third, are you prepared to tell the sequel? When people like stories they want to know that they can return to the narrative…to see what happens next, resolve unanswered questions, and ask new ones. That means describing where your story is going “next” is as important as describing where it’s at “now.”

It means that great storytelling promises goals and actions that are incomplete and ongoing; targets that may or may not be reached, or not so completely; people who have choices to make and decisions that haven’t been taken. A great story is as much about the story yet to tell as it is about the one it details.

It’s why tech startups leave big public companies in the dust when it comes to storytelling: two guys in a garage with no customers can happily declare their smartphone app will someday be able to read minds, while corp comms gets caught up in only sharing work that has been neatly wrapped in a ribbon, approved by legal, shared with investors, and blessed by the brand marketers.

Asking more questions about storytelling will get you a lot closer to creating truly great ones, or if you can’t answer them to your satisfaction, help you resist producing bad ones.

Considering how much owned content is available on company websites these days, there seems to be no shortage of the latter.