Advice for Corporate Storytellers
Focusing less on facts and more on emotion will help your corporate storytelling.
“Memory is necessary for all operations of reasoning.” — Blaise Pascal (c.1658)
It’s tough living in the future, isn’t it?
There’s so much focus on the latest platform, trend, or technology. But true storytellers know that the medium isn’t the message.
“I think technology really increased human ability. But technology cannot produce compassion." — Dalai Lama
That quote makes me realize we have so much of ourselves to share in the personal and corporate stories we tell, today and in the many tomorrows to come.
Speaking of stories, some of the best jokes are told like stories. Did you ever hear a really good joke?
Like, a really good joke, where you said to yourself, “Wow — I’ve got to remember this, so I can tell my friends and make them laugh as hard as I'm laughing now.”
Then, you see your friends and you try to retell the joke. But you aren’t bringing it to life the same way. Maybe your gestures are off, the accent is different, or the embellishments aren’t as detailed.
Whatever the differences are, you still manage to hit all the points of the joke, but when you deliver the punchline, it just falls to the floor a lies there, helpless, looking up at you and pleading with you to just put it out of its misery already.
What just happened?
Something’s missing in your story.
A Little History
“The old wheel turns, and the same spoke comes up. It's all been done before, and will be again.” — Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, 1887
I’m a student of history and literature. When I admit this to my clients in the executive suite, it usually strikes them as odd, since so many of them expect consultants and advisers to come in quoting the latest platform trends.
I watch the trends and understand their utility just fine. But I also study human behavior, which over the course of recorded history, has been remarkably consistent. You’ve undoubtedly heard clichés like “What's past is prologue” (from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest) or “Those who don't know history are doomed to repeat it.”
While history doesn't repeat, it does rhyme. And when we ignore the successes and foibles of those who have come before us, we not only fail to learn from them, but we also show our ignorance.
“Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.” — Cicero
Why is history important? In Varieties of Cultural History, Peter Burke cites the ancient Greek historian Herotodus, noting that historians are guardians of memory. A collective memory is important in society — one that we’ll come back to in future editions here.
But he also pulls out a long-lost official title: Remembrancer.
It’s a beautiful term and an apt description for what storytellers or historians do:
Leaders and storytellers should be reading a variety of materials for inspiration. My own reading is eclectic, but it always informs my view of the present and future, particularly when it comes to executives, their teams, and business challenges. It gives me an outside perspective.
In the most recent issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, Lewis H. Lapham wrote a piece on memory called “The Remembered Past” in which he discerns between the recorded past and the remembered past:
The recorded past is a spiked cannon. The remembered past is live ammunition — not what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago, a story about what happened two hundred or two thousand years ago. The stories change with circumstance and the sight lines available to tellers of the tale. Every generation rearranges the furniture of the past to suit the comfort and convenience of its anxious present.” [Emphasis ours - Ed.]
At the very least, knowing what’s happened before we’ve come along will help us to make better decisions, whether it’s in the campaigns we create or the book titles we choose.
Why Should Brands Care?
When it comes to brands, why does it matter that we share stories about the facts rather than just the facts?
Lapham’s quote got me to thinking about how many companies tell stories, whether they're through press releases or feature-filled ads: they’re largely about getting all of the facts out there — what happened.
It’s like trying to awkwardly retell a joke: simply checking all of the boxes on the elements of the joke doesn't necessarily result in a hilarious outcome.
Telling people what happened is easy. More difficult is telling them how it happened. Or why it happened.
And most importantly, making them care about it.
The Commoditization of Stories
How do you make people care when you’re dealing in commodities? And let’s face it: facts are a commodity.
They’re necessary and they ground us in reality. But in any instance, the facts are cut and dried. They’re the same for everyone.
Your company’s brand, like it or not, is a commodity to most people. Odds are if they don't buy it from you, they can get the same thing (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) from someone else.
What can you give them that no one else can?
Certainly, your products and services need to stand out somehow. Maybe you’re the fastest, or most convenient, or have the best service. You have some kind of differentiator.
But what about your storytelling ability?
Part of what makes brands stand apart is the stories told about them. Whether it’s the brand telling the stories, or its evangelists, stories move people.
In order to move people, you need a good story, well-told.
Sometimes, your company’s story may need a little more work.
Elements of Well-Told Stories
In “The Wallet” episode of Seinfeld, Jerry is doing his stand-up routine at a club. He’s talking about TV shows that end with “To be continued…” and he complains:
“If I want a long boring story with no point to it, I have my life.”
How many press releases, white papers, or other pieces of “content” make you wonder: “Where is this going?”
Yes, yes. We all know that good stories have a beginning, middle, and end. But the point there is to orient your audience. Let them know where they are in the flow. Create a sense of drama.
The Scottish writer and theater critic William Archer knew a thing or two about audiences and expectations. He famously wrote:
"Drama is anticipation mingled with uncertainty."
Anticipation and uncertainty are part of what we also call suspense.
Creating suspense can seem daunting. Primarily because we think of suspense as it relates to Alfred Hitchcock, “the master of suspense.”
But it’s not about being creepy or scary. It’s about bringing your audience along in your story. Making them want to hear what’s next.
Laying out a theme and showing empathy will draw them in.
In doing so, you’re allowing them to relate to you and the situation you're describing with your story.
Once you’ve got that hook — and again, it’s about creating a relatable situation or narrative that makes them care — you can begin filling in the details.
As you do, these elements should create anticipation.
One of my favorite stories about creating anticipation is from the divisive Howard Stern is from his 1997 movie Private Parts, when a researcher is sharing the ratings information about Stern's show with the station manager (lovingly nicknamed “Pig Vomit”):
Researcher: The average radio listener listens for eighteen minutes. The average Howard Stern fan listens for — are you ready for this? — an hour and twenty minutes.
Pig Vomit: How can that be?
Researcher: Answer most commonly given? “I want to see what he'll say next.”
Pig Vomit: Okay, fine. But what about the people who hate Stern?
Researcher: Good point. The average Stern hater listens for two and a half hours a day.
Pig Vomit: But… if they hate him, why do they listen?
Researcher: Most common answer? “I want to see what he'll say next.”
It’s astounding that haters can be so engaged, but it shows you what good storytelling can do when employing uncertainty and anticipation.
As you’re considering working with your team to tell your brand story differently, try approaching it differently.
Like a comic telling a joke; or an artist painting a picture; or an architect designing a building.
Scene, characters, and action are essential starting points; you need to sketch out where you're going; you need to build the framework that supports the bigger elements.
Only then can you add the flourishes, details, and trim that make a memorable joke, painting, or edifice.
So as you rearrange the furniture of your stories and act as a remembrancer, taking into account the stories that have been told before, by your own brand and others, consider how you’ll make someone care who otherwise has no passing interest in your brand.
If you can get them to pass that along, you'll achieve what generations of historians and marketers alike have striven for.
And the next time you see me in person, ask me to tell you a really good joke.
If you’d like to hire me to speak to your group, let’s chat.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.