Story: Beyond The Buzzword

Storytelling may be all the rage, but it’s not new. On the contrary, it may be our oldest art form. But what is new and incredibly encouraging is the spreading influence that this recent emphasis on story is having on business.

Adam Davidson captured one aspect of it well in his New York Times Magazine article, “What Hollywood Can Teach Us About the Future of Work.” In it, he writes, “It’s probably not coincidental that the Hollywood model is ascendant at a time when telling stories, broadly speaking, is at the heart of American business… . Profits need to come from that extra something that only your company can give, something for which customers are willing to pay a premium.”

Daniel Pink made a similarly compelling and provocative case about the importance of right-brain skills in the story-driven economy in his book, A Whole New Mind. What was true in 2006 when he wrote it is even more so in 2015.



As marketers, we should be leading this charge by demonstrating for other departments within companies what story can do for business. Confining it to storytelling is a waste. That’s no different than what we’ve been doing for decades. If story can impact organizational models and skill development, then it can certainly affect marketing strategy, even company strategy, more than it has.

If you talk to any screenwriter, playwright or film director, they’ll tell you that story is a methodical, structured way of thinking. Vince Gilligan, creator of “Breaking Bad,” was interviewed about his team’s process for “breaking the story,” the process of architecting what a given episode or season is truly about. It can take a room of writers two-plus weeks to break a single episode of “Breaking Bad,” which is an eternity in TV production. But once they’re done, any writer in the room can go off and write the episode because they all know so intimately what that story is about.

So have we done all we can to tether strategy to storytelling? Why not push story structure upstream into the strategy process? When we do that, benefits are multiple:

1. Strategy is designed in customer-centric terms. As often as companies talk about being customer-led, most strategy sessions I’ve participated in have centered on what my employer or client wanted to accomplish. Story cannot exist without an audience, so this forces customer perspective into the room.

2. Translation cycles are removed. If briefs arrived at marketing and sales teams in story structure and not as dense lists of bullets or charts, then we’re speaking the same language already. The money, time and motivation wasted in the translation phase are eliminated.

3. Strategy is understood and adopted. Bullets bore, stories soar. In Made to Stick, Chip Heath describes an experiment he conducts yearly at Stanford where, after a series of presentations, his students are asked what they remember. Sixty-three percent remembered the information presented in story form and only 5% remembered the statistics.

If story structure in the boardroom is too heady a topic, then let’s take it down a rung on the strategy ladder. Consider the brand guide and, to apply the analogy of Hollywood again, compare it to the film script. Both are painstakingly constructed over months while considering how hundreds of creatives will later bring it to life. However, only the script is filled with white space, later to be populated with notes from cinematographers and casting directors and costume designers. By focusing only on the core narrative, the screenwriter heightens understanding while leaving space for others to raise the end product even higher.

This sounds like a description of what a brand guide should be, but too often the brand guide has more restrictive language than the iTunes User Agreement. It polices rather than mentors. Oh, the horror if someone thought we meant Calisto instead of Calibri. Or it repeats. Raise your hand if your voice and tone guidelines have clear, confident, or compelling in them. Bonus points for the trifecta.

The opportunity is here, screaming at us. Story is the new language of business. And not in opposition to data, but in partnership with it. In executive circles, story has a PR problem as an art form. But its more scientific side — its structural approach — fits strategy like a glove. And by reinventing our own process and tools, we’ll walk the walk on the impact that story can have.

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