Why so much ‘storytelling’ is just telling

By Simon Brooke.

If there’s one word that dominates the lexicon of communications and public relations professionals at the moment, it’s storytelling. Everyone’s doing it – chief executives, politicians, charity bosses and communications professionals.

Or at least they think they’re doing it.

The fact is that what many people call storytelling simply isn’t storytelling at all. How do I know? The same way you know – because every human being recognises a good story when we see one.

We know that storytelling fires up more areas of the brain than simply giving facts. As they say, ‘facts tell, stories sell’. We also know that narrative can put an argument or a difficult decision into context and make it sound more convincing.

Researchers at Drexel University, Philadelphia, have discovered how storytelling activates the same parts of the teller’s and listener’s brain, developing greater empathy – a building block of good communication.

As a copywriter and speechwriter, I often ask my clients: why is it that you can spend an afternoon curled up on the settee watching a box set or two hours with a good book or an evening in the theatre (I know, but it will happen again) and yet, if I ask you to spend 20 minutes watching a presentation almost immediately, you’re checking your watch and thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner?

That box set, that absorbing novel or that magical evening in the theatre all have the real ingredients of storytelling – so much of which corporate storytelling misses.

Whether it’s Game of Thrones, Pride and Prejudice or Casablanca, these stories have carefully drawn human characters. They have a narrative with ups and downs, challenges, dilemmas and rewards. They vary in style with funny bits, sad bits and moments that are moving, or mysterious or intriguing. They have dramatic scenes that bring you to the edge of your seat. They paint pictures and, most of all, they create emotion. But so much corporate storytelling misses out on these essential elements.

Look at many of the so-called case studies on a corporate website and you’ll see something along the following lines: a company approached us with a problem. We provided a solution and now they’re doing better than they were before.

That isn’t a story. It’s just a list of facts.

If it was a story, then there would be quotes and little anecdotes to show us how difficult the situation had become before revealing how it improved. Genuine, inspiring storytelling is about ‘show’ rather than ‘tell’.

I recently wrote a case study about a change management programme at a company. Talking to the senior team we pinpointed what writers call the ‘inciting incident’, that event that spins us off out of the ‘ordinary world’ into the adventure that forms the focus of the story. Here it was an important, longstanding client deserting the firm because it felt that the firm had become complacent and had fallen behind the competition.

What I learnt was that the email terminating the relationship had arrived between Christmas and New Year. You know – that week when almost everyone’s out of the office going on long bracing walks and watching rubbish on telly. We used this fact to add a touch of drama to the case study and to emphasise how bad things had become – ready for the long, hard climb back up again.

The senior management team met in the cold, empty office with hailstones hammering on the windows and, over turkey sandwiches and cold Christmas pudding, they began to plot their journey of recovery. Does this detail matter?  Yes, because it paints a picture and draws us in.

Digging deeper, I was told about this journey’s ups and downs, its moments of despair and its breakthroughs.

I learnt about the mentor that had helped the team (another element of a good story) and about those little eureka moments that had come to the CFO when she was watching her son play football or when the CMO was doing the washing up.

Even with these ingredients good corporate storytelling needn’t be long winded. With just a few well-chosen details and anecdotes and the right structure it can be concise and focussed – Ernest Hemingway famously did it in just six words.

We all recognise a good story when we see one. We tell them all day, every day, and we all know that storytelling is the best form of communication.  According to research by the University of Liverpool around two thirds of all conversations consist of storytelling.

Organisations just need to have the courage and the imagination to really do it rather than simply talking about it.

Simon Brooke is a copywriter, media trainer, and speechwriter.

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