Storytelling and Real Storytelling

Bill Baker (no relation) is nicer than I am, so don't pin any of my introduction on him. I recently spoke to an auditorium of C-level executives, and the title of my presentation was long but revealing: "The Happy Death of Branding, the Next Fad of Storytelling, and the Hopeful Rise of Alignment."

I guess that expresses my view of branding: there are a few firms really doing it, and the rest (and majority) aren't doing anything differently than they did before, but now they are calling it branding because it sounds upstream. There was no training in marketing, no classes, books, or even real processes. The typical four circles with the ubiquitous use of alliteration doesn't count and should be taken off your website.

Regardless of whether or not you agree with my view of branding, it clearly is yesterday's news, and storytelling comes up frequently. Rather than being marginalized even more, I think we ought to jump on this one early so that we don't relieve the word of even more meaning.

Bill (disclosure: a client) is one of the very few people really doing story telling. While the concept has been around since people wrote on cave walls, modern storytelling was really maximized by E+S (Envisioning and Storytelling) in Vancouver roughly three decades ago, a place where Bill was Chief Strategic Officer. Now, under BillBaker&Co he continues that great work with clients like GE, Relais & Chateaux, Johnson & Johnson, The Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, etc. Here are some of his thoughts on the difference between faux storytelling and real storytelling. Real storytelling is a very complex skill, and I can sit for days listening to Bill point out the subtleties involved. This is just the outer layer.

Here's Bill:

There's Storytelling...and Then There's Strategic Storytelling

There's a lot of talk about storytelling going around these days. Over the past several years, this timeless and infinitely familiar craft has become somewhat of a darling in the corporate world, with more and more companies looking to use storytelling in their communications and branding efforts.

The fact that storytelling is in fashion is not surprising. Since man first started communicating with each other, stories have been the way we most readily and naturally share thoughts, feelings and experiences with others. Throughout history, great leaders have used storytelling to connect people to ideas, to each other and to a vision of the future they feel inspired and empowered to make real. (Watch Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, and you'll see what I mean) Storytelling works because it's already in our nature, and a well-crafted story well told has a way of reaching through and touching us in ways that the typical advertising campaign or mission statement simply can't.

With that said, there is a big difference between storytelling and strategic storytelling. In many instances, the term storytelling has simply become a euphemism for corporate communications or advertising, with hopes of putting a fresh spin on increasingly stale practices. In contrast, strategic storytelling leverages the inherent power of this timeless art of humanity and uses it to shape the way people think, focus their understanding, and compel them towards desired actions. Storytelling on its own typically involves telling any story. In contrast, strategic storytelling involves envisioning, finding and telling the right stories.

We define storytelling as "the authentic exchange of something meaningful, shared from one person to another." We add to that definition, "...for a purpose" to underscore the strategic intent behind the stories we help our clients craft and share with key audiences, both internal and external. It's always storytelling with intent, purpose and a desired goal in mind. So, as you think about using storytelling in your branding, communications or employee engagement efforts, make certain you do so strategically. Outlined below are five guidelines to help you do just that.

  1. Consider the desired actions, thoughts and feelings of your audience before you think about which stories to tell them. When using storytelling in communications--your social media, brand advertising, website, client presentations, blog posts, Facebook, speeches, staff communications, etc.--think first about the actions you want people to take as a result of those communications; literally, what you want them to do after listening to you. Next, consider the thoughts and feelings that those people would need to have in order to feel motivated to take those actions. And then and only then should you consider whether or not there is a story you could share that will help shape those desired thoughts and feelings and move people towards those desired actions. Again, this is the difference between telling any story and telling the right story--i.e. the difference between storytelling and strategic storytelling.
  2. Use storytelling to establish context and relevance for your messages, increasing their uptake and absorption. Storytelling is an incredibly effective way to engage and interact with an audience at a more intimate level, getting them to see a bit of what you see before telling them what you want them to hear. Relevant stories told at the right time pave the way for core messages to get through more easily. They take what could be a wide range of potential thought and perspective and narrow it; like taking goal posts set 50 yards apart and pulling them each 10 yards closer together. Using a relevant story sets the stage for your strategic messages is a way of you saying to your audience, "Here's how I want you to think, feel and see the world before I tell you what I am about to tell you." 
  3. Know that storytelling can take many forms. If you consider the definition of storytelling outlined above, you will appreciate that there are many different ways to exchange meaning between people. A personal story from your own experience is certainly one way to do so. However, a quote from a wise and well-respected dead person can do the same, as can a provocative image, a clip from a movie, a headline from a newspaper, etc. Not every strategic story has to start with, "Once upon a time."
  4. Understand that storytelling is a pull strategy, not push. For the longest time, traditional communications involved pushing messages out there into the marketplace hoping that with enough repetition something will eventually stick. Those days are long gone, and quality has quickly trumped quantity when it comes to communications. Storytelling, when properly practiced, pulls people into a dialogue: a conversation. It's about engagement and interaction, in which the audience is just as active a participant as the storyteller. It has a way of taking people along a path that is unfolding in front of them, pointing them towards a desired conclusion but, importantly, giving them the room and the freedom to draw that conclusion themselves. When people make the connection themselves, they respect the conclusion all the more (and you for helping them reach it) and are then infinitely more likely to act on it.
  5. Make certain your stories draw upon magic and logic. Truly great storytelling touches our hearts as well as our heads, getting us to feel as well as think. It understands that ideas with emotions stick with people a lot longer than ideas do on their own. By connecting with people emotionally, storytelling opens a channel for mental connections to take place: an open pipeline through which key messages and important facts can flow. Information alone almost never changes people's minds, let alone their lives; but logic with feeling can make magic.

As you start to think about bringing storytelling into your brand communications or employee engagement efforts, don't do so simply because it is very "of the moment"; do so because it works. But make certain you are thinking strategically about the stories you are telling, as a brand, as a leader as a social and communicative human being. If you're ready for that journey, there's a great story ahead. 

Bill Baker is the principal and founder of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling. BB&Co works with clients all over the world, helping them craft a richer narrative and strategic vision around their brands, then using the timeless power of storytelling to focus, unlock and inspire the human energy needed to make that vision real. You may reach him at

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