Telling isn’t enough

Every marketer knows there’s power in storytelling. Not just in the act of it, but in the word itself.

When we talk about telling a story, we allude to something essential—something intuitive—about the way people connect with each other. Storytelling feels warm and real. Messaging, communicating or developing content can sound cold and contrived.

So, we set out to tell stories that bring that warmth and authenticity to the way people connect with brands.

We hone core messages so we can differentiate a brand from the competition. We articulate a distinctive voice so a brand “sounds” like the same storyteller every time. We create composite personas so we can imagine the people we’re talking to and what’s important to them.

We map their journey from perception to preference to purchase so we understand what they’re looking for, when they want it and which questions they’re asking at every step. We mine data—so much data—in search of patterns and insights. We plan strategies, channels, editorial calendars and metrics.

But it’s not enough. Not if we’re going to live up to the promise and power of storytelling.

“When we talk about telling a story, we allude to something essential—something intuitive.”

Find “the story of how”

The communications tools of modern marketing give us the genre, the point of view, the setting and the main characters. But they don’t give us the most important element of any story: the plot.

As a young reporter pitching feature stories, I remember getting discouraged quickly. I’d craft query letters about this interesting subculture or that new trend. I knew I had the writing chops, but my pitches kept bombing. No matter how thorough or brilliant I thought I was being, editors kept asking: So, where’s the story?

Then I got some advice that I’ll never forget: Stop pitching “a story about …,” and start pitching “the story of how …”

That one simple shift changes everything, and it’s as true for marketing as it is for journalism. It’s the difference between “a story about fishing” and “the story of how the big one got away.” It forces you to think beyond a product or a service or a canned testimonial, and to start thinking about action, change, complexity and possibility—the stuff great stories are made of.

And you can’t tell “the story of how …” with a set of tools and guidelines.

Your brand is everywhere you look

You have to step out of the marketing mindset and into the world. See your brand for what it really is: a collection of human experiences, not a construct of attributes and colors and voice.

You have to pay attention to what’s actually happening within and around your business, and you have to wonder why. Meet people and get to know them—the ones who dream up, create and use what you sell.

You have to ask questions, listen to the answers and believe they are important—just as important as all that data. Be OK with revealing low points and struggles.

You have to gather and absorb and understand lots of information that will never make it into any of your stories. That’s how you get smart enough to decide what does.

Most important, you have to recognize that even though you have all the right storytelling tools, a sound strategy and tactics for days, you don’t know the story—and you can’t tell the story—until you do the work of finding it.