“Finding the right story, and telling it in the right way, is probably the biggest challenge facing brands today”
Storytelling is defined as ‘the art of telling, or writing, stories’. And here’s an important point. Because we’ve grown up surrounded by books and newspapers, many of us tend to think of stories as things we read. But as we celebrate the UK’s ‘National Storytelling week’ (27th Jan-3rd Feb) and live readings and events happen all over the country, it’s worth reminding ourselves how the roots of storytelling continue to lead the charge in 21st century communications.
‘Storytelling’ probably began with ancient rock art, long before conventional writing was invented. Then as language developed, stories were told in the ‘oral’ tradition – by word of mouth, passed on from generation to generation. Even when writing as we know it today became more common, the oral tradition continued, often told in rhyme to aid recall and retelling. Stories such as The Odyssey (8th Century BC) and Beowulf (7th Century AD) are examples. Equally, song, mime and dance were all used to bring stories and news to people who couldn’t read or write. In more recent times, Native Americans– who originally had no written language – have used storytelling as a means to create both an identity and shared sense of community. In this, we get a real sense of ‘brand’ where, by sharing and engaging with stories, people gain a clear insight into what makes one ‘tribe’ different to another. The fact is, storytelling – without the written word – has helped inform, motivate and inspire people for millennia. It is, literally, at the core of our being.
And then, in 1474, something happened to change the storytelling landscape forever: Caxton’s printing press. Suddenly books were widely available, bringing stories and ideas about religion, politics and philosophy into people’s homes. Yet while the printed word became the most prominent platform for storytelling, it has always had challengers. Theatre, song and art remained powerful, while in the 20th Century, photography, film, radio and television have all provided yet more channels. While marketers have used most of these for sharing their stories however, the printed word remained dominant…
… until the arrival of the Internet and social media.
Suddenly, print was on the retreat and storytelling had new channels: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Pinterest, LinkedIn and YouTube amongst countless others. Equally, the same stories are told and consumed in different content – from tweets, video and blogs to white papers, CGI and infographics.
For perhaps the first time since the early days of storytelling, we have stepped back to word of mouth. The ‘story’ has passed out of the control of the creator and into the hands of the ‘listener’, to be shared, interpreted, accepted or rejected. Of course, unlike our storytelling predecessors, we have a vital weapon on our side: ‘big data’ which can help us shape the way we present the story to customers, through which channel and at which stage of their journey. But while big data might help create a good experience, it can’t even begin to create what all good stories need: a strong and compelling narrative that ‘speaks’ out to people and engages them at an emotional level.
As those first Native Americans understood, stories have the power to create identity and a desire to belong; however many times the story is shared or retold in the telling. Finding the right story, and telling it in the right way, is probably the biggest challenge facing brands today.