The Currency of Story

31 Jul 2014
The Currency of Story
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Tricia Bath

Storytelling has the attention of businesses and brands everywhere. Amazon lists more than 150,000 books on the subject. And a search on Google yields millions of results.

As a strategy director, understanding the role storytelling plays for our clients—both B2B and CPG—and their customers and consumers matters greatly. So in late June, I attended Story University, an immersive storytelling workshop in New York City, to try to understand why story matters so much now, and how brands can use story.

Organized by Get Storied, an advisory and training company devoted
 to transformational storytelling, and their CEO and Founder Michael Margolis, the two-day intensive brought together corporate innovators, social change-makers, entrepreneurs and marketers from around the globe who are interested in the foundations of game-changing stories.

Story University NYC was not a course on story mechanics, performance or content marketing. It offered participants the chance to dig deep into storytelling fundamentals to learn how to create stories that establish authentic, lasting connections.

Through individual and group exercises, we explored ways to use the power of storytelling to intrigue someone who might at first be disinterested, and help them inhabit our “Story World.” Although the workshop exposed me to new thinking, many of the group’s conversations underscored what I believe to be true about story.

Storytelling is in Our DNA

Stories help people navigate the world. We rely on them to express ourselves, to learn new information and to make meaning out of our experiences. And now research in neuroscience is showing that stories can even change how we act and interact in life.

This means businesses and brands need to hardwire storytelling into their culture if they want to stay in a relationship with their audiences. It’s critical that we humanize our work and messages to help people see what we see, believe in it and act on it.

It is hard not to see the huge implications of storytelling in an increasingly brand-driven, and experience-based economy. It’s all about the stories.

Origins Matter

Corporate timelines and histories may have their place as a record of achievement, but audiences rarely engage with these facts and figures. It’s more important than ever for companies to tell the story of who they are and why they exist—as Simon Sinek says in his now famous book, Start with Why, and TED Talk: “People don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it.” Organizations that have a compelling and relevant backstory establish greater credibility and connection with their audiences. By revealing what forces shaped them, organizations can give people context, meaning and insight into why they can believe you.

Tension Is Required

Story without conflict is like a motor without fuel. It just doesn’t work well. Organizations that default to saccharine messaging lose audience because “too good to be true” usually is. Without tension, there is no possibility for the audience to see themselves in the story.

This doesn’t mean that stories should be full of turmoil or struggle either. Victim stories are equally as repelling as those with a positivity bias. Simply articulating the desired outcome and what stands in the way provides just the right mix of twists and turns. Put another way: want + obstacle = story. Keeping stories real helps the audience relate and connect more readily to the big idea.

If you tell a story of perfection, the only direction it can go is down.

Responsible Storytelling

My overall takeaway from Story University NYC is that working with story—no matter what industry we’re in—comes with responsibility. Stories are powerful. Well-told stories have the ability to win hearts and minds, to translate differences into acceptance, to bring more meaning into our lives and the relationships we build, whether with individuals, businesses or brands. So we must use them wisely. Our motivations must be pure because, as Michael Margolis says, our audiences are always asking, “Are you selling me crap or do you give a crap?”

In a recent interview with FITC, Stefan Sagmeister called bullshit on those in the communications industry who declare themselves storytellers. I agree with Sagmeister that not everyone is a professional storyteller per se, but I do believe that people are natural storytellers. Story is ingrained in us at birth. We live in a sea of stories. We thirst for a story well told because it helps us make sense of the world.

Stories have existed since we’ve had the ability to sit around a campfire. Now, our campfire is the cloud and our audience is global. We continue to “trade on the currency of story,” as Margolis says. So although we are not all storytellers by trade, knowing and caring about how to tell a story matters to us all. Connection and transformation can only happen with a story well told. And as communicators, we owe it to our audiences to be better at it.