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Story First, then Storytelling

Posted by on Mar 11, 2015 in News | No Comments

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We have scientific studiescorporate case studies and countless thought leaders telling us that stories trump facts and stats when trying to resonate with an audience. So why won’t the storytelling craze help us?

First, let’s consider the opportunity we’re trying to address. According to eMarketer, $135 billion was spent on content marketing, viral marketing and social media in 2014. By comparison, the global revenue of the film industry was estimated at $91 billion. That means companies generated 44% more content in 2014 than filmmakers. Clearly we have surge of corporate content happening.

However, all content creation today begins as company or marketing strategy arrives at a marketing team in the form of dense presentations, product descriptions and market summaries. This strategy reflects what a company selfishly wants to accomplish. The team is then required to wade through and find what could be translated into effective corporate stories. If the team is internal, vast amounts of productivity and motivation are lost. If the team is an agency, then add money to the list of what’s lost as they bill you for the deep dive.

For the storytelling movement to truly succeed, we need to shift our attention and apply story structure at the strategy level first. When we design strategy in construct of story principles far upstream of marketing execution, it has four inherent benefits:

  1. There are no wasteful translation cycles. Because we’re already speaking in story terms when strategy arrives at execution, we save time, budget and team morale.
  2. We are customer-centric from the start. Without an audience, there is no such thing as a story, so strategy is designed with the customer in the forefront, not the company.
  3. Story replaces description. Description serves the author, and makes the company feel good about what it made. Story serves the audience and focuses on making them care.
  4. Engagement increases. The allure of flaunting of your knowledge by using acronyms and jargon recedes and engagement improves because we simplify language when we tell stories.

Story should not be viewed as an artistic talent. It is a structural process no less rigid than building architecture.

Take the story medium of film, for example. After nearly 20 years in marketing, I spent five years intensely studying screenwriting and found the Robert Altman quote – “Screenwriting isn’t writing, it’s blueprinting” – to be abundantly true. There are very defined structural elements expected of all scripts relating to acts, story beats, characters, conflict, genre, tone, setting, even time allotment. (One page of script = one minute of screen time.)

This does not limit the creativity of the writer, however, it actually fuels it. But only because the screenwriter thinks in story terms from the beginning and makes ruthless decisions to further the strength and uniqueness of their project.

By the time a team of creative talents gather to turn the script into a film, the essence of the story is clear. Plenty of room remains for the creative expression of the director, the cinematographer, the composer, and others. But there is no confusion about the story. The team knows its genre, theme and hero. They know what’s at stake, what stands in the way, and how our hero will ultimately prevail. And they know that the screenwriter has designed all of this with the sole intent of connecting with an audience.

Until companies start handing clearer, more inspirational strategy “scripts” to their teams, the storytelling content that follows will underperform. It is no easy task as we’ve built decades of muscle memory this way. But the medium that calls for description – the store shelf – is declining in purchase influence. The medium that wants story – social media – is rising rapidly.

It’s time we adapt our models to fit today’s market. Just as no film studio would equip a production team with a PowerPoint deck and a research study to guide their film, you shouldn’t either with your marketing. Only when story leads from the beginning, will we truly reap the rewards of the storytelling movement.

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