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Don’t believe the myth about storytelling

4 min, 6 sec read
10:00 AM | 19 February 2016
by Patrick Olszowski
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When it comes to storytelling, too many people have been drinking the koolaid.

Be it through PR, online or in the real world, many organisations are stuck in generating ‘spikes of interest’. Their stories are here today, gone tomorrow. Thousands of person-hours expended for something with a half-life measured often in minutes.

Compare this with the best storytellers who are spinning stories that are raising funds, generating sales and exciting passionate fans. Told by people telling long-term stories, with characters we root for, in recognisable, exciting settings, with developing plot lines and cliffhangers, often rolling over years. Stories that people are falling over themselves to be part of.

Not convinced? Just think how differently you feel about one tweet compared to the arrival of your favourite box-set (series 4 of ‘House of Cards’ anyone?)

Imagine if you could use these same principles and techniques to tell your story, to find lifelong fans, build your brand, generate sales and make your lifelong mission a reality – leaving the world just a little bit better than you picked it up?

Although budget is a factor, it is far from the only thing that differentiates good and bad storytelling. If you want your story to stand the test of time and be talked about – what do you need to do?

1. Be famous for one thing

It is about determination to be known for one thing and to have the confidence to test, test, test and execute rapidly. What does this mean?

It means setting out a big, ambitious goal, be it about your business, charity or the wider world – working consistently to achieve this – and testing what works. Once you have achieved this goal, only then should you consider moving on to the next audacious goal.

This doesn’t mean just do one thing – this is unrealistic – but it means don’t try and talk about everything you do all at the same time.

2. Take time to understand who your customers and supporters are

Where are they? Who? What do they think of you? Why do they want to be part of your story? By understanding this, and constantly checking in with them, you can work out what would encourage them to support you more.

3. Next, what is YOUR story?

Most likely you have never stopped to think about why you do what you do, beyond the confines of an individual biography for a website or a press release. But what do you stand for? Really? What matters to you? What do you want to be remembered for? What do you want as your legacy?

Working this out can take time – but, executed with a lightness of touch, humility and humour, can elevate your pitch in to a mission. Done right it can make your story more universal, easier for others to support and not just be about narrow self-interest (not that there is anything wrong with this).

Storytelling is currently en vogue. Agencies and consultancies are springing up – including mine – insisting this is the latest thing.

It is not.

As Jeff Echols says “storytelling is at least 32,000 years old – man shoots a buffalo and then tells a story about, daubing a painting in caves in France”.

4. Once you know your customers and supporters and your own story, the next step is telling your story

Here think long-term. Not for you the short term, heady fix of a heavily retweeted graphic – but a long-term, developed, ‘universe’.

This again is a word attracting a LOT of ‘snake-oil sales-personship’.

Buoyed by the success of Marvel’s multi-billion dollar, Marvel Cinematic Universe (TM), where different characters (Iron Man, Jessica Jones, The Hulk) all inhabit the same world – organisations are rushing to generate their own worlds/universes – often with shambolic results.

One mistake people are making is to think that they have to make up characters and plot lines – you don’t.

Instead it is about uncovering and empowering the real people, staff, supporters, customers who are tackling real problems and trusting them to tell your story – over a far longer period than most normally do.

Again as Jeff Echols says, “You can’t be the hero of your own story”. Instead others have to be trained, supported and trusted to take this role and you need to collaborate with them – testing what works, quickly and cheaply, focusing on learning (rather than purely on the outcome).

Tell your story online, in person – but tell it consistently and in a compelling way, about a story bigger than yourself, people will come to you.

5. Find the fans you need to make your story a reality

Working out who will be positively affected by your story and then telling them your story, asking them to become part of making it a reality.

In summary:

  • Understand those who support you and why
  • Work out what you stand for
  • Get others to tell your story
  • Find fans
  • Test
  • It really is as simple as that

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