Wherever you go in the content marketing industry, people are talking about brand storytelling.   You have to tell stories to get customers emotionally involved in your brand. The human mind is intrinsically geared to hearing and understanding stories.

Hey, I’m all for storytelling. When my clients go on about how they digitally “transform” this or that, I harass them for real-world examples – stories, if you will — to explain what they’re doing.  When they give me a cookie-cutter, jargon-filled case study to word-smith, I push back for more details on the business challenges and the internal implementation headaches that will bring their work to life.

But in each of those examples, I use stories to illustrate a wider theme or broader truth. When we use stories to trivialize, to distract, to pander or to cover up, we’re cheapening our profession and pulling the wool over our reader’s eyes. Is that we went into this profession for?

How might story-telling hoodwink a reader, either intentionally or not? Stick with me for a sec for an example from the pharmaceutical rather than the IT industry.

Yes, We Price Gouge, But Our People Are Nice

Consider these two audio spots I heard within ten minutes the other day on NPR:

The first described allegations that drug companies vastly overstate the cost of drug development to justify higher drug prices and greater profits.

The second was a promotional notice from an NPR donor – a drug company — inviting listeners to hear stories about how their employees volunteer their time to help their communities.

Which story is more emotionally engaging? The feel-good piece about the volunteers. Which is easier to tell? The feel-good piece about the volunteers. Which drive more positive views of the drug company? The feel-good piece about the volunteers.

But that volunteer story describes dozens or maybe hundreds of volunteers doing individual good works. Unless the drug company is giving them paid time off to volunteer, it’s not really about the drug company at all. The second story involves billions of dollars and whether hundreds of millions of people get the health care they need.

So you tell me. Which story is more important?

Where Storytelling Goes Bad

Story telling is essential because it grabs viewers and listeners emotionally. But it gets in the way when it:

  1. Describes only anecdotes while ignoring systematic root causes. You can always, for example, find a student from a failed family and lousy school who made it into Harvard. But that doesn’t mean poor schools and chaotic home lives don’t holding many more students back. A corrupt mortgage broker could tell lots of good stories about the nice people who work for them. But that doesn’t compare with the human loss caused by systemic abuses such as weak underwriting, corrupt lenders, and too-loose credit.
  2. Conflates a one-time event with real change. At the recent Content Marketing World Kate Santore, who heads up integrated marketing content for Coca-Cola, played a 2013 ad showing Coke kiosks encouraging person to person contacts  between citizens of nuclear-armed rivals India and Pakistan. The spot is beautiful and even inspirational. But did it make a lasting difference in how those people felt, thought or acted?
  3. Appeals to the emotion at the expense of clear thinking. Check out this light-hearted ad from Cisco claiming the ideal Valentine’s Day gift is an ASR 9000 Series Aggregation Services Router. I can see this working for top of the funnel “awareness” of a product, but will it convince either a system administrator to recommend it, or a CIO or CFO to approve the purchase?
  4. Doesn’t reflect the company’s true value or role. You have to praise Coke’s diversity-boosting Super Bowl ad this year as at least taking a stand on a controversial subject. But at the end of the day, is Coke’s mission showing “what unites us is stronger than what divides us” or selling beverages for a profit?
  5.  Doesn’t tell the customer what they need to make a purchase decision. At Content Marketing World, I overheard one speaker enthusing over how a post on a bank Web site about watching an eclipse out-performed traditional content such as, he sneered, “stories about the interest rate on credit cards.” Maybe it’s just me, but I want to hear about my bank’s interest rates.

Wherever I turn, I see “storytellers” trying to distract me with anecdotal, emotion-filled messages when what I need are facts. If we’re selling big-ticket IT solutions, we need to make sure “stories” support the message but don’t overwhelm it.

Thoughts?how story telling goes bad

Author: Bob Scheier
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I'm a veteran IT trade press reporter and editor with a passion for clear writing that explains how technology can help businesses. To learn more about my content marketing services, email bob@scheierassociates.com or call me at 508 725-7258.

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