Language matters. The words we choose to describe our thoughts, feelings, and actions can cause ripples that spread out across the digital seas until they become tsunamis. That’s why I’m on a mission. I’m King Canute-ing it. My aim is to get people to stop saying that “everything is a story” or claiming a simple phrase equals good storytelling. It’s not helpful language and it’s particularly prevalent in the business world. Get ready for a rant, but a rant that comes from a place of love.
The original titles I considered for this article were “Please Make It Stop” and “F*** Storytelling” – but thankfully I calmed down. Why those titles? Well, I wish you could see me when I read social media sites like LinkedIn. At least twice a day I find myself delivering a Liz Lemon level of eyeroll. Or worse, I feel the heat of frustration flush in my cheeks before a string of expletives are let loose on the offending post or article.
A recent example came from a LinkedIn influencer/expert. Someone who’s thinking and posts I admire. They’re often considered and insightful. But on this occasion, they shared their belief that a story is simply a piece of information that contains an element of emotion. This assertion was supported by a workplace anecdote where a colleague shared how they’d had a fantastic weekend playing their favourite sport. Just that, no more.
“No!” I scream (from the safety of my home office, taking a classically British passive-aggressive stance). “I’m sorry, but no. That’s not a story.”
Where was the character? Where was the conflict? There’s no intent, no sticky detail, no structure. Honestly, I would barely call it an anecdote. It was simply a pleasant fact.
If every simple statement can be described as a story, then nothing is a story. It all just merges into a beige blurb. It’s information with low level emotion passed off as an exciting tale. Tick, we’ve done the storytelling bit now, let’s sit back and wait for everyone to come running and praise us for our wonderful communication skills. Sorry, but I think we’re going to have to do a little better than that.
Story is not just storytelling.
I’ve written a number of articles about this, so I won’t bang on about it again in too much detail. But I still think it’s important for business and brand communicators to differentiate between narrative, stories, and storytelling. The story world is made up of all three and they each have a role to play in both human connection and meaning making. We need to understand the difference and attach the right language to the right concept and tools.
None of this is helped by the fact that these terms have different definitions in the Arts and Humanities. Or by some project management processes co-opting the word “stories” to describe a simple user action – nope, that’s not a story. Frustrating! But, despite these confusions, I still maintain that in business we need to be clear about our language and meaning. If we don’t separate out these definitions we end up with poor communication and confused people.
Even the act of labelling “beige” content as storytelling is unhelpful. Yes, a story is always being told. But who is actually telling it? If your content is simply adding a sprinkle of emotion to your anecdote, then the story will be told by the audience, not you. The gaps left in your meaning will be closed by the audience’s storytelling brain. Their version of your anecdote will be completed by adding in their personal experience and biases, their worldview. This isn’t going to achieve the purpose of good business communication: to match a message’s impact with its intent.
A story isn’t always helpful.
Not everything is a story, and a story isn’t always needed. I’ll trot out my favourite, tried and tested example. If I’m in a new environment and there’s a fire, I don’t want a three-act structure on the emotional journey of the flames. I don’t want characterful language that gives me a sense of place. I don’t need to know the purpose of the flames. I need to know where the exits are!
I’d like to invite you to become more discerning in your deployment and description of story tools. To use each toolkit in the space where it’s most helpful.
Narrative tools can give us an over-arching sense of direction and ensure our word choice focuses the mind of the reader. Using narrative framing or matching our content to the worldview of an audience is helpful here. Stories are our most powerful structuring tool, and we should use them when we need the greatest impact – when we’re seeking to influence and inspire. This is where our three- or five-act shapes come in handy. And storytelling devices will bring most messages to life, but only when used alongside clear messaging or established style. Here our tools include detail, the senses, metaphor, and yes, emotions.
Please help! Make it stop.
Language matters. Telling is just the thin edge of the wedge. Start to think more specifically about the story tools you’re deploying. And when a story is being told, consider who’s doing the telling. Is it really you?