Corporate comms can’t work miracles

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…

So begins the Gospel according to John, and in that simple verse he introduces (as producer/director George Stevens put it) The Greatest Story Every Told.

Stories, of course, are hot right now in the world of corporate communication. Storytelling is a marketing conference must-have; blogs (like this one) are deluged with advice about crafting stories, generating narrative, creating a brand arc… you name it.

And most of the advice takes John at face value: “In the beginning was the Word…” Writers and editors and marketers love to start with the words.

Of course, they’re wrong.

Service with a simile

Because while Jesus (he’s ‘the Word’ in that verse, incidentally) can get away with being the message before the deed, brands aren’t so lucky. Crafting your narrative first, no matter how seductive, is the surest way to disappoint people.

Unless your stories are relevant and rooted – about the real experience of your brand, in other words – they’re just fairytales. Now, there’s nothing wrong with fiction. Stories allow us to communicate complex ideas quickly and engagingly, especially when we’re free to conjure characters and situations to perfectly suit our needs.

But for brands, that’s not storytelling, it’s creative advertising. And even then, you need a ring of truth for it to work. (Unless, apparently, you’re John Lewis in the run-up to Christmas.)

At a recent CEO conference, one business leader summed this up nicely:

The most important PR activity companies can do is deliver high quality service. You can’t put lipstick on a pig, especially where you’re engaged in activities that have an impact on the public.

It’s only words

Another perspective is that, as blogger and author Cory Doctorow puts it, a story is a weird and ungainly way of getting emotion across. He writes:

“Storytelling… is a fugly (funky and ugly – that is, cool but also really weird and inefficient) hack to get you to feel stuff.”

Storytelling is fun – but limited. Companies and products can elicit emotions. Good storytelling can communicate them. But you can’t just expect their stories to work unless they’re rooted in reality; unless there’s something else there apart from the message. You can’t just commission a writer to weave a tale and expect it to miraculously boost your business.

So the message for brands is simple. If your people, customers and other stakeholders can express your brands, products and services emotionally, there will be great stories to be told. Find them. Tell them. Don’t hide them or spin them – find ways to express them naturally. Let the word do the work. (Just not at the beginning.)

And for writers? When someone wants you to tell a story, pester them for at least the germ of a truth that will allow you to craft genuinely powerful words. Don’t let storytelling – your craft – become an empty marketing buzzword.

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