Today marks the day, the 10-year anniversary of Ishmael’s Corner.
In the spirit of taking a step back, I reached out to a mix of individuals I respect for their perspectives on that elixir for communications we call storytelling.
The backgrounds vary from journalists to storytelling gurus to authors and everything in between. As additional context, I didn’t provide any ground rules; just stuck the microphone in their face.
Here’s what they had to say —
Sam Whitmore, Owner, SWMS
Color Commentary: Sam has seen it all from his days as a journalist and editor for Ziff Davis to offering services to the PR industry for the past 20 years.
Perhaps you saw Jason Miller’s Dec. 2017 post on LinkedIn, in which he presented “The Rise of Storytelling in Marketing.” Jason works at LinkedIn and has great access to its data, so he’s in the know. He determined that in 2011, the number of storytellers in marketing was “zero.” In 2012, Jason explained, storytelling came of age.
Well, maybe it happened that way in “marketing.” All I know is, I began reading Ishmael’s Corner in 2008, four years before the breakout framed by LinkedIn’s data. I loved Lou’s understated writing style and admired the blog’s canny tagline: “storytelling through a business prism.”
A prism bends and separates light. It reveals color in what appears to be colorless. In Ishmael’s Corner, Lou reveals the color in business storytelling — humor, hope, courage, redemption and the rest — and refracts it toward the specific needs of B2B comms pros, who arguably did live in a colorless world for quite a long time.
I’ve learned a lot over the years from Lou’s storytelling about storytelling, which in the end is the art of revealing something we sensed all along — all we needed was a vantage point, deftly presented.
Shawn Callahan, Founder, Anecdote
Color Commentary: One of the top storytelling experts in the world, Shawn wrote “Putting Stories to Work.”
When I started Anecdote in 2004, few companies were even thinking about using stories in business. It’s true that a subtle shift was occurring. I remember my excitement at seeing a whole chapter devoted to story in Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind. But despite such early signs, most business leaders saw story work as quaint, perhaps eccentric or even dangerous.
The big shift happened about seven years ago. It seemed like all of a sudden big business wanted story work done. And much like prospectors racing to the world’s goldfields in the 1800s, lots of people turned up and things got messy.
First, everyone was talking about the story, yet few were actually telling stories. “Our story is about integrity and authenticity. That’s our story.” Actually, it’s not. You don’t get the benefits of storytelling unless you’re actually telling a story.
Then, some consultants wanted to redefine narrative and say it wasn’t a story, while others said storytelling was old hat and it was now all about storydoing, storyshowing or storymaking. What a load of … And when you listened to what they were saying, it sounded just like storytelling. Ad agencies were the biggest offenders, trying their hardest to differentiate themselves with hopeful neologisms.
Perhaps the biggest distraction to effective business storytelling now is the obsession with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey and Hollywood-style storytelling. We started our story work collecting stories in companies, anthropologist-style, and those stories rarely looked like a hero’s journey. Instead, they were small stories. Anecdotes.
Stephen Waddington, Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum
Color Commentary: Writes one of the best blogs in the communications industry from his perch in London under the moniker “Wadds.”
Congratulations Lou on the 10th anniversary of your blog.
You’re an important part of the incredible story of how the internet has changed the face of media and impacted organisational communication.
In that time we’ve seen blogs, podcasts and video services mature as ways of telling stories. We’ve also seen the rise of networks such as Facebook, Google, LinkedIn and Twitter as a means of sharing and engaging other people in our stories.
The pace of development of internet technology, and its adoption by consumers, has been incredible. But the response by organisations is very much a work in progress.
Organisations don’t tell stories, people do
Far too many executives and organisations use these news forms of media and networks to broadcast content, rather than listening, telling stories and engaging in conversation.
We need to ditch the formal corporate means of communication, and tell human stories.
I hope that the next 10 years will see organisations use these tools to engage their publics in the stories of their organisations.
I reread Cluetrain Manifesto, published in 1999, every couple of years. Its authors foretold almost everything that we’ve come to know about how the internet would impact organisation communication. It makes me appreciate that we’re very much at the beginning of a journey.
Will Moss, Director Reputation Communications, Intel
Color Commentary: Not only is Will one of the smartest folks I know when it comes to global communications — spoke at our seminar on China at Andreessen Horowitz — he knows how to write with bite.
Listen, kid, we need to have the talk. No, not THAT talk. We have a year or two before that talk. This talk we need to have now, because you’re already watching a ton of YouTube. I mean, how many hours of Russian dashcam videos can a ten-year-old watch? That’s not entertainment. Star Wars is entertainment. And not newfangled Star Wars. I mean the old one, where Han Solo wore bell bottoms and would shoot you in the face for looking at him sideways.
Anyway, I get it. I’m ancient, and you are your own creature. But there are things you need to know as you embrace a world of social media and hot takes. Lots of people are going to tell you stories, and many of them will be short, maybe just a picture, and told in ways that really push your buttons. They’ll tell you what to be afraid of, angry about, and outraged over. Lots of it will look and feel right.
When you feel your buttons being pushed, take a breath. Ask yourself, why am I seeing this? Is it even real? What is the original source? Who is showing it to me? What’s their agenda? Then, if you’re still outraged, cool. But take it on your terms, because you need other people’s manufactured outrage even less than you need your dad’s neolithic pop culture.
I know this seems like a drag. But trust your old man, it’s worth the effort. I may not know what’s cool anymore, but I know something about this.
Marsha Collier, Author, EBay for Dummies and Founder #CustServ Chat
Color Commentary: Marsha personifies the adage, “It’s nice to be important but it’s important to be nice.”
Whether in written word or verbal, telling a story goes a long way to build a connection of authenticity and trust. On the other hand, unless the story ties closely into the topic, it can take a reader off on a tangent and the point of the story can be lost. This is why “artful” storytelling is a skill. To tell a good story, you need to know good stories. Reading well written books and blogs (like Ishmael’s Corner) will inspire you. Learn from the masters.
The bulk of my writing is done in “For Dummies” books which require me to simplify complex topics and tasks. Fact after fact can be a hard read, so I try to write as if I was talking to a friend across the kitchen table. When talking to a friend, we often interject personal stories to make things interesting. Nothing is more engaging than a good story. In my early eBay books, my publisher designed an icon for me, “Auction Anecdote”, where I could interject my stories. These days, I just weave my anecdotes into the text.
These stories hopefully make my readers laugh and keep reading. I feel honored that over one million people have bought my books, a proof point that this approach works.
Gini Dietrich, Founder, Arment Dietrich
Color Commentary: If you’re looking for a community that intersects with all aspects of communications, look no further than www.SpinSucks.com where Gini and her team make the magic happen.
Five years ago, if you had asked me the state of storytelling in communications, I would have told you that it’s the only way you can build thought leadership, credibility, and search engine results. And I would have suggested you get really good at storytelling with your subject matter experts to achieve all of that — and more.
Today, though, the competition is so fierce and, with the abundance of fake news trying to grab attention and headlines, hype has definitely pushed substance to the background. Sure, you can stand out — and if you create content steeped in true storytelling, you’ll get there. But it’s a long-term play, and nearly every executive on earth doesn’t have the patience to let it do its thing.
Rather than trying to be all things to all people — and being everywhere so you can reach people where they are — focus on one thing and do it really well. Storytelling should still be at the forefront of what you do, but do it in one spot and become as specific as you can. For instance, choose blogging or email marketing or social media advertising or videos and tell your story on something you own (your website). Then use that one tool to build your brand, promote and publicize your story, create brand ambassadors, nurture prospects and convert.
If you do one thing really well and make it inclusively exclusive, your storytelling will beat all of your competitors.
Dorothy Crenshaw, Founder, Crenshaw Communications
Color Commentary: One of the best parts of social media is crossing paths with folks like Dorothy and her takes on the industry at ImPRessions.
A former client used to urge her agencies not to be “DRIP,” meaning Data Rich, Insight Poor. She warned us not to be overwhelmed by data, but to use our skills and tools to separate the signal from the noise.
It was good advice, and as communicators, we can now do that. Data insights have made digital storytelling more targeted, and technology has expanded our content and delivery options. But amid the buzz about AI, VR, detailed personas and creative visualizations, let’s not lose sight of what’s essential. We may risk becoming another kind of DRIP — Data Rich, Inspiration Poor. At its core, a good story should inspire us — to laugh, to feel emotion, or — best of all — to take action.
Look at a recent example — underdog Texas House candidate MJ Hegar’s “Doors.”
If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth a look. The video is three minutes long — an eternity, the experts will tell you — but it tells a great story. Hegar is a decorated combat pilot who was shot down in Afghanistan. But the video is powerful because her hero’s journey home is just the preamble to another battle, to allow women to serve in ground combat. Her story of resilience and “kicking down doors” offers an inspiration that’s rare in political ads, or almost any digital storytelling.
The viral success of “Doors” is a reminder that technology isn’t everything, and that data insights aren’t enough. A good story is felt in the heart, the mind and the gut.
Michael Kanellos, Corporate Communications Head, OSIsoft
Color Commentary: Michael honed his storytelling chops at CNET where thermal efficiency brought us together (naturally). He’s now our client.
What do you need for good storytelling in today’s world? It takes both the Big Picture and the Telling Details. Corporate marketing departments are in love with the Big Picture.
Don’t bore your audience with technology details. Keep it at a high level. You want to get as many people excited as possible. But if you fly too high, the story becomes vague and amorphous.
Look at the IoT initiatives from the major technology companies: I’ll give anyone a merit badge who can tell the difference between what each of them actually produces or brings different to the market. Worse, you get situations like Theranos where wishful thinking turns into fraud. I had an enterprise hardware client once that adamantly refused to discuss what made them different. Sadly, it was the only thing that made them interesting, and they fell further and further behind.
The Big Picture proves you have vision. The Telling Detail shows you have the means to get there. We’ve gone a little overboard on the Big Picture lately. The pendulum will swing back.
José Mallabo, Chief Marketing Officer, Morehouse College
Color Commentary: I’d like to think that Jose got the storytelling religion when he made a stop at the Agency in the late 1990s, but the reality is it’s part of his DNA.
Storytelling is still aspirational in most of what we call marketing. Most of what we see out there is a product of a marketing department, a compromise between what the marketing department wants and what the organization can allow or enable.
The reason there are so very few great brands in the world is that there are very few organizations that allow marketing to lead and deploy best-in-class practices like storytelling. Most of the brands out there don’t have the constitution or balls to do it right.
Aarti Shah, Senior Editor at The Holmes Report
Color Commentary: I have a ton of respect for Aarti and The Holmes Report and how they cover the communications business with a critical eye.
Effective storytelling in our current saturated media space continues to be a challenge — but especially heightened right now given the broader context of the world. I was just listening to a podcast with an author who tells his students: You Are Not Special. He was referring to writing memoirs, but I think this applies to all non-fiction, including brand storytelling. When brands focus on the universal narratives, that seems to be when they hit storytelling gold.