Depending on who you listen to, ‘storytelling’ is either an over-used marketing buzzword or the very last word in business communications.
You won’t be surprised that I fall into the latter camp.
First, because I believe human beings relate and respond to stories much better than bare information (history and a lot of excellent books on the subject bear me out on this).
Secondly, because I spent more than 20 years in newspaper journalism and have discovered that the skills and discipline, I learned there prove incredibly effective when applied to helping organisations not only communicate more effectively but define and project their very purpose.
Ben Horowitz – co-founder of Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreessen-Horowitz – nailed it when he said this:
“The company story is the company strategy.”
Andreessen-Horowitz’s investment portfolio is a who’s who of blockbuster tech giants. Horowitz himself wrote the best-selling business book The Hard Thing About Hard Things which is just about the least fluffy read you’ll pick up, so it’s significant when he says, “storytelling is the most underrated skill”. So, here’s why I think journalists do a damn good job of telling stories that make a difference for businesses.
Let’s look first at that strategic piece.
Doing it on purpose
Every organisation has a strategy and a purpose for existing – and, therefore, a foundational story to tell. That organisation’s leaders or founders will doubtless know that story instinctively but might struggle to articulate it.
Journalists know how to quickly get to the heart of a story and understand its internal mechanics. This is less about straight reporting and more to do with positioning – taking a particular line, projecting an attitude and driving home a powerful central message.
It’s what news organisations do when framing and editorialising a major piece or writing the leaders that set out the title’s stance on a given issue.
This has got be robust, genuine and able to stand up to scrutiny (when you give a bucket-load to people in power, for example, it pays to get things right). And yet the leader writer and headline writers cannot have deep expertise and years of scholarly study underpinning every opinion on every story.
It’s about quickly becoming expert enough, focusing on the right things, getting inside the story and having utter belief in it – if only until typing the final full stop. When it comes to developing an organisation’s strategic narrative – the story that articulates its purpose and mission – it is these skills that deliver.
It’s about getting under the skin of an organisation and into the minds of its leadership.
When done well, this ability – along with an outsider’s objective view – can help distil the essence of what an organisation exists to do.
Now let’s look at the wider communications picture.
Getting the word out
The company story – its strategy – needs to be articulated through key messaging and content, as well as being reflected in general day-to-day marketing and communications activities. This is the everyday stuff of newsrooms. Newspapers were in the content game before ‘content’ was a thing.
Not wishing to state the obvious, but a good journalist knows a story when they see one. And they usually see stories in organisations that insiders don’t see or don’t consider stories at all.
Again, being generalists is a strength. I’ve known reporters find their way from the showbiz desk to the Westminster lobby.
Journalists can quickly understand enough about a subject to correctly frame a story. They know where to go for information to validate that story and for informed commentary.
Most importantly, they know how to tell the story in the right way to seize and hold their audience’s attention.
These are all skills of enormous value in the world outside the news industry.
Marketing, advertising and communications professionals talk about cutting through in a chaotically noisy attention economy.
That’s what journalists do every day. Every headline has to sell a story off the page. Every story has to hook the reader and draw them in. Every word has to earn its place (and should do so even when digital frees them from the confines of the printed page).
Then there is a suite of tools and techniques that bring the story to life. Images, graphics, layout, typography, attitude, humour – newsrooms are pressure cookers of creativity.
Take that newsroom approach into an organisation and it’s easy to see how powerfully it can establish a position, an attitude, a voice, the all-important strategic narrative. It can bring the right stories to the audiences that need to hear them and tell them in the most meaningful ways.
The rigour of a newsroom means being constantly alert to potential stories, the importance of audience as the ultimate measure of what good looks like, and a conviction in editorial direction that is more instinctive than just being ‘on message’.
And all done at blistering pace. Everything optimised for maximum impact.
By Simon Carroll | Client Partner at smart/tasking
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