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February 12, 2018

Leap Tall Buildings in a Single Headline!

Few things in business are more sorely needed or appreciated than a good story. And it’s gratifying to this marketing storyteller that companies seem finally to have figured this out. Storytellers are at last being recognized by the corporate world, as marketing and other business leaders seek more compelling ways to cut through the clutter and convey brand value.
Like any experienced writer looking for a good story hook, I searched for “storytelling” on LinkedIn. It returned over 795,000 people who presumably have that word in their profiles. When I search for “storyteller,” those who presumably identify with storytelling as a role, the tally falls just shy of a still respectable 13,000 (try it yourself; chances are I’ll be in there somewhere).

LinkedIn wasn’t founded until 2002, so in an earlier time we would have conducted our search using corporate directories that would have imparted far less information. (There’s a cool telling of the LinkedIn story here, by the way.) But I suspect that, in earlier days, the ranks of marketers with the cojones to spend their companies’ money on such frivolity would have been mighty small. For much of my business career, storytelling was what happened in classrooms or around campfires. It wasn’t a business matter.

No longer! I’ll explain my view on why, but first permit me a tangent.

As a university student, and in my first job after graduation, I operated AM Varityper phototypesetters – a technology now so outdated, there's almost nothing left to link to. (Maybe this.) Among other things I was a typesetter for the Indio Daily News, which was then owned by the Detroit Evening News syndicate; it wasone of the last afternoon newspapers, now long since acquired by the cleverly-named Palm Springs Desert Sun. Setting type back then wasn't for sluggards or dotards. The cathode-ray tube monitors of the era did not preview layouts in their DOS-style character interfaces. You could see the line of code and text you had just set and the line you were currently working on, plus the cryptic command codes arrayed across the top of the screen that defined the appearance of the output. Over time, I learned to mentally visualize that output. For example, with some trial and error and a printer's pica pole (why am I now itching to buy this?), I could set type for complex medical forms with lots of boxes, columns, and fine print to the point where only the vertical lines would need to be ruled onto the photo paper with a Rapidograph (typesetters of that era could rule horizontal but not vertical lines).

When I describe this communication technology today, it seems incredibly confining. Now, we think nothing of creating text and graphics and joining them effortlessly (albeit sometimes foolishly). And, for good or ill, we would never hire an expert in the arcane art of typesetting: people who can discourse knowledgeably on x-heights and reverse leading, or describe the kerning and tracking of various typefaces. Do you want to change the look of your story? Click the font dropdown (but please note: Comic Sans is not your friend).

Disclosure. The two preceding paragraphs comprise a story told from my personal viewpoint to underscore the following insight:

Storytelling technologies simplify and accelerate our abilities to include visual elements in a story, and to create and distribute that story. But the resulting clutter impedes comprehension. The better and more efficient our storytelling becomes, the less our audiences hear.*

(Honor system: see how far you get into this link before you drop off.)

What's a marketer to do? Wind back the calendar? We're faced with our own version of Moore's Law: our storytelling capabilities are increasing exponentially, leading to the marketer's metaphorical nightmare: clutter.

We human beings are not just processors, we're thinkers. And the volume of marketing storytelling is now a blur. We’re bombarded by up to 10,000 brand messages per day. Our brains aren’t evolving fast enough to absorb, assimilate, catalog, and interpret such bombardment. So what happens?

Crap filtering, of course. But who decides what's crap?

Conveniently, our brains come fully equipped with cognitive dissonance and other automated filtering systems. And we've learned to filter even more through algorithms, those "electronic gatekeepers" that deliver whatever their cubicle-dwelling architects and developers deem relevant: cat pictures from our 26 friends, for example.

My helpful, constructive conclusion? Here's a stab.

The volume of stories we receive demands that marketers respond in one or both of two ways:

  1. Break through the clutter by stepping up the frequency of our messages, which requires more spending (not often an option),
  2. Turn to storytelling skill and segmentation to enhance the relevance of our messages.

In other words: tune into our audiences and tell them better stories. Hence the rise of the storyteller.

Nobody said marketing was easy. Well, lots of people have said that. But who would have thought storytelling would become a superpower?


*It's worth noting that there's also been an incredible surge in "reach," or media, capabilities: but that's a different thing, independent of the storyteller's art.)

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