I have been trying for years to get my partner to understand what I do for a living. He knows it has something to do with storytelling, but beyond that there is little he can say. The other night at a dinner party we were hosting, someone asked him what I did, and in response, he said, “You know, I’m not really sure. But I’m kind of like Camela Soprano. I don’t ask a lot of questions as long as he buys me something pretty every now and then.” This is my world.
I think one of the reasons it’s so hard for my partner to wrap his head around what I do is because it’s hard for any of us to define storytelling. Here is this infinitely familiar craft that we use and experience hundreds of times each day. But if you asked anyone to explain it in detail, they would be challenged. It’s like trying to define justice or sustainability or Lady Gaga to someone. We know instinctively what each of these things is (OK, maybe I’m still trying to figure out Lady Gaga), but we struggle putting words around it.
The definition of storytelling
I define storytelling as “an authentic exchange of meaning between people.” I add to that phrase “for a purpose,” because in our field it’s not just storytelling for the sake of storytelling; it’s strategic storytelling, with tangible objectives driving it and desired outcomes resulting from it.
Much storytelling is literally just that: telling a story, as in recounting an experience. It might be sharing a story from your own experience or the experiences of others. You might borrow a story from history, sports, the news or a movie. All of these are certainly storytelling, and we’ve seen time and again how well they can work in shaping the way people see a situation and connect to ideas.
But if you take the broader definition of storytelling as outlined above—specifically that notion of “an exchange of meaning”—you’ll come to see that it can take many different forms and doesn’t always have to start with, “Let me tell you a story.” Sharing a great quote, an arresting image, a clip pulled from YouTube can all be ways for a person, a brand or a company to exchange meaning with others. So in this regard, they constitute storytelling.
In the comments that followed a recent article I’d written for MarketingProfs, someone described quotes, images, film clips, etc. as “definitely not stories,” relegating them to “triggers for stories” instead. I respectfully disagree. As this practice of storytelling becomes more and more prevalent in the corporate world (wonderfully so), we cannot make it seem so specialized and erudite that we put it out of-reach for people. I like keeping the definition more fluid and open, for in that openness, people are able to interpret, and in that interpretation, find their own meaning. Don’t get me wrong; whether you’re practicing strategic storytelling as a brand, an organization or a person, it is a skill that needs to be sharpened and honed, and there are experts in this field. But more than anything, storytelling is simply an expression of something meaningful shared from one person to another. And as social, communicative, interactive human beings, who doesn’t understand that?