Storytelling The Forgotten Art

Wendy Kelly
May 22, 2014
Storytelling The Forgotten Art

From Augustine to Facebook

I was heartened that someone of David Brook's stature would join the conversation and write -- in the New York Times no less -- that storytelling, by creating an intimacy and empathy with the individuals we write about is the ultimate step on the path to wisdom. That Augustine reminds us knowing another person is a form of selfless love, and telling a person's story is part of the path to that knowing. Recently, I had the great good fortune to get into a deep conversation on Facebook with an old friend and sociologist, John DeGraaf. He had shared an article in the New York Times by David Brooks, which was an opinion piece on -- you guessed it -- the importance of storytelling. 

Pretty deep stuff.

I was taken. But my pragmatic-yet-idealistic friend John commented about the danger of "freak anecdotes" that can tug at the reader's heartstrings and lead them astray, away from the truth hidden in the facts. 

And, you know, he's right.

Stories are Powerful

But, as John mentioned, "freak anecdotes" can take us far from the truth, into purely emotional territory. And it is here that we tend to make poor decisions, based only on our emotions. The anecdote he mentioned was Reagan's Cadillac Welfare Queen. Back in the 1980's Reagan used the story of a Chicago woman who scammed millions out of the welfare system and was living the high life with Cadillacs, rich clothes and a very fancy lifestyle. The truth is actually an even better (and bizarre) story. There are tidbits of the truth in the actual story, but the Reader's Digest version used by Reagan was a clever, if a bit dishonest, use of story to sway opinion.

We're wired for story. We eat it up. But as content creators and consumers, we really need to make sure we ground our stories in fact. When we're creating personas, for example, we need to use facts about real people to drive the story behind these archetypes. When we write stories about our brand, we need to make sure that these stories are based on facts that we are sure of about our brand's identity. It's so easy to trick ourselves into believing something either to-good-to-be-true or apocalyptically bad. Or just simply wrong.

Stealing Tips from Creative Non-Fiction

As I often do, I am stealing from my writing background. A genre called "creative non-fiction" uses the best of storytelling mixed with old-style journalism to create readable articles that are grounded in fact. That are, undeniably, "non-fiction". Content marketers can learn from this genre to create readable (or watchable) stories that engage the reader while not straying from the facts.

  • Start with the facts. Lay them out on the table (literally if you want) and look at them. Do the facts suggest a dramatic tension? Who is hero? Where is the action?
  • Once you have a story framework, show, show, show. Use all the senses in your story - smell, taste, touch, sound and sight. 
  • Drama, drama, drama! Conflict creates story. 
  • Follow an idea. Add storytelling elements to the facts, but make sure your story is grounded and based on facts.
  • Include both truths - The facts and the emotional truth of the piece.

See what happens when you combine facts with a gripping, emotional story. Let us know how it works for you.

(And yes, I didn't use much storytelling in this piece. I felt it was too contrived. I'd love your thoughts.)

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