I’ve noticed a content marketing backlash, recently, with a particular vitriol directed toward business storytelling. For example, four weeks ago, the author of The Art of Storytelling in the Age of Content Marketing lashed out at brand journalism.
“Former journalists,” he said, “who once gave voice to the downtrodden and spoke truth to power, have latched on to this trend with good paying jobs as content marketers.”
Two more articles showed up this week. In Storytelling: For And Against, a Content Director made cases for and against business storytelling. And in Storytelling Is Dead—Here’s How To Sell Now, a Chief Creative Officer unleashed a two-pronged attack: stories are too long for dwindling attention spans and are too risky for companies who are expected to be transparent.
I’ve always embraced counterviews. It’s important to listen to voices from outside of our echo chambers. They challenge us. They force us to revisit our beliefs and to either modify them or possibly make them stronger.
I’ve listed nine critiques from these articles along with my thoughts.
1) “Tales” are false, deceptive, or misleading
Story is ethically agnostic. Put into the hands of a zealot, despot, or morally flexible marketeer for that matter, a story can be used to deceive.
Card #1 of The StoryHow™ Pitchdeck is “Audience.” In our workshop, we discuss the importance of having empathy for your audience. Using the power of story to mislead doesn’t come from a place of empathy. It comes from a place of arrogance. So, if your company wants to use the power of story to pull the wool over your customer’s eyes, don’t use storytelling.
To quote Daniel Wallace: “A storyteller makes up things to help other people; a liar makes up things to help himself.”
2) Storytelling is self-serving
Good storytelling is about the audience, which is not self-serving. Business, on the other hand, has always been self-serving. The good news is that both can coexist.
Every business solves problems for a fee. The marketplace evaluates whether or not that fee matches the value of the problem being solved. Therefore, the only way to build a sustainable business is to make good stuff and back it up. If you don’t, the marketplace will catch on quickly.
Do you care about your customers? Do you believe that the problem you solve is worth your fee? If the folks responsible for telling your stories say “no” to either of these questions, you’re likely on a self-serving path to storytelling disaster.
3) Storytelling is “the new copywriting,”
Stories have existed long before we drew pictures on cave walls. They form the basis for human communications, independent of time, geography, or culture. Equating storytelling with copywriting is like comparing an artist with a house painter.
4) Storytelling is a PC way of saying, “I’m a journalist who can’t find a real job.”
Much of the content marketing backlash appears to be coming from displaced journalists. And for good reason. They prepared for careers built upon a scarcity business model just as communications technologies created abundant access. The unfortunate result is a glut of journalists competing for fewer positions.
I totally understand their fears, yet the fact remains: journalists have the skills that business needs in this age of abundant access and companies will pay handsomely for those skills. Unfortunately, it appears that journalists who choose non-media paths are looked down upon by those who maintain newsroom jobs.
5) Approval process keeps companies from telling the best stories
This is a compelling argument because good storytelling requires both humility and vulnerability–something that’s scrubbed during the typical corporate approval processes. However, just because there’s an approval process, it doesn’t preclude the telling of a great story. In fact, the editorial process that journalists follow works because editing is what makes stories great.
I have so much to say about creating a successful business storytelling approval process, that I’ll cover it in a separate blog post.
6) All stories must be positive and uplifting
Sales reps are trained to handle objections. Marketing shows products in their best light. PR spins. All of these activities stem from an assumption that conflict is bad and, therefore, it must be eliminated from the communications mix.
But here’s the problem. A story without conflict is boring. The worst stories consist of perfect people living charmed lives in idyllic conditions. If your company must write such conflict-free content, put your budget into banner ads and 30-second spots. If you want interesting stories, however, give your storytellers permission to use some of the ugly crayons in the box.
7) Content marketing is not journalism
Yep. Content marketing differs from journalism because it requires opinion–something that journalists can’t employ while covering both sides of a story evenhandedly. Business storytellers must have a strong point of view. As Arianna Huffington once said, “You can’t find the truth by covering both sides of an argument and splitting the difference.”
8) The average attention span of a human today is less than a goldfish
My problem with this argument is that it treats tiny attention spans as a cause instead of a symptom. By assuming that it’s a cause–and thus can’t be fixed–the “logical” response is to “help” by shortening marketing messages.
But, shouldn’t we consider our role in the problem? We’ve built an entire industry on adages such as, “You must hit a person seven times before they remember your message.” Extrapolate that strategy over 5 million registered businesses and we’ve created a situation where we’re pummeling our audiences with truckloads of brain-numbing chaff to sift through daily.
Storytellers see attention span as a benchmark for developing the right story as opposed to an audience defect. Therefore, rather than quantizing entire messages to fit within 8 seconds, they work hard to earn the next 8 seconds.
If people truly had the attention spans of a goldfish, they’d never be able to sit through a two-hour movie, read a novel, or spend the 112.5 attention spans required to watch a fifteen minute TED Talk.
9) Customers don’t want to be spoon-fed
True. And the best storytellers never do because they have faith in their audiences. They understand that audiences not only have the ability to connect the dots, but they also enjoy doing so. It’s one of the techniques that storytellers use to earn their next 8 seconds of attention.
Always remember, “dumbing down” messages says more about the author than the reader.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress