Hey, I get it. There’s so much going on and you’re doing what you can to get some compelling brand storytelling done and out into the world.
But here’s the hard truth. Most brand storytelling sucks. And usually, it falls into one of seven reasons, or, as I call them, the 7 Deadly Sins of Brand Storytelling.
Here’s what they are:
The First Deadly Sin of Brand Storytelling: Your Stories aren’t Actually Stories
All Good stories have structure. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. But more importantly, they have a shape to them. And that shape is always determined by when the setback happens.
Don’t get too hung up right now on any specific shaping. The most important thing is that there is setback, and the setback ultimately leads to a satisfying resolution and new insight.
Which brings me to the next point of good storytelling. All good stories have setback and struggle. Watch the news? They don’t send cameras to the airport to watch the planes land.
See a movie? Read a book? Never will you watch or read anything compelling whose plot goes like this: Life was good and it got better.
Stories are driven by conflict and set back.
Your story doesn’t end with set back, but good brand storytelling, like any good storytelling, hinges around the drama of what went wrong before it went right.
The Second Deadly Sin of Brand Storytelling: Stories that Lack Purpose and a Point
As humans, in our hearts we know that good things come out of bad, and that we learn and grow more from what went wrong than what went right.
We might not like that that’s how the world works, but deep down, we all know it to be true. It is the struggle in a story that makes it interesting and relatable, but it is the transformation, the knowledge that comes from that struggle that makes it worth the journey.
If you leave us in struggle, we feel dissatisfied, as if the journey were for not. Similarly, if you take us from a happy place to an even happier place, that happiness feels unearned and hollow.
But that happier place has to have a point, at least when it comes to good brand storytelling. What does this new knowledge say:
- about your brand?
- About its leadership?
- About its values?
- About its vision?
- About its customers and the values they share?
- About its future? A
- bout its past?
- About something that is deeply relevant and meaningful
- About how the brand is navigating our very complicated world
And yes, that last one matters. Increasingly, people want activist CEO’s — leaders who stand for something meaningful in the world at large. You need to know what that is and help your CEO stand into his or her power through your brand storytelling.
The Third Deadly Sin of Brand Storytelling: Stories that Ignore “The Moment”
Our lives are compiled of moments — moments where specific things happen. When a day is boring, we forget those individual moments.
But you’re not in the business of recounting boring events. And to bring your stories alive, they need to be anchored in actual moments.
For example, I was asked to review the origin story of a not-for-profit organization founded by a woman who felt left out of the traditional, male-dominated corporate power structure in the 70’s. She was accomplished but always felt left out and behind and wished there were a network for women the same way that there was for men.
That’s how the story was presented to us.
Okay. So, fine. But also, so what? Talk about boring.
Why? Because big decisions to do something big and bold always come out of a moment. Yes, there are a series of moments along the way but we make big decisions to do good out of a moment where we realize things have gone terribly, very wrong.
So I asked them to dig into Elly’s story. What was the moment that caused her to form the group? And here was the actual story:
Elly was the only woman invited to a meeting of that brought together many of the great corporate leaders of NY in the 70’s. The meeting was held at an exclusive club that didn’t allow women, so the only way she could get in was to find a maid’s uniform, wear it, and then take her place at this table filled with some of the most powerful people in the world so she could present her ideas to them.
Of COURSE that galvanized her to start something meaningful for other women. A thousand other cuts led her to that moment, but it was THAT MOMENT, teaming with humiliation, that something beautiful was born.
Transformation always comes out of setback.
PR firms almost always miss the moment. They gloss over the very thing that makes a story work. If you hire a firm to help you with your brand storytelling, make sure they understand the importance of moments. Search for the moments in your own brand story and build your story around them. Otherwise, you’ll have something truly uninteresting.
The Fourth Deadly Sin of Storytelling: Stories that Lack Imagery
Every good story is visual whether it has pictures or not.
Yup, you heard me. Even your stories that have no visuals whatsoever still need to paint a picture.
A good brand story makes you feel like:
- you’re there
- you’re meeting real people
- You’ve been dropped into a real dilemma
- You’re coming out the other side with a new insight or understanding
Good stories shape a mood. And to do that, you need to evoke imagery.
Pictures and videos are gold in brand storytelling, conveying so much and often more quickly than just the written word can. But even if just in the writing, bring us into the details and let us feel like we’re there.
The Fifth Deadly Sin of Brand Storytelling: Heroes that Suck
Do you know who makes for terrible heroes? Perfect people. There is nothing worse than watching the hero of a story sail through life with things happening to them that aren’t in some way of their own making.
Of course, there are external forces that kick off the setback and make things tougher. But the thing that unites us in our humanity is our flaws. We all know we’re flawed.
We do everything in our power to hide those flaws. Which is awesome! Except when it comes to brand storytelling. Because it is those flaws that make our leaders relatable. It is getting insight into what they learned and how they became a better person worthy of leadership that we care about.
Most leaders bock at this to start. But a good leader knows sharing his or her flaws and setbacks offers more insights than crowing about success.
The Sixth Deadly Sin of Brand Storytelling: Forgetting the Audience
My brother-in-law, David, was a brilliant teacher who died tragically young. But what made him so good at his job wasn’t his incredible smarts (and he had plenty of those) but his ability to explain anything to anyone.
He never looked down on anyone and always believed that if someone couldn’t understand something, it was on him, not them.
David left you feeling smarter because he could take you out of the overwhelm and into a place of great clarity where everything just seemed easy.
It was never about him. It was always about you. And he dug in piece by piece understand where you were so that you could climb up and out into a bigger world than you ever dreamed possible.
Brand storytellers could all use a little David in them. He thought every lesson through from where his students were not where they should be or where he wanted them to be. And he gently led them from that place to wherever it was that they needed to go.
Your audiences are a bit like David’s students. Knowing who they are and what they need in order for them to get what you need them to understand out of your storytelling is the art and science of effective brand storytelling.
It can’t be done in a vacuum. You need to interact with your people and understand them and their needs. You may even have to come up against some harsh realities about what they understand about your brand.
But when you start with them in mind, it’s much easier to construct the various stories your brand will tell if you keep them in mind.
The Seventh Deadly Sin: Generic Stories
Look, vulnerability is hard. Here I am saying “talk to people about your failures more than your successes.” I know that doesn’t feel nearly so good as pointing to your flashing trophies and hard-fought win.
So most people cop out when it comes time to create a great Origin Story. And usually, they resort to crediting some great book they read or movie they saw that inspired them to do something.
I also have no doubt that many books and movies influenced you. And maybe you even think something you read or saw inspired you to get on the path you’re on.
But guess what? A million other people read the same book and it didn’t cause them to run out and do whatever it is that you are doing to make a mark on the world.
None of that denigrates the contribution that book or movie made to your life. But it fired YOU up because of something that happened to you and ONLY you.
THAT’S the story we need to hear. The thing that made “you” you — the thing that let the book spark in the first place.
Find THAT story and we’ll trust you.
Alright, there you have it: The Seven Deadly Sins of Brand Storytelling. Avoid these pitfalls, and you’ll be further ahead than many other so-called “Storytelling Brands.”