Story-telling in the Digital Era

Stewart Bewley

Last night on Channel 4 news the Shadow Attorney General Shami Chakrabati apologised to John Snow for not telling the story of the “Remain” campaign. She said it was too “cerebral and full of facts”. He/she who tells the best story wins, but what makes up a story? One of key ingredients we can’t do without is picture. Our brains are wired for them and we crave them every moment of every day. Compare the picture of a lone teenage girl sitting outside the Swiss embassy in 2018 to the one of Great Thunberg passionately speaking at the UN Climate Change conference this week and you will see that a picture does indeed paint a thousand words.

We don’t just love a good story, we live out of story. Yesterday I was sat at a business lunch with some retailers who are in the beginning of a sudden recession — in the past few weeks numbers have been down doubt digits. The reason they told me is because people have lost confidence. We are living out of a story of political chaos and uncertainty in the UK. Today the terrifying roller-coaster story of the UK Parliament takes another twist, another chapter of unpredictability that is causing the loss in confidence and loss in sales for these retailers.

In “Winning the Story wars”, Jonah Sachs says tells the story of … well, story. It started with the oral tradition — we told each other stories to understand the world we live in, to pass on information from friend to neighbour to generation. Sometimes we embellished, sometimes we didn’t, but story was available to anyone who wanted it. Then when the printing press came in in 1440 everything changed. “Story” was available but only for those who could read it or get near a reading of it. Oral was there, but wasn’t as valued as the written word. Fast forward to the 1990’s and that value played out in the world of marketing … “For a handsome and predictable fee, a marketeer could buy a thirty-second spot on Cheers and reach more than 20 million viewers guaranteed. No DVR’s. No checking email during the break” …. Story lived or died in our minds as consumers based on money and access. Until the digital era — the “Digitoral era”.

There has been a monumental shift in how we as consumers receive and transmit stories. It is no longer the playground of the ones who can afford it. You only need a smartphone, an idea and a hook and your story, your version of events can go viral. The passing on of information is from one listener to the next, one you-tuber to the next, fake news, real news — it is all about how you tell the story.

No one however seems to have told this to (most of) the business world. We still attend meetings where we are talked at with meaningless jargon and over-filled powerpoint. The presenter still feels she is the only one who has our undivided attention. But there are rogue story-tellers in every meeting. They are in our pockets, on our laptops — they are the “Digitoral” stories, transmitted by friends/enemies/colleagues/minecraft/facebook/ into our emails, slack, text, Whattsapp. These are the stories that win, these are the stories that grab our attention. Have you ever seen a 20 page powerpoint posted on Facebook or a Whattsapp full of 3 letter acronyms and targets for the year ahead from your friends?

If we live in the world of the Digitoral tradition and we want to have lasting influence on our stakeholders, our audiences then we need to adapt, re-brand and get back to the tradition of oral story-telling. I call this story-branding — because the best brands have the best stories. We all have a personal brand. Let’s embrace it rather and define it. How do you do it? See every meeting, webex, phone call, even email as an opportunity to tell a story and promote your brand. When someone tells us a powerful story we naturally lean in, our heads move forward, our eyes light up in horror, delight or intrigue, we uncross our legs and plant our feet on the floor. So we need to imagine our audience are sitting around a camp fire, or a circle at least wanting to hear a story. We need to see them as humans hungry for connection, not unnecessary powerpoint. When hat happens, the story is no longer outside of us in a document, the story is inside of us.

How do you do it? Here is one thing to try this week.

A story is ultimately about the passing of time, so you have to take time to tell it. If you have no time, you no story — you just have facts. And facts don’t engage. Have a beginning that is engaging (think about your opener sentence), a middle that is meaningful and an end that actually ends. Be deliberate in picking which moments you use to mark the passing of time and when you end the story imagine you are landing a plane. It lands well, comes to a stop and everyone gets off happy. If you can do that then you are starting to ride the wave of the new digitoral tradition.