‘People who actually tell stories, meaning people who write novels and make feature films, don’t see themselves as storytellers. It’s all the people who are not storytellers who, kind of for strange reasons – because it’s in the air – suddenly now want to be storytellers.’ – Stefan Sagmeister
It’s astonishing how quickly buzzwords rise and fall in the marketing industry. No sooner had content creators got their heads around the idea that they might be ‘storytellers’, then Stefan Sagmeister launched an expletive-strewn attack on those that thought they might have a story to tell. I reckon we had a good two weeks before the game was up. Now, who has another cool job title we could pilfer?
Amazingly, Sagmeister’s video seems to deal specifically with the design industry, which would indicate that there are ‘storytellers’ cropping up everywhere, and very few people calling them out. I’ll admit to having used the term myself. Heck, I’ve even written an article with ‘brand storytelling’ in the title. In truth, I’ve talked to clients about their ‘story’ so often that I no longer cringe, which rather suggests that I’m no longer living on planet Sane, and have instead taken up residence somewhere where the sun has trouble shining.
It worries me that nobody stops these ‘storytellers’ and asks them to explain what they mean, because it suggests that our clients – the people in charge of whether or not we get to ‘tell their stories’ – are either asleep or immune to the bullshit. And, as the rather embarrassing admission above should disclose, I’m also worried that I’ve started using words that have no meaning. So, in the name of clarity and reason, I thought I’d have a go at describing what I mean when I talk to a client about ‘storytelling’.
Somewhat unsurprisingly, when I think about it properly, I don’t mean ‘storytelling’ at all. What I do for clients is help them to find a content area in which they can excel and amplify their expertise. That doesn’t mean that I specialise in helping them write thought pieces, although sometimes that can be a part of it, but I look at a range of editorial possibilities to help them make a connection, and then I work with a team to create those pieces. For me, it’s about helping them to work out where they share interests with their audience – what their audience is likely to be comfortable with and can make good use of.
In many ways it resembles the work I did as an editorial director for Time Out. At that point in my career, I no longer considered myself a ‘storyteller’ (as I suppose I must’ve done when I worked on the writing team). I didn’t even consider myself a strategist. As far as I was concerned, I was an editor, and working out a ‘content strategy’ was part and parcel of what I did. Very simply, my job was to look at the publication, consider the audience’s requirements, and then fuse the two together with as much verve as I could muster.
That’s the role that I see for the content strategist or ‘brand editor’ today. Stories may well come out of the process, especially if the brand’s formation came with a great story, but to suggest to a client that we’re going to be ‘storytelling’ is bound to be misleading.
As Stefan Sagmeister points out, just because you say you’re a ‘storyteller’ doesn’t make it so, and unless you’re going to sit down and write something along the lines of The Bulgari Collection, you’re probably best sticking to what you do well, that your client fully comprehends, and that their audience can make genuine use of.