Articles tagged Storytelling

Story Really Is that Important

In a recent interview with CBS News, President Obama reflected back on his first term by saying that the main mistake of his first few years was “getting the policy right” instead of “tell[ing] a story to the American people that gives them a sense of unity and purpose and optimism.”

Of course, his opponent for the upcoming presidential election, Mitt Romney, jumped on the statement (same link as above), publicly interpreting it to mean that the current president is more concerned about presenting an image than actually bettering the lives of his constituents. That’s to be expected, partly because “story” can be a slippery word that can mean both telling a lie and telling the truth. But mostly because it’s politics, which is a whole different kind of slippery.

The thing is, story really is that important, and that’s whether we’re talking leading a country or leading a market.

Throughout the history of the human race, story is always how we’ve communicated with each other, especially our biggest, most significant ideas. Our oldest surviving literature is stories, and we expect our modern storytellers (novelists, movie makers) to tell us something about life.

Heck, in an age when most of our biggest and best ideas are scientific ones, story is still important. After all, a hypothesis is nothing but a story, and science needs to be communicated just like anything else.

As to business, it has one goal: to sell. But if it concentrates all its efforts on the practical aspects of selling and forgets the story, then it won’t meet its full selling potential. The problem is, a great story can also sell a sub-par product, so we’re right to be somewhat suspicious of certain stories (but not story in general).

Still, the moral is, don’t neglect the story. Products and policy, even great products and policy, don’t sell themselves. As to what makes a great story, that’s a donkey/elephant of a different color.

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    Every piece of content released by your business—a website, a white paper, a tweet, an app, a video, a speech, a booth, anything with words on or in it—is an opportunity to strengthen your story in the market…or a risk for damaging it. But who in the marketing organization is responsible for the integrity of that story? Who is the one who ensures that every outreach across all the many channels of modern marketing is consistent, accurate, adapted appropriately to its medium, and told well and at maximum power? Who is the storykeeper?

    What Makes a Storykeeper?

    First, the storykeeper creates the content—the very words of the story—either as author or editor. They are the source or the gateway, and will probably be both, to what degree depending on the size of the organization. But the storykeeper is an expert at content, first and foremost, because content is the vehicle for the story.

    Second, the storykeeper has significant knowledge of the business. Books are written by experts, and the storykeeper needs to be an expert to create content about the business. How do the products work? How do clients use them? How do these solutions fit the corporate strategy? The storykeeper needs more than a general idea and casual access to a pool of experts. They need an inherent expertise that they can clearly communicate.

    Third, the storykeeper knows the audience. If a storykeeper doesn’t intimately know who the story is intended for, that story will be at best ignorable and at worst irrelevant.

    Finally, the storykeeper knows how to tell a good story. If the storykeeper has 1-3 licked, but can’t recognize, plan, and write a good story, then all of that expertise will be bottled behind bad content.

    What Roles are Best Suited for Storykeeper?

    Let’s start at the top. Should the head of marketing be the storykeeper? They have the knowledge of the business and audience required. They probably even came up with the story itself. However, because of their executive and strategic duties, at least in larger organizations, marketing heads are often a level or more away from where the everyday content decisions are made.

    What about the marketing manager? Conceptually, they have a similar role to the marketing head, but are much closer to where content is made and distributed. However, often the marketing manager is more of a much-needed tactical role focused on schedules and channels. Story integrity isn’t about tactics.

    Is it the content strategist? Maybe. Nobody knows what a content strategist is. It’s often defined so broadly that it means “marketer.” For instance, here’s a detailed day in the life of a content strategist* that doesn’t mention the words story or narrative once. Here’s one** where the content strategist is defined as an analytics role. And here’s one*** discussing it as a technical role.

    That leaves us with the copywriter, the one actually putting key to screen. A customer’s impression of the business and knowledge of the solutions often come via the words a copywriter composes. However, the problem with the copywriter as the storykeeper is trusting the story to a role not often considered strategic. In many marketing departments, copywriters are merely experts at verb tense who have bookmarked. Their role at the table is to transcribe what’s being said. Or to edit somebody else’s copy. As evidence, this role is the most outsourced one on the list.

    Seriously, Who Should the Storykeeper Be?

    Simply put, the storykeeper in your organizations should be whoever is in charge of content. And the closest person to the content is the copywriter.

    They are the original fount for the content. The word experts. And adding domain knowledge atop that defining skill of writing is exactly what a writer does. They become an expert on the topic, and then they write about it.

    However, for the copywriter to be the storykeeper, it would take some redefining of the role. The copywriter would be less the gateway grammarian and more the impelling force behind the content. Ideally, the role would be strategic enough to report directly to the CMO.

    That’s especially true today, where content marketing is a proven for consistently establishing thought leadership, reaching an audience, and attracting leads. In many respects, this redefined copywriter role is an editorial director, like at a magazine or website. In fact, at larger organizations, this role would head an entire department of content creators.

    By the way, there’s an easier way to tell who the storykeeper is for your organization right now. It’s the person saying, “That’s not our story.” Or “How does that fit our story?” or “How do we tell that story?” or “Let me go write the story.” It’s the one obsessed with the story.

    If nobody is saying this regularly in your organization, then your story isn’t being kept. And if it isn’t being kept, it’s also not being received.


    Jason Ocker is the Executive Director of Creative Strategy at Maark, where he oversees messaging and story across marketing strategy, digital campaigns, and product design for a range of industries, including finance, technology, government, health, life science, and telecommunications. He’s an award-winning author of five books, and has been featured at CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

    Photo credits: Michael Kooiman

    That’s Not a Story. But Maybe it can be Turned into One.

    Posted by Jason Ocker


    Hang out with a marketer for five minutes, and you’ll hear the word “story.” Or maybe we’ll say “narrative,” but that’s only because we said “story” 30 times that day already. It’s a simple word that usually goes directly through conversations unquestioned.

    However, too often marketers mean something totally different than story when we say story. And that means that, too often, we don’t have a story. And that’s a cardinal sin of marketing. For example, I’ve seen each of the below items referred to as a story:

    Message House A message house is not a story. The process for making a message house can be a valuable exercise. It can help you outline some of the important pieces of a story. But a message house, really, is just a series of bullet points. There are some basic flaws with message houses (for instance, you can create one without any internal logic and there is rarely a place in the house itself for the audience of the message), but for our purpose here, it’s just not a story.

    Tagline A tagline isn’t a story. It can encapsulate the story, sure. It can even focus the story. I like to think of it as the title of the story, which is only as effective and relevant as the story that undergirds it.

    Value Proposition and Customer Pain Points These items by themselves don’t constitute a story. Similar to the message house, they are very important pieces of a story, but there’s still a lot of work to do to get those pieces into an actual story.

    An Offering with Features That’s not a story, that’s a product sheet. At some point, your marketing story needs to take the audience to some kind of call to action or to a product or solution they can buy, but the product or solution is never the story itself.

    Stats and Use Cases These items are beautiful things to have on hand, and you’re far ahead of the game if you do have them ready. They can be used as proof points for a story or examples of the story in action, but they’re still not the story itself.

    So what constitutes a story? What are all these ideas missing that makes them not a story, even as they’re all important parts of a story?

    Every story blasted down to its bedrock is a progression. A connected sequence of ideas and observations. Something that goes from here to there—logically or emotionally or chronologically or all the other ways ideas progress.

    A marketing story takes its audience from one place to another just as much as an epic fantasy quest novel does. From an insight about the market to an opportunity that needs to be capitalized on. From a business challenge to a business solution. We could get granular about other elements that need to be part of a story—empathy, characters, conflict, resolution, etc.—but all of those items, as well as the list of non-stories above, need to be exactingly woven together into an actual narrative, a connected sequence of ideas, for them to be effective.

    By the way, there’s an even more practical test to see if you have a story. Do you have an official process in place for creating stories? Do you have an official document template for the story in its purest form that can be used to inform all collateral, keeping them on point and consistent? If you don’t (and all definitions aside), chances are you don’t have a story.

    Of course, implicit in the question, “Do you have a story?” is the question, “Do you have a good story?” That’s a different set of criteria. Is the sequence of ideas tightly connected? How is it positioned against competitor stories? Does it resonant with customers? Is it too obvious? Does it reveal any new insights on the market? Is it true? Etc. and ctc.

    But story itself takes its audience somewhere. Once you have that definition firmly in place, you can work on making the story better.

    Jason Ocker is the Executive Director of Creative Strategy at Maark, where he oversees messaging and story across marketing strategy, digital campaigns, and product design for a range of industries, including finance, technology, government, health, life science, and telecommunications. He’s an award-winning author of five books, and has been featured at CNN, The Atlantic, The Boston Globe, The Guardian, The New York Times, and TIME.

    Photo credit: Kenneth Lu