Storymaking vs. Storytelling

by Britton Manasco | Jul 16, 2006 | Content Strategy

In his most recent book All Marketers are Liars, Seth Godin masterfully explains the power of compelling stories in a "low trust world." With his own stories stretching from Longaberger Corporation (which lived its "obsession with product" by turning its HQ into a giant basket) to Georg Riedel (who sells $20 wine glasses that people believe will make their wine taste better), Godin persuades us that we will become "irrelevant" in the absence of great stories.

The only problem with his thesis is the emphasis it places on the "telling" and his celebration of the "tellers." The trouble with "storytelling" in the realm of marketing is the suggestion that the prospective buyer is a passive participant in the process -- the one who listens to the story teller. Godin, to his credit, recognizes that buyers are not passive. They tell themselves stories, he notes, and actively embrace the stories they want to believe. Then, they pass the best stories on to their colleagues, friends and family members.

So the problem is the term itself: storytelling. It's the same problem that critics of conventional education have leveled at today's under-performing schools. Their model, too often, is the sage on the stage, lecturing to a passive (and bored) group of students. Salesmen are guilty of the same kind of behavior. They often "show up and throw up" on their prospects or, as my friend Jeff Thull memorably puts it, they suffer from "premature presentation."

We don't need great storytellers who force us to quietly listen to their story. We need storymakers who can collaborate with us to create our story. While consumers often purchase products based on fads and fashion, the storymakers I am addressing here -- who play in the market for complex, high value solutions -- must think longer term. To be successful with stories, we must be three things:

Inquisitive. If you want to create a compelling story, you must first learn (and deeply care) about your customer's concerns and priorities. You have to get inside your customer's world if you are to portray your offer in a way that is consistent with that customer's worldview. You have to know their pain and problems, and the consequences of not addressing them. You have to diagnose before you prescribe. Craft the story before you tell it.

Collaborative. Yes, we do have the elements of our own story. We must position ourselves in clear and consistent ways. But that's at a high level. At a ground level where deals get inked and business gets done, we no longer own the story. We are collaborating with our clients to create new stories. These customer stories, by the way, will become the most powerful elements in our overall marketing endeavors. Ultimately, customer success is a more powerful attractor than any actions we might take with products, placement, promotion and price. But we must collaborate with our customers to achieve this success and then, develop the stories around it.

Results-Driven. In order to sell complex solutions in our highly competitive era, it is vital that our stories be interwoven in a sophisticated business case. We must fully evaluate the costs and consequences that justify change. We must then demonstrate our ability to deliver the value being sought. And, over time, we must show that the value we promised is indeed being realized by our clients. That is what gives our stories credibility, not flash-in-the-pan theatrics, not dogs and ponies, not a slick appeal to momentary fashions. The business case is the story that decision teams must confront as they consider an investment in a complex solution.

I get Godin. He knows that controversy makes for a great story so he put a title on his book cover that would stir it. My concern is that the book title and, more importantly, the emphasis on "telling" in the subtitle will confuse rather than clarify the issues. We don't really need great storytellers (or great liars, for that matter). We need great stories -- and we must make them before they can be told.