The Story of Storytelling (Or, How To Make your Positioning Real)
Earlier this year my magnum opus My Unified Theory of Everything was published in the prestigious academic journal Twitter.
1/ Stories are the substrate of the universe. As our knowledge of the mechanics of things increases and we continue to parse the units of matter previously thought to be indivisible (atom, quark, etc.) we ultimately have to conclude there is no there there.
— Blair Enns (@blairenns)
April 26, 2019
It is, by today’s standards, a behemoth of a treatise, spanning a 14-tweet thread, exhausting many a reader and straining the limits of the Internet itself. I recognize the casual reader isn’t likely to wade through this heady paper in its entirety, and so it is left to philosophers, quantum physicists and other serious academics to read and debate. If you are in that category and are familiar with the Nobel Prize nomination process, you may read it here.
For the tl;dr crowd, I’ll summarize it thusly: It’s all story, all the way down. The fundamental structure of everything in life, in the universe, in reality itself, is story. If there is an objective external reality (and I’m not convinced there is) it is built not on atoms and particles but on stories. Everything is subjective experience. There are no facts. There is no truth. Only story.
Like Robert Oppenheimer before me, however, I too see the dark side of my creation and worry as he did that I have become a destroyer, not of worlds, but of words. As story is indeed the substrate of the universe, its ubiquity renders storytelling largely unusable as a basis for differentiating a creative or marketing firm. And there are a lot of firms making that claim today.
But there is a way to pull this off — to make storytelling a meaningful differentiator for your firm — and the lessons here are relevant to many a firm trying to pull off a similarly suspect or broken positioning.
So whether you’re making the storytelling claim or another that feels like it has the germ of something meaningful but has yet to translate into marketplace success, pay attention and we’ll talk about how to make it real. (Well, as real as anything can be in this reality — am I right?)
Okay, storytelling is indeed a relevant way to think about what it is your firm does, but as I’ve already said, I believe it’s the most relevant way to think of everything. When you finally let go of the illusion of objectivity, story is all that is left.
So, while storytelling cannot be a primary differentiator, it and other points of view (“stories,” if you will) can contribute to the story of a firm that really is meaningfully different. I’ll lay out here what I see as the first three steps to positioning and building an expert firm, and where the idea of storytelling might fit.
Step One: Choose a Focus
The first step in positioning a firm is to declare the firm’s focus via a discipline (what you do) and a market (for whom you do it). This first step should separate your firm from the vast hordes of other generalist competitors whose focus, declared or implied, is often as broad as “marketing for businesses.”
Your intersected discipline and market should describe something small enough to allow you to carve out a leadership position within about three years, but large enough to sustain a successful, lucrative firm well into the future.
Storytelling as a discipline is just too broad to bring any of the primary benefits of making one’s market smaller. All positioning success starts with getting the focus right. For step one, answer the question “for what discipline and market might we build out a lucrative leadership position within three years?” and leave storytelling out of it.
Step Two: Add a Perspective
Once you have a discipline and market identified and articulated, the next step is to separate the firm from others that also do discipline for market, or whose slightly different discipline for market is seen as just as relevant by the client. This is accomplished by adding a point of view or perspective on how discipline for market should be done.
Your perspective should set up an ideological difference between you and your remaining direct competitors. The belief that “marketing is storytelling” has the potential for such a perspective.
Your perspective is often introduced with the words, “We believe…” In the case of storytelling, “We believe that all marketing — no matter how data-driven — is storytelling.”
While perspective is the place where something like storytelling belongs (rather than the discipline aspect of focus in step one) it is still so broad as to not be meaningful. At least not yet. We’ll get there in the next step, but before we leave perspective it’s worth noting that your perspective (even if it’s as broad as “all marketing storytelling”) should inform and infuse your content marketing.
People will be drawn to your content for your advice on a narrow sliver of discipline for market, but they will hire you for your ideology –– your belief or perspective on how discipline for market should be done. Content marketing that lacks such ideology has a very low return on effort. So if your perspective is that all marketing is storytelling, the thought leadership you publish on narrow slices of discipline for market should be framed by that ideology that all marketing is storytelling. That theme should recur in your content constantly.
Step Three: Find (or Develop) a Supporting Model
Okay, time to back up storytelling and make it work for us. Here in step three is where almost every firm that claims to be in the storytelling business falls down. They fail to add a model and therefore to move their perspective or ideology (all marketing is storytelling) from a belief to a way of working.
A model is simply a way of looking at and making sense of the world. It’s both a structure on which you can hang everything you know and do, and it’s a compelling story. Sometimes a model requires diligent searching or development, but often it falls easily out of your perspective (Step Two).
In the case of storytelling, a model comes easily because Carl Jung has already done the work. And Joseph Campbell. And Christopher Mogler. And Blake Snyder. And Stephen Pressfield and Shawn Coyne. And many, many others who have codified storytelling by identifying the archetypes, articulating the overarching story structure (known as the monomyth), classifying the various story types into a taxonomy, by developing sets of rules and identifying standard tropes, conventions and devices.
Storytelling is rife with structure. It has been studied and mined. Many of its universal truths have been uncovered. Professional storytellers violate these truths (okay, conventions) at their peril.
If your perspective is that all marketing is storytelling then you need to subscribe to a model of storytelling that leads to a codified methodology for how you do discipline for market and how you bring your perspective to bear. This is almost always the missing piece in those firms that talk about storytelling, or pretty much any other ideology. Let’s look at how powerful this missing piece can be.
Imagine you are at a cocktail party chatting with someone who asks about your firm. You lead with your discipline for market, by saying “We do online marketing for SaaS companies.”
“That’s interesting,” says your companion. “I recently met someone else who does the same thing. How is your firm different from his?”
You reply, “Well it’s a very data-driven business, as you might imagine all online marketing is these days. But our viewpoint is that as powerful as the data is, people are attracted to and buy because of stories.”
At this point your companion might find this uninteresting and move on. They may also have a conflicting ideology and either move on or engage in a heated discussion with you on your clashing ideologies.
But this time you’ve gotten lucky; you’ve struck a chord. “You know,” your companion says, “I run a SaaS business and the spreadsheet types in my company are always shoving their data in my face to justify recommendations that feel so wrong to me. I often feel like they’re missing the bigger picture. I don’t think there is any spreadsheet that can capture emotion, and I believe that people buy on emotion and not fact.”
I’ll point out here in this hypothetical conversation your perspective has accomplished what it should: it’s found you someone who shares your ideology. Just as valuable is someone who does not presently share your ideology but who is intrigued by it and is willing to convert to yours after exploring it with you in more depth.
Let’s get back to the conversation. Your companion is now leaning forward, interested to hear more. They ask, “If we were to hire you to help with our marketing, what would an engagement look like?”
This is as far as most firms get before blowing it. Many people misunderstand the question of “how” — which always comes up — to be one of basic housekeeping: how long would we work together, what would it cost, who would be on my account, etc.
But what this prospective client is really looking for is a framework, a structure. Because anyone who operates from an ideology has a framework for bringing it to bear. Someone who talks about an ideology but cannot translate it into a working methodology is someone who, we assume, has been temporarily inspired by the latest TED talk or best-selling book.
The next time we meet them, we imagine, they will be talking about a whole new ideology. (If I looked through two years of pitch decks for the average ad agency I would likely find evidence of such serial temporary adoption of the latest theme put forward by popular writers such as Jim Collins, Seth Godin, Simon Sinek or Brené Brown.)
And what your prospective client is asking you now is “What is your framework?” They don’t really even care too much what the framework is, they simply want to know if you have thought deeply about this, so deeply that you have worked out how to leverage this ideology to create an implied guarantee of better work.
Back to the cocktail party. Your companion turns out to be a prospective client. They share your ideology. They want to go deep into this. If you can explain how you have worked to understand how and why storytelling works — if you can communicate that you have cracked the code and figured out how to replicate success in bringing this ideology to bear, to increase SaaS subscriptions through storytelling — then you will have a valuable new client with you in the expert practitioner position.
In response to the “How would this work” question you reply, “We use the classic Jungian archetypes to understand how your customers see your company, we research your customers’ needs and use cases and select the myth that most resembles the journey that your product helps them navigate and we leverage the Campblell-Vogler model of the Hero’s Journey to make sure we’re communicating the right parts of the story at the right time. From your customer’s point of view it all feels like they are on a path to success and you show up on that path at the right time with the right form of help. It drives engagement and retention.”
Now cut me some slack here because I haven’t studied the elements of story in any depth so I’m just riffing, but an answer like this implies you’ve thought deeply about this. You believe in story. You believe so deeply that you’ve read the canon, researched the frameworks and selected and adopted a model or built your own hybridized model from many, all of which leads to a level of implied certainty in your ability to bring this ideology to bear for the client’s success.
Your focus (we do discipline for market) is what gets you on the consideration list. Your perspective (ideology) is what resonates with people (that’s why it’s prominent in your thought leadership) and it sets you apart from others that also do discipline for market.
But without a model that leads to a codified methodology, your prospective client will view your ideology as empty. “It’s just bait, designed to heighten my interest, but there’s no real substance there.”
Storytelling is a powerful perspective. Donald Miller is proving this with Story Brand, his book and business that does all of the above in a compelling, meaningful way. But Miller is a writer who has truly brought the framework of storytelling to business.
He has taken a claim almost universally made by many a creative or marketing firm, and almost universally empty, and he has made it real by doing the work behind the idea to develop a model. That last part is where most agencies fail to make their positioning real.
So, this post didn’t really end up being about storytelling, it turns out it’s about making your positioning real. A proper business writer would have put this statement at the top, instead of burying it under 2,000 words that most who begin this article will never finish. But I like to tell stories. And every story has to have an ending worth waiting for. Otherwise, why begin the journey at all?