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Why storytelling matters to business more than ever

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The maxim ‘content is king’ has been so overused by the marketing and communications community since it was coined 20 years back that it has attained cliché status. Everyone parrots it, it’s accepted as a truism, and as such it doesn’t trigger urgency or action in those who say or hear it. Like a children’s playground ditty, it’s become a tattered and careworn part of the aural wallpaper that surrounds us. “Content is king, dilly dilly / Context is queen …”

Many – incorrectly – attribute the dictum to Microsoft founder and Billanthropist, Mr Gates. In fact, it was the creation of the veteran media magnate, Sumner Redstone, one-time executive chair of both CBS and Viacom. Mr Redstone stepped down from his illustrious career in his nineties, and at about the same time – half-a-dozen years back – marcomms folk decided they needed a new frame of reference to galvanise themselves and explain the role they bring to business.

So enter storytelling, stage left. Corporate and brand storytelling, with its narrative arcs and hero’s journeys. Rooted in oral storytelling culture – from Homer to the narrators of the Jemaa el-Fnaa in Marakech – story has universal human appeal. It helps us understand our own, day-to-day trials and dilemmas through the epic prism of Harry Potter, Romeo and Juliet, or Anakin Skywalker.

And storytelling now has increasing appeal in the world of business communications. Which is why, as the founder of corporate and brand storytelling consultancy, Insight Agents, I was so excited to discover a new podcast called The Business of Story nine months back. Curated out of Phoenix, Arizona, by Park Howell of super-smart business storytellers Park & Co, the podcast brings together some of the world’s best storytellers from two worlds that are bumping into each other more and more and to great effect: Sunset Boulevard and Madison Avenue, Tinsel Town and Mad Man Ad Land.

In his business, Park has adapted the theory behind Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey – or monomyth – into an intensely practical, ten-step Story Cycle process to help businesses frame and understand their own stories. Now depending on who you read and believe, Campbell’s theory can have between 17 and 166 different phases or sections, both numbers utterly useless and impractical to businesses needing to communicate; to tell stories. That’s why I find Park’s repurposing on the theory so attractive – and so darned useful when working with clients. From blogs and white papers to awards entries and on to corporate statements of purpose, I find it an increasingly useful way of looking at the world.

And so it was that I was honoured and not a little intimidated to be the guest on The Business of Story in an episode released on Easter Monday. Honoured, because it’s a thrill and a grip to be the subject of a medium and a meme with which I’m so familiar; intimidated, because Park asked me to use the Story Cycle on myself – my own life and career, leading to the creation of Insight Agents – and also on a client story. I chose a campaign about food quality at Tesco I developed some years back – before the retailer’s current woes – called Producers As Heroes.

If you have an hour to fill in your week, on a train or plane or when trying to relax, I’d always recommend Park’s Business of Story. This week, I’ve got an even stronger vested self-interest. And of course, I’d love to hear your reaction to my own stories.

Sam Knowles
Sam Knowles is Founder & MD of Insight Agents. He helps companies, brands, and third-sector organisations find simple, true, and authentic language. This gives them the tools, permission, and confidence they need to communicate effectively. His purpose is to help organisations talk like people.

Sam has recently written a book called “Narrative by Numbers: How to Tell Powerful and Purposeful Stories with Data”. It will be published in February 2018 by Routledge.