A few weeks ago I was listening to NPR as Kai Ryssdal talked to a gentleman named Aaron Foley, who had taken on a new position in the evolving city of Detroit. In days of yore, maybe Foley would have been the Motor City’s head flack, their Communications Exec or even their Public Relations Manager. He was not, he was the first-ever Chief Storyteller. While it sounds cute and other worldly, along the lines of the overused phrases and descriptions like guru and evangelist, Chief Storyteller is becoming both critical to brand success and much more than a bit of a niche.
Want proof? Ask United, who needed a brand makeover to understand what they were and went out and secured someone to help strategize and then tell their story. So have Nike, SAP, and Microsoft. Classes at business schools big and small are focusing on the telling of a story. This past Sunday on CBS Sunday Morning, Dick Cavett, perhaps one of the greatest storytellers of any generation and ageless at age 80 gave further credence to an idea which is true for those in the media, but also follows along the need.
“Don’t do interviews, create and engage in a conversation.”
Now this is not just a historian curating the time worn traditions of a brand in a dusty old room. The past is certainly part of the story, but so are some other old school traits; listening, consensus building, writing, combined with a new understanding of digital and social media and making sure that things are moving along in lock step. It also doesn’t just apply to big brands. In a hyper-local environment that we have today, small companies, as well as every institute of higher learning, should take pride and understanding in the value and power of telling the story correctly. Heck, even look to Broadway, where the greatest storytelling of a generation has been done by Lin-Manuel Miranda in the hit musical “Hamilton,” much of which is based upon a simple mantra… “who lives, who dies who tells your story.”
The impact of telling a story cleanly and correctly and consistency, and keeping that story straight is invaluable.
So the cynics will say this is just another marketing or “public relations” spin. The jobs of storytelling have been done in different ways since the creation of business. Anyone can do it as part of their role. Well, not really. Having those key traits, and adding one more, the ability to be ALWAYS LEARNING and being willing to TEACH, are what makes the great storytellers. By using all those, checking the ego at the door and constantly evolving in a calm manor, the Chief Storyteller can keep brands afloat, help companies raise cash, recruit talent, and perhaps more importantly save corporations, teams, brands, leagues, countless hours of reinvention. While we all go about our business in a silo with our head down, the storyteller is listening, watching, communicating (in all forms- even talking to people) and making sure that messages are consistent, that changes and adjustments are made, and that the success and failures of the past are built into a successful forward-thinking narrative.
The great news is the violent changes in the media culture today are creating opportunities for storytellers who are looking to evolve. Writers, editors, corporate communicators, strategists both older and even a bit younger, who are willing to embrace change, listen and adapt new technology can fill these “old school” roles of effective storytelling. In a culture where business is constantly changing, that role is needed more than ever in the C-Suite.
So what is the Chief Storyteller not? He or she understands spin but is not a spin doctor. He or she places the right credence on the facts and engages them in the conversation. The storyteller doesn’t reinvent history with alternative facts, he or she places the right amount of emphasis on the elements of the story and draws examples from the reality. The Storyteller is usually not a shouter. He or she is not the boastful backslapper; he or she is more of the brand whisperer. He or she is not just a yes person, the storyteller puts perspective on all that is going on in the business, the team, the real world, and has developed the trust to build the narrative. He or she knows when to tell an evolving brand to pivot in a narrative, and when to remember lessons learned that have gotten a brand to where it is. He or she is not staid in their learning. The storyteller is fluid, open minded and watch and learning about every way to engage in a narrative correctly.
Does this have to be the dedicated fulltime role for companies with limited head counts or budgets? No. it is an area in consulting that has to be consistent to be effective, but can be someone with an understanding but not a dedicated place. Where the person has to be is in a seat at the leadership table. Unlike sales, the storyteller may not have a dedicated line on a ledger sheet to define success. However one thing is for sire. If a company, a team, a league, a brand does not have a consistent story, they are behind in a fluid business environment. That lack of a story, can be deadly.
Like where we have talked about Director of Gaming, Chief Storyteller is a role to watch as we become more fluid, more global and more diverse in our work. There are many who can fill the role, just be willing to listen and learn.