Just what is Storytelling Anyway?

No matter what business you are in—development, marketing, public relations, communications, education, non-profit, for-profit—everyone seems to agree that your main objective should be “effective storytelling.” You need to be able to “tell your business/company/mission/organization’s “story” in a manner that compels people to act: they must click, buy, email, refer, Like, support, or otherwise engage, after hearing and being moved by your story.

But what is this mysterious art of storytelling? How do we do it without sounding self-congratulatory, obnoxious and narcissistic? How do we step outside ourselves and our product or company that we know so well and communicate what it is to people who don’t know anything about it? How do we reach people, on an emotional or visceral level? How do we stand out in the cacophony of the digital world, where everyone is going deaf from the din of everybody else’s story?

Well, here are some tips:


In 2002, Baltimore City Police Officer Crystal Sheffield was killed while responding to a call for help from a fellow officer—another patrol car, responding to the same call, collided with her vehicle. She was the first female officer killed in Baltimore. At her funeral, some of her fellow officers stood silently behind a humongous black cloth banner. On it, in huge, stark, white letters, read the text: BELIEVE.

This is what you need in order to effectively, powerfully and unforgettably tell your story. You need to BELIEVE, in the way Crystal Sheffield believed in policing, the way she believed in Baltimore, the way her colleagues believed in her. You must commit to your story 100% and never falter. Tell your story as if it were the most important, beautiful and powerful story in the world, because it is.


The world has gone digital, in case you hadn’t noticed and that’s a good thing. This transition has made filmmaking decidedly less expensive than it used to be, making high-quality sizzle/highlight reels and other promotional films that much more accessible to companies that would never have been able to afford them just a couple years ago. A visually-arresting, dynamic film, just one or two minutes in length, can communicate your story to a potential client/funder/advocate/friend in a way that little else can. If you need evidence of the relevance of video in our culture, look no further than YouTube.


To whom will you tell your story, when, and how? In the same way that a film trailer can be edited to make the movie appear like a zany comedy or a heartbreaking tragedy, you must decide on the appropriate messaging for the right audience. That is why segmentation is so important—you cannot pitch to a Hollywood media mogul in the same way you would to an investment firm in Chicago. So; do your homework, know your audience, and customize your messaging.


If you’ve ever watched “Inside the Actors Studio” you know that actors are always going on about “what’s my motivation?” It’s a question that drives stage directors crazy, but it’s important, in theatre and in business. In telling your story, you must know what you want to motivate the listener to do. Do you want to make them cry-- if so, why? Do you want to make them click on something, sign up for something, request a consult or a quote? Do you want them to feel unsure of their current marketing/pr direction? Do you want to entice them or wow them? To what end? You must always be thinking about what are the steps, short and long-term, that you want this person on the receiving end of your story to take. Then, craft your story around that action, not the other way around.

Remember: there is nothing more important than your story. No one can create it for you. So, forget about consultants or spin doctors. Your story must come from you. It is you. Now, make it happen.