Friday, October 23, 2009

when to skip the storytelling: 5 ways

Storytelling is well on its way to becoming an overused term of art in communications. For some communicators, it serves to distinguish what they do from news reporting: the feature-length, loving coverage of a topic or area of focus. For others, it suggests the chance to highlight personal stories or exciting discoveries, making a big-picture tale out of what might otherwise seem mundane. Still others use it as an excuse to ignore the small, short or simple news and facts that--however useful to their audience--just don't have the zing, pull and lure of the well-told story. And some wrap themselves in the mantle of storytelling, suggesting it means that they don't spin (when, ironically, 'spinning a tale' is an ancient way to describe the art). Storytelling's invoked so often that our sources for the stories have learned, in many organizations and companies, to walk into the communications office saying, "I think we have a wonderful story to tell."

All this once-upon-a-timing has me yearning for something less, and something more. Instead of telling me a story every time, skip the urge to go all narrative on me. Rather than publish a long report, documentary, photo album with narration or feature-length stories, try these five options instead:
  1. Share a sheet of facts: The fact sheet's a workhorse communications tool that's sadly underused. It's ideal for the data-rich or history-laden announcement; for the process with many steps to describe; or the news where many credits, special notes or clear distinctions need to be called out rather than buried in description. A short introductory paragraph followed by a list of bullet points is all that's needed.
  2. Give me data, minus description: If you've got a trove of data, photos, or records and they're searchable on the web, invite your audience (and reporters) to dive in and share what they find and notice. Don't just release it--make sure you offer to share and post what readers find.
  3. Point me in the right direction: Instead of adding to the narrative pile, be my guide to the rich content you have to share. Tell me a story about the places where I can find your stories on my own. Describe your archives, the types of experts you have or the questions they can answer (or are seeking), or the who-what-when-where of access. It's the opposite of deciding what I can see--just tell me where you're hiding it, and what lies where.
  4. Carve out the context: More than spinning a tale, tell me what's significant and meaningful about your data, photos, content--then let me at it. Give me some context and let me go.
  5. Put a LoJack on your information: I'd be a millionaire if I had a nickel for every time I went to a website and found it awash in 40-page reports, executive summaries, news releases, databanks, annual reports, newsletters, e-zines, video, art, photos and, yes, stories--all without RSS feeds. If you do nothing else, make sure I have at least one way to subscribe to each of your stories and datasets via RSS and pull your information into my reader. Why? It comes direct to me where I'm likely to read it; I can search it; I can store it; and I can compare it to other sources. All the storytelling in the world won't make up for the lack of this simple tool.
What else do you do instead of telling stories? Share your ideas and tactics in the comments.

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