Once upon a time stories weren’t called ‘narratives’ and we didn’t need a process, archetypes or rules to help us tell them. And most authors of books, plays, films and the like (ie real stories) didn’t use them either. So why have so many agencies started banging on about the power of storytelling all of a sudden? And wrapping them up in pseudo science? And why doesn’t anyone care that the stories at the end of it all aren’t very good?
Strategic storytelling is supposed to draw on ideas about structure and characters that have been around since the days when we were swapping myths around a campfire. In 1949, Joseph Campbell wrote a book about it called ‘The Hero with a Thousand Faces’, in which he compared myths from around the world and said they all shared the same structure: roughly a hero goes on a journey, faces some challenges and comes back to live happily ever after. George Lucas even said Star Wars was part-inspired by it.
There have been other books and theories too, and many of them, like Campbell’s, stir Freud, Jung and pop-psychology into the pot. But one of the big problems, as is often the case with things like this, is that these frameworks are made up after the stories are written. And this post-rationalised theory doesn’t stand up to scrutiny because most myths only follow bits of Campbell’s ‘journey’.
Whether stories can be analysed like this or not, the bigger problem is that it’s almost impossible to write stories following a process. And it’s ten times harder to do this about a brand. If you’ve ever had the unfortunate experience of trying to work out what a brand’s archetype is, you’ll know that they’re rarely a neat fit. You end up with a strange chart that says a packet of crisps is part ‘hero’, ‘traveller’ and ‘lover’. What’s worse is that there’s not a great deal you can do with that information in practice. If we’re set a brief to ‘write like a sage’, it doesn’t give us a steer one way or another. It just sits in a PowerPoint presentation before the proper work starts.
You can see how strategic storytelling muddies thinking by looking at the words. Here’s what a storytelling agency in the UK writes about what they do: ‘We focus on the human elements of change in business, uniting people behind a common power through the power of narrative’. We’re not singling them out – that kind of blurb is representative of the sort of ‘storytelling’ briefs we’ve been asked to work on lots of times. Words like triangulation, frames and human truths pop up. It’s a bit like when you put some words through Google Translate from English to another language and back again. Ideas get badly translated with marketing speak mixed in. It’s all ‘platforms’, ‘driving our approach’, ‘unearthing insights’ and the ‘power of this, that and the other’.
We’ve taken a leaf out of Joseph Campbell’s book and looked into the kind of people who use strategic storytelling. And the same archetype comes up again and again. Let’s call them ‘the Consultor’. The Consultor loves process, but they want to keep a bit of creativity too, so they plump for stories with process mixed in. Time for an alarm bell. Good stories don’t need frameworks. Once you’re at a point where you need to remind people what a story is in the first place, something’s going wrong. And alas, if people stay on this strategic storytelling journey, they’ll never get the happy ending they’re after.