Everything Isn't A Story And That's Ok

You keep using that word.

Posted: Aug 12, 2014

Have you noticed that the word “story" has become a buzzword? Every few days, I hear someone use the word “story" when he or she is actually describing something else. Stories have their own requirements, benefits, and effects, which are not better or worse than other mechanisms. But to share something other than a story, you need different components. You also get different results. 

Story is just one way to structure content

First, let’s look at the classic—the story.

A story has a protagonist (or at least something driving the action), an objective, and an obstacle that keeps the protagonist from achieving his/her objective. Stories unfold with obstacles and stakes, taking the audience on a journey where they feel tension and want to know how things pan out. And don’t forget that stories are all about emotion. If you are missing any of these things you have something other than a story in hand. 

Five more frames for content

Now, let’s look at some other ways to relay information. Each of these items is useful in their own right. We can use ‘em all—just be clear about why and how you’re using ‘em.

A narrative is a theme that can be used to link several stories. For example, “The American dream” is a narrative. I can tell you a story about a Bolivian woman who immigrated to Oklahoma, worked hard, and eventually opened her own shop, or a farmhand in Iowa who worked through unforgiving seasons and eventually bought the land. Both stories reinforce the same narrative—work hard and be self-made. We already use narratives as shorthand. If I say, “You have to read about this amazing basketball player—it’s a real Cinderella story,” you know what happens before you crack the book open. Your organization’s narrative is a static, internal reference. It is “one ring to rule them all,” to quote Tolkien. This is one of my favorite examples of using a narrative and the myriad stories that connect to it.

A profile is a snapshot of a person, initiative, campaign, etc. People say, “Let’s tell the story of a participant in our program,” only to create a quick profile of how old the participant is, how many kids he has, his background, and something personal. Yes, it has a human touch. No, it is not a touching story about a human. If your organization has profiles of its employees or case studies of your great work, just make sure each one reinforces the narrative. This example of a campaign by the Mormon Church uses profiles to reinforce a consistent narrative, that members come in all shapes and sizes and all have deep faith. 

A chronology is a review of historic events, past to present. People say, “Let’s tell the story of our organization," only to show a list of achievements and dates. Call it the chronology “Our History of Achievement” and be proud of it. No one says it needs to be boring or simple. Take this chronology by the Red Cross. It’s informative and has plenty of personality.

An overview is the synopsis of who, what, where, why something exists and how it works. Overviews are great for orientation. Some overviews are part profile and part chronology and can present vision and proof points. This overview from the Humane Society thoughtfully helps the viewer understand just what the organization does and why.

An infographic is a visual collection of data about a topic (and another buzzword). It might be similar to an overview, but that’s not to say you can’t tell a story with a collection of statistics. It can be done—you just have to start with a story in mind and have a masterful hand like Charles Joseph Minard's. Otherwise, use your collection of data points to back up your narrative and stories

Fitting the pieces together

Say a company sells an app that helps people track down the best sandwich in town.

  • The narrative could be “finding a needle in a haystack” because there are so many sandwich options out there. 
  • The profiles present your staff as nimble, thoughtful, sandwich connoisseurs who happen to make a top-notch sandwich-locating app. 
  • The chronology is how long you have been around since you first decided that people needed this service and app. 
  • The overview can be about how a sandwich seeker can use the app to go from grumbly stomach to dreamy muffuletta.
  • The infographic shows all the connections made between hungry users and their desired ruebens, banh mis, BLTs, etc. 
  • The stories (and they can be countless) will all be examples of people using the service to find exactly the lunches they were looking for fast (e.g., going on the perfect picnic, catering for a conference, late night hunger pangs, etc.). Every story is about how only the perfect sandwich would do and how the app uncovered it against all odds. 

The list goes on 

The list above is certainly not exhaustive. I was just in a meeting where someone used the word “story” when he meant “argument" and another person used it to mean “philosophy.” Arguments and philosophies are necessary and can be powerful—even though they aren't stories. You can probably name a few examples of your own. 

Collect them all! Or don’t!

You don’t need all of these items. Start with a narrative because that’s the DNA for all the rest. From there you can develop the other items over time. More importantly, would someone please create that sandwich app already?