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Fireside vs stageside: what storytelling is… and isn’t

by | Dec 31, 2019 | Latest

Like most of us, you steered clear of English in high school. Creative writing was fun. But it was for the delightful dorks in the corner.

But today, you’re running a business. Or in charge of creating content for your team. And you’re finding that a lot of your posts on social, your articles, and the stuff you’re talking about, just isn’t sticking with people.

You’ve realized you’re missing a human component. The humanizing element.

That’s what stories do. They make the truth more palatable (George Orwell). They make data memorable. They make moments stick. And they help people connect with your brand.

But, you feel like you don’t know where to start with storytelling. How do you do it? Where do you stop? Do you have to include some sort of moral?

Starting with a blank document feels like you’re trying to write a Pixar movie. It feels fake, like writing a fiction novel.

First of all, let’s take a step back.

Let’s talk about the simple and powerful difference between fireside vs stageside storytelling.

Or between campfire and TED talks.

See, we all tell stories to each other. All the time.

We recount moments. We share experiences. A glass of wine or a few beers with friends round a campfire brings up all kinds of hilarious and instructive stories.

Dream Maker

We talk about things that happened in our childhood. We connect those to bad experiences with our bank. And then we share what happened to a friend, or some hearsay about how things changed.

And that’s how it should be. Unstructured, free flowing, fun. That’s the nature of fireside stories; everyone in the circle shares a common context – friendship.

But in your brand, your visitors, your buyers, and your superfans don’t yet share a common context. They don’t yet have that sense of clarity and friendship that allows for freeform storytelling.

And that’s why you need something structured.

Stories are very concrete things.

Not highlights, or unstructured experiences. They are shared moments of change.

They are mostly about a human experience.

Social networks market ‘storytelling’ with their vertical ‘Stories’ media. But, most of what we consume isn’t actually a story.

We watch moments, dialogues, shower thoughts, series of ideas. Perfectly fine. But don’t call it a story.

It’s like calling every street a bridge because it connects separate locations.

A story can’t become so broadly defined it means anything. That’s what we call an ‘experience’.

Social networks tell you that you can be a storyteller, or feel like one. But unless you follow certain rules, it’s not a story.

Bridge makers don’t get to do what they want and call it a bridge.

Marvel screenwriters don’t get to deconstruct a story and call it proto-modern heroism.

Roller coaster creators can’t create a riveting ride loaded with stuff, and call it a story.

A story is a thing.

Most of us love stories because they make sense. They are sense-making machines. The outcomes are understandable, and that’s the point.

The Magic of TED stories

TED is a fantastic shorthand for where we’re going. I can almost guarantee that all of the last few TED talks  you’ve watched have had a story in them. They either started with one, or described a gripping moment to go deep into an idea.

TED talks are usually refined works of stagecraft and performance art. Their time limit means that every word is weighed. The speakers are usually trained to identify core emotions and ideas, and share them with breathtaking excitement.

Their stories are gems at the core of their talks that capture an idea. And they are carefully crafted. They always:

  • Begin with a concrete moment, or idea
  • Are focused on one person’s immediate experience
  • Build around a clear message
  • Keep it simple
  • End with a strong statement

It’s the art of high stakes, short form storytelling.

And that’s the kind of story that will work best for you. Use powerful, emotional, short stories in your emails, in your social shares, on your website.

Creating a Common Context

Your brand stands for something you deeply believe. Your stories are the ‘bricks’ you use to build up a platform that creates connection between strangers, and brings them together as friends.

That’s why you can’t waste time, description, or effort with your stories. A story must have a point. It can’t meander, however nicely written.

It has to end with a very clear idea, and finish quickly.

Do not waste your reader’s time. You haven’t ‘earned that right.’ Friends are far more forgiving, and can even ‘fill in the gaps’ when you forget where you were going.

Not so with strangers.

So key takeaways for any story you want to tell:

  • Make it about a person
  • Be clear about the context, and what they do
  • Keep it short
  • Have a clear point
  • Finish quickly

Show that you know where you’re going with a story. You’ll create confidence that you know where you’re going with your brand.

And most importantly, with your customers’ future.

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So what do you think? Leave a comment.

PS: Who’s one person you know would like to read this post? Can you share it with them? Thanks!

Dominic de Souza is a novelist-turned-marketer. He believes that passionate small businesses should stop with ads and funnels, and get back to the human roots of business: clarity, excellent service, and building a community. Everything you’re already good at.  Meet Dominic →

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