January 8, 2018

Storytelling is not enough to escape bullshit

Storytelling is one more buzzword in today’s marketing departments and companies. Everyone wants to be better at storytelling. That’s good, but you should remember that storytelling is not a magic spell to solve all problems in marketing and communications.

Bullshit: storytelling without a backbone

Consumers, users, clients… even managers often label storytelling initiatives as “bullshit”. Let’s be honest. Most of the time they are right. Why is this?

Because there is a thin red line you shouldn’t cross. Translating reality into a story that catches the audience is ok. But when the fiction gets too far from reality you enter the country of lies. And people don’t like it when you lie at them.

As a company, sometimes you have nothing to tell. Then you start telling a story to make it look like you actually have something to say. I’m sad to tell you this: people will spot it. Let’s be honest again.

Consumers and your clients are far from being stupid. Your storytelling needs a backbone. You need to base it on something real. This is usually your product or service, or the everyday reality of people facing the problem your product or service can solve. Well I have bad news: if your product or service sucks, then a good story will only make it suck even more. With a good storytelling, you build an expectation. But if it has no backbone, your product or service can’t match the expectation.

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Service Design helps build the storytelling backbone

In the field of Service Design there a special tool that we use. Its name is “Service Blueprint”. It is a model that helps map out a whole Service.

This model is interesting because it shows the two faces of a Service. There is the part that is visible to the consumer. We call it the front stage. And there is the hidden part. Consumers have no idea this even exists. We call it the backstage.

If you focus your storytelling only on what is visible then your storytelling is poor. But if you have a strong backstage, then your storytelling becomes much stronger.

Cultural misalignment: storytelling disconnected from the collective mind

There is another case where Storytelling fails. You have a good story. The backbone is solid. But people don’t get it or don’t feel attracted to it. That’s when you use elements that don’t fit in the actual imaginaire – our collective imagination.

The collective representation is the symbolic model that people have about how the present or future works. It’s the way people make sense of what happens in their lives. It’s the way people make sense of what’s coming. A collective imagination is like a model. It helps explain reality but it’s only a simplification to make it accessible. A good story relies on a cultural mindset that both the author and reader share. We call this “common ground”. Without common ground, people won’t be able to make sense of your story.

Let’s picture an image we all have on our minds: the mental model of the flying car. When you build a story based on this common object people will understand your story faster. They will understand it faster because it has already some cultural relevance. When they read or hear “flying car”, they already know about it. On the other hand, if you go for a story about something called a “flying bottle”, then your story will surely fail.

On a basic level, this shouldn’t happen. Because of the structure of the collective mindset is the same. We take an everyday useful object (car, bottle) and append to it the same new capability (flying). The “flying car” is already in the culture. That’s why this imagination will produce a stronger commitment from the story listener.

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Strategic Foresight helps define the storytelling imaginaire

How can you define and find out what collective narratives and myths exist in a specific culture? Strategic Foresight uses myths as a tool for innovation. Strategic Foresight uses the collective imagination of consumers to discover their desires. It also can see what innovation we could build on this desire or dreams.

Airbus is today building a lot of traction with a new product which builds on the collective fantasy of the “flying car”. Well in fact, it’s not really a flying car. Nevertheless, the story around this new product is leveraging this common fantasy. This is one of the reasons why these “flying cars” from Airbus get so much traction today, all over the media. But beyond the flying car lies a deep collective imaginary of freedom, the idea of escaping congested and slow cities with their traffic jams and pollution.

Foresight is a strategic framework to create powerful conversations around these collective imaginaries. Once you know these archetypal stories, and how they’re interacting with weak signals of change you can build on them to create a more effective storytelling.

Storytelling is a complementary tool

At Enigma, we see storytelling as one more tool in our toolbox. Storytelling goes well along with Service Design, Strategic Foresight, Design Thinking, Business Model Generation and so on. Only when mixing up these different tools together can we create a long lasting impact.


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Our specialists will continue delivering insights about the future of storytelling. They will do that in a series of articles about Storytelling that we will announce in our newsletter.

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