Once upon a time in Storyland

In a post-factual age where anyone - or anything - can create content, the notion of communicators as ‘storytellers’ needs to be rethought.

Photo by Reuben Juarez on Unsplash

Open any agency website, communications magazine, or sit through any conference, pitch or awards ceremony, and a word that appears again and again is ‘storytelling’.

So ubiquitous is the term in today’s marketing communications language that no organisation seems immune to its lure. If the jargon is to be believed, we should all grab the nearest notebook and pen, and channel our inner Bob Dylan.

While stories have existed since time immemorial, remarkably few of us appear to be good at telling them. Search Amazon and you find myriad self-help books, and on Google, an array of creative agencies touting brand, digital, and social storytelling services. In recent years, client-side communications teams have also got in on the act, using narrative skill to differentiate from competing functional experts. With marketing dollars at stake, everyone wants to spin a better yarn.

In business, the power of stories is well known; there is no crime in wanting to tell them, so long as they are true.

Consider the parable of Theranos Inc., the now-dissolved Silicon Valley biotech company. Worth $9 billion at its peak, Theranos’ stratospheric rise (and fall) was perhaps due entirely to stories – tall ones. The disruptive potential of the firm’s blood testing technology may ultimately have been fiction, but the fallout from the venture was quite real: its founder and former COO face allegations of not only defrauding investors, but also doctors and patients. When it comes to purpose and strategy, the moral is that narrative needs substance.

Still, stories remain the oldest trick in the book. In the hands of a skilled raconteur, emotional, character-driven plots can influence behaviour and outcomes - whether that’s clicking the ‘like’ button, or something more substantive. This ability to move mountains is not magic but, science suggests, the result of a complex interaction of hormones and neurotransmitters. As illustrated by Theranos, we had better hope that whoever is mixing this neurochemical cocktail holds our best interests at heart.

There are no guarantees.

Today, content creation happens with scale and speed, but few checks and balances. While governments, civil society, business, and brands have all benefitted from this democratisation, so too have those with shadowy intentions. As lawmakers and social media companies grapple with fake news and misinformation, new storytellers and techniques continue to enter the fray. These include ‘virtual influencers’ such as Instagram’s Lil Miquela (1.6 million followers and counting), as well as now infamous deepfake videos, the likes of which have already claimed several celebrity scalps.

Imminent advances in AI will make it possible to truly interact with these digital agents, giving them ‘lives’ of their own. Fake text looks set to blur the boundaries even further: tools such as OpenAI’s GPT-2 can generate swathes of text, mimicking the very best human writers.

Without standards and regulation, we may soon lose confidence that the media we consume is real, that the person we’re chatting to is human, or that the intentions of its creators are sincere. For communicators, the strategic and reputational implications are profound.

For instance, as AI-generated content delivers a greater proportion of our dopamine hits, competition in the storytelling market will intensify. Conventional narrative skills may quickly seem boring, commanding lower premiums. To stay both relevant and profitable, frontline communicators will therefore need to invest in, understand, and deploy machine-led technologies ethically.

In an industry often seen as being economical with the truth, a further consideration is how communicators wish to be perceived. In a post-truth environment, and with machines on the ascendant, the negative connotations that many cultures hold around ‘telling stories’ are only likely to intensify.

To predict the death of storytelling risks incurring the wrath of creatives everywhere. However, as our digital and physical lives continue to fuse – and with labels more important than ever before – we are surely inching towards an inflection point.

Communicators of the future may see themselves less as storytellers, more as human agents of truth. Reinvent ourselves, and there’s every chance we’ll live happily ever after.

The author is a head of executive communications at a Swiss-based Fortune 100 comapny, and wishes to stay anonymous.