5 ways to sap the human element from your storytelling

Common blunders rob the heart and excitement from your organization’s stories. Here’s how to identify and avoid these messaging missteps.

I am optimistic about the next phase of storytelling bringing the industry to a better place.

Still, I have a bone to pick with how some organizations knowingly (or unwittingly) get in their own way.

Here are five things companies do that can impede storytelling success:

1. The complexity conundrum

Especially in jargon-laden industries—high-tech, financial services, medical, pharmaceutical, among others—some corporate storytellers think a simple story won’t be effective. So, they add bells and whistles to pimp out their story ride so as not to “dumb it down.”

Communicators get so close to telling a beautiful story, and then that happens. It’s hard to watch. Jargon and other complexities kill clarity, and clarity is the storyteller’s responsibility, not the audience’s. When I’ve said we need to keep things simple, I sometimes am met with, “Why would we dumb it down?” Simplicity is about accessibility of message, not “dumbing it down”-a patronizing phrase.

Simplicity helps your audience to champion your story; complexity works against that. Your audience is smart, but they shouldn’t have to work hard to understand your story.

Moreover, jargon-monoxide poisoning—as I am known for calling it—signals that a company does not have a clear story, or else they’d be proudly singing it.

Complexity clouds the emotional resonance of a great story. Without emotional arcs, no one will care about your story.

2. The superhuman fallacy

Too many companies have bought into a myth that great stories should make them look superhuman. So, they take a great simple story and add story steroids in a quest to make their story more “awesome.”

Your story shouldn’t sound like it came out of “Forrest Gump.” Superhuman isn’t real. What’s real? Being human, and telling the truth without exaggeration. Too often, storytellers believe the truth isn’t enough and that their stories, by extension, are too ordinary to be meaningful.

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Of course you can take some poetic license, but there is a difference between a little story botox and going overboard so there is little truth left. The latter is a terrible disservice to the organization and to audiences. A great, honest story doesn’t need story steroids.

The truth wins every time. It’s human. Sometimes organizations don’t want to reveal the truth because it makes them look “vulnerable.” Vulnerability should have context, and if vulnerability is relevant and makes a company more transparent and honest, go with it.

(For more info on being vulnerable, I’ve got some resources for you. I also held a Hangout on that same topic with a great guest.)

3. Fear of risk

A great story has risk—risk to the storyteller, risk in the story that has to be resolved for the audience, and risk that the story might not work. Over-sanitized stories, such as stories by committee, often become lifeless.

Sometimes organizations fear talking about challenges they face, but stories without challenges are not stories at all. Challenges create tension and risk that have to be resolved for the audience. Great storytelling takes your audience on an emotional journey.

Your audience feels risk—there is no getting around it. Storytelling is how you acknowledge it and show your audience how to resolve it. Today, companies should be afraid of not risking anything. Now, that’s scary.

4. The money-obsessed ending

A purported economic benefit from a product or service makes a lousy story ending. I say, “So what?” So do a lot of your users.

Users want to know how their personal lives will change. How can they achieve community, fulfillment, credibility, recognition and all the other things people want?

Your audience has human needs that have nothing to do with your product or service, and those needs go beyond rational, economic value. It’s your job to find out what they are and tell stories that speak emotionally to those needs. Did your product help them reach their personal goals? It’s never about your product, ever.

It’s even OK to have an open-ended story ending that is still evolving and leans toward hope. Your business story might invite your audience to co-create an ending by sharing their stories.

A great ending isn’t perfect, just better—and realistic.

5. Hiding behind a corporate veil

The corporate veil is coming down in favor of a human frame. Many brand stories fail to capture the imagination of audiences because they still depict companies as protagonists.

People don’t care about companies; they care about people. You can’t hug or thank a company, although many of us would like to smack certain companies.

Great storytelling should be told through the lens of a person: a specific customer, a passionate employee, a dedicated partner. That’s what connects with your audience-stories of people who are like them in some way or who share similar values, situations or challenges.

Every great company story must be anchored in a human story, and that happens only when a story is told from a human perspective.

Kathy Klotz-Guest (MA, MBA) is a marketing storyteller and founder of marketing firm Keeping it Human. A version of this article first appeared on Convince and Convert.

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