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Storytelling: Words still matter in social media —even in video!

Storytelling is the pinnacle of communications. But it's also the most misunderstood marketing and communications approach of all the tools in the arsenal of great communicators.

The bad news: In the 21st century, with our always-on, data-driven culture of information overload, far too many marketers and those who hire marketers suggest that the concept of storytelling is dead. It’s all about that tsunami of information. Long live big data!

The good news: These pundits are wrong. And they are wrong precisely for the reasons that they believe they are right: Our information-saturated 21st century society. The science is in. It shows is that our brains cope with the overload of data in our era by arranging it to fit into storytelling narratives so that our brains can make sense of it. This makes story even more important to all of us who must navigate the Twittersphere than it was to our club-dragging ancestors.

The even better news: the wild west of online communication can be tamed, and if ridden well, like some Ethernet-wired wild horse, it makes storytelling even better. Yes, you can educate and entertain traditional media audiences AND social media followers alike with effective storytelling. Before we explain how, let’s briefly recap the effective storytelling principles we laid our for marketers and communicators in my previous blog posts:

So how do you tame this wild beast called social media, especially the wildest and most viral stallion, video? By understanding and adapting several core storytelling principles:

  • Storytelling begins with language and words. But you don’t need those words to be seen or heard to construct a great narrative in social media.
  • Every story has a beginning, middle and end, even in social media. And if you’re not constructing social media stories that follow this rule of storytelling physics, you’re doomed to crash and burn.
  • Storytelling has ALWAYS been a full-body experience. The existence of interactivity, sound and video online is great, but it augments our brain’s built-in ability to create and manage social interactivity, imaginative sound and video (such as dreams or memories).

Let’s look at just a few examples to show how these principles are creatively applied in a social media context. Immediate disclaimer: My first example is NOT really from social media (though this is a YouTube clip). But it is a great example of how art and culture continue to inform business communications and marketing for social media.

I’m talking about the first four minutes or so of the 2009 Pixar film, Up. Pixar’s storytellers are geniuses at concocting emotional moments that become memorable stories. This segment sets the stage for the film’s backstory about Carl, the cranky old man who is one of the film’s protagonists. Using NO WORDS, music and several vivid vignettes, it explains exactly why Carl is a cranky old man. Take a look, cry a bit and come back.

OK, so the Carl and Ellie story perfectly illustrates the first of my three storytelling principles for social media. It uses no words. Yet, it was written. There was a script. Without a script and a story, it wouldn’t be possible. Yet it requires NO WORDS on screen (indeed, no spoken dialogue) to create an evocative emotional story. Storytellers in the 21st century communications or marketing shop need to remember that storytelling INVOLVES words but it doesn’t have to USE words to create a great story.

Our second example is one I’ve written about before but it makes the case for my second and third social media storytelling principles so well that it bears repeating. In 2013, the Chipotle fast casual Mexican restaurant chain decided to bring its long-standing commitment to sustainable food to life in something built for the social media age. The result is The Scarecrow, a short animated film set to the song “Pure Imagination” from the 1971 film “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory,” sung by Fiona Apple. Scarecrow is more than a film – it’s also a game that can be downloaded from the Apple and Android app stores.

Once again (except for the song), there are no spoken words in the short film. There is a beginning, middle and end to the story (principle two) and this is a full-body experience (principle three) – activating your senses and if you so dare, creating a new level of interactivity with your brain and emotions when you download the game. If you’ve read my earlier blog posts, you’ll notice the Scarecrow is on a classic Hero’s Journey.

These are just two of a continually expanding universe of social media storytelling successes. If you’re a communicator or marketer who believes in storytelling, the 21st century is your time.

What is old is new – the Story Processor in our skulls, otherwise known as our brain, was built from the start (no assembly or batteries required) to make sense of our 21st century tsunami of information. Fight the villains who claim story is dead. Capture the emotions and the minds of those who matter by sharing social media stories worth seeing, hearing and experiencing.

Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, but story is the minds of everyone. Grab hold of the 21st century marriage of technology and biology and start creating your own Happy Endings!

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