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Communicators and marketers agree: great storytelling is the pinnacle of their profession. It's also the most misunderstood skill for communicators, marketers and those they serve. Why?

In my previous post, I explained why storytelling is the most successful approach for brands, organizations or causes that need to move hearts and minds. Yet so few are able to do so consistently. How can this be?

For starters, persuasive storytelling, the most powerful of our uniquely human abilities, is frequently misused. Have you ever been swept away by an intoxicating mix of great storytelling, only to be cheated at the conclusion of the tale? Perhaps that tearful, emotional appeal turned out to be a disguised sales pitch. Perhaps the tale struck you as somewhat off-kilter, but you knew or trusted the storyteller, until you discovered you placed your trust in a conniver or liar. Or perhaps the story and storyteller were great, but the tale was shared in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong audience, falling completely flat.

Let’s break these examples down one by one because they highlight the three essential elements of a story that creates success, whether it’s the story of a brand, an organization or a cause.

First and foremost: Your story must be authentic -- rooted in fact and transparently genuine. In film or literature, great works pull us in so deeply that we suspend disbelief about the ability to fly, travel through time and many other seemingly impossible situations that, in real life, would be entirely inauthentic.

Communicators and marketers work in real life, so they must use the tools of fictional storytelling with great care. This is especially true in our 21st-century, social media-driven culture. Inauthenticity earns swift and painful rebuke in our wired world.

So how does this work in real life? If you and I witness an auto accident from opposite corners of the same intersection, it’s likely we saw different aspects of the event. When a police officer interviews us about the accident, and we share different versions, does that mean one of us is telling the truth and one of us is lying? No. Our recollections, based upon the same set of facts, are equally authentic. They are just different.

This is a critical distinction lost on far too many of those who hire communicators and marketers to share their story. In nearly any situation in life, there is more than one version of the same story. And that’s OK, as long as it’s rooted in fact and genuine, meaning that while it may be shared to persuade an audience, it’s easy to trace that persuasion to an interpretation of facts that’s genuine. Our hearts and minds are always searching for authenticity, the interpretation of facts that gives us a clear picture, the language that rings right, the experience that makes us feel comfortable. This is why the scene in which Dorothy’s dog Toto pulls back the curtain in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, is so well remembered – it illustrates this timeless human principle of authenticity.

A great story needs more than authenticity for success. It needs a storyteller who is fluent. A fluent storyteller demonstrates certain attributes: First, they are great practitioners of storytelling. The ability to move hearts and minds defines a fluent storyteller, but that’s not enough, or else we’d be erecting monuments to flim-flam men. Yes, we sometimes DO erect monuments to flim-flam storytellers. Later, when we find out they aren’t authentic, we pull their monuments down. We like to be entertained by storytelling, but we don’t like liars who manipulate us with storytelling techniques. We seek storytellers we can trust before we will let them play with our emotions. And if we don’t know a storyteller, he or she must be able to earn the benefit of our doubt (and then our trust) before we’ll let them into our hearts and minds. The musical and film The Music Man offer a great example of a powerful storyteller who’s not authentic in the character of “Professor” Harold Hill, who schemes to trick an entire town of its money by painting them a picture of a future in which his great musical skills and their money will give the community a great marching band for their enjoyment.

The third critical element of storytelling success is being able to read the audience and share the right story at the right time and the right place. Sometimes, when done wrong, this can be funny, as in one of my favorite scenes from the film The Blues Brothers, when John Belushi’s character “books” his blues band into a country and western bar.

On the other hand, The Three Tenors are a dramatic example of success in reading the audience. This union of opera stars Placido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti took opera out of stuffy opera houses and put it in soccer and football stadiums, leading to hit albums, a world tour and exposure to new audiences. Instead of bemoaning declining traditional audiences for their flavor of classical music, the tenors sought out new audiences in new places and found success.

This is the element that ties successful storytelling together. You might be the finest opera singer the world has ever known, but if you’re singing to the wrong audience in the wrong place at the wrong time, the world will never know you.

Storytelling, the approach that delivers the best results in moving hearts and minds, relies on authenticity, fluent storytellers and continual reading of the audience to deliver success. That’s a great combination of elements. It’s also a daunting challenge to deliver well.

The good news for storytellers of all stripes is that the best storytelling relies on our own biology and collective cultural memory to make it easier to deliver success. This is a universal truth that’s not owned by storytellers – the psychologist Carl Jung, the mythologist Joseph Campbell, even the filmmaker George Lucas understand that the best stories are the ones we tell ourselves over and over again.

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