The Role of Storytelling in a Digital Age

small-pg 6 SB HS Barbara BatesCompanies spend an inordinate amount of time and money on creating exhaustive and fancy messaging matrices that often times sit on a shelf. But messaging is just the starting point. The corporate narrative is where the magic happens and for companies that get this right it can mean the difference between obscurity and breakthrough market leadership.

When former longtime Barron’s reporter Mark Veverka and I first discussed collaborating on a new marketing practice built on the power of digital storytelling, we struggled with the word “content” because it has become so ubiquitous and lost some of its value as a descriptor.

One mistake that companies’ make is to embark on content development without a narrative strategy in place.

Why is a narrative so important for companies to develop? The main reason is to capture your desired audience’s attention.

People are drawn in by stories; they remember stories more than just facts and they are more likely to share a story, and thereby amplify your reach, via the most effective way possible: word of mouth.

The explosion of communications channels has created more storytelling opportunities, but it’s also created some challenges. Not all story formats work through all channels, so matching your story length and type to the best channel improves readership.

Photographic stories work well on Twitter, short stories on blogs, longer features in print, etc.

A few more key tips to keep in mind:

1. It takes a combination of good journalistic skills and creative writing to build compelling narratives.

2. Think visually. The old adage of a picture telling a thousand words really does ring true. And with today’s information overload, visuals can often breakthrough the noise better than the written word.

3. Follow the journalistic practices of drawing from compelling story arcs that match your own story; the phoenix rising from the ashes, David vs. Goliath, the “can they make it,” story or the ones with unexpected consequences. These are storylines that contain drama, and drama entertains.

4. Take a page from your creative writing class (or from Nancy Duarte’s highly regarded book, “Resonate”) and leverage the power of “the hero’s journey.” Based on the psychology of Carl Jung and the mythology research of Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey reveals the basic structure of numerous stories, myths and movies.

5. Think about breaking your “story” into separate chapters. Avoid the need to tell everyone everything all at once.

I mentioned the brilliant work of visual storyteller Nancy Duarte and her organization above. She just released her newest book, titled “Slidedocs.” It covers the new paradigm of “shorter is better” business communications.

A “slidedoc” is a document created using presentation software, where visuals and words unite to illustrate one clear point per page.

One point Duarte makes early on in her book is that the Web and mobile communications have reconditioned people to prefer consuming information in small chunks.

And, not surprising considering her body of work, she underscores the importance of visuals. According to Duarte, the benefits of consuming clear and concise prose, combined with helpful visuals, include:

▶ Space limitations force a slidedoc’s author to boil down the material to its essence. Done correctly, this makes the material clearer to the reader.

▶ Visualized ideas help the audience “see” what you’re saying. When critical business decisions need to be made quickly, visually articulated concepts reduce the time to reach consensus.

▶ Time savings are achieved by allowing the audience to read the material instead of listening to it be presented.

▶ Consensus building is accomplished when people have time to discuss the material. After reading a slidedoc, people can gather to have conversations about it that create movement toward objectives.

▶ Shorter time to understanding happens with material that’s been parsed, structured, and visualized.

While storytelling has been around for thousands of years, new rules are starting to emerge.

Since these are still early days for many of the newer storytelling disciplines, don’t be afraid to experiment.


Barbara Bates is CEO and founder of Eastwick Communications. She can be reached at

This article originally ran in the March 3, 2014 issue of PR News.  Read more subscriber-only content by becoming a PR News subscriber today.