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Every day when I return home from work, I ask my four-year-old son, Henry, to tell me a story about his day. Rarely does he fail to grab my attention: “John Paul stole my shoe” – “I know what makes me a boy and Ruby a girl” – “I want to be a fireman, but I never want to be a policewoman.” Don’t tell me you wouldn’t listen to how each of those stories turns out.

The other night, as I put him to bed, Henry asked me to reciprocate. As I started to rattle off the sequence of events from my day of answering emails and sitting on conference calls, he said, “Daddy, that’s not a story.” And he was right.

This is a good reminder of just how loosely people – and we in the communications industry, in particular – have started to bandy about the terms “story” and “storytelling.”

Storytelling is no doubt en vogue. There have been hundreds of books on the subject in the past few years. Storytelling is highlighted on every PR agency’s web site. It’s the go-to description for marketers trying to put a new spin on their old wares. As a term, “storytelling” is the new “integrated marketing” of the communications industry. Why? Because marketers are realizing that stories are at the heart of all communications, and the various disciplines are therefore fighting over who owns that fundamental ingredient across the marketing mix. Of course, we all do.

Though I agree that storytelling should always be at the core of what communicators do, I’m troubled by the constant misuse of the term. Every week I hear a brand manager ask, “What’s our new brand story?” It turns out they’re usually not really looking for a story but instead a clear business plan or customer value proposition. I regularly hear PR managers say, “We need to figure out our story lines for this next fiscal year.” Read: “We need a timeline of product announcements for next year.” Oh, and my favorite: the “Master Narrative” section of a spokesperson briefing document that is nothing more than a jumble of product feature details.

Whenever I come across these uses of “storytelling,” I say to myself, “Wow, bedtime stories at your house must be a real hoot.”

So how did we get here? How has an entire industry started to bastardize the true meaning of storytelling? One could say laziness, but I’d like to think people in our industry are some of the hardest working around. I think a more likely reason is that, in today’s 24/7 news cycle, we simply don’t have adequate time to spend thinking about what makes a great story.

Technology innovation, somewhat ironically, has made real storytelling harder in our day-to-day lives. Despite its contribution to participatory storytelling, the short-form nature of social media – from Twitter to Facebook – has contributed to the fragmentation of stories. This is not to say that you can’t tell a story through social media, but people usually don’t. What you end up with instead are scattered pieces of stories that, if stitched together, wouldn’t exactly qualify as narrative.

A hopeful trend is the emergence of online services such as Intersect (client), Bloombla and Storify that aim to inject storytelling back into our digital lives by reconnecting the elements of storytelling – characters, context, time, place, conflict and resolution – that have been fractured by the Internet. But of course, for every one Web site that delivers on the promise of storytelling, there are hundreds of frauds.

How do we as communicators prevent a backlash against a term that is so fundamental to what we do? We do so through discipline and adherence to some very basic principles of storytelling.

If you don’t have a four-year-old who will not hesitate to tell you how boring your story is, here are a few easy-to-remember tips:

1. Is there a simple idea at the core of your story?
2. Is your story relatable to a specific audience?
3. Do you include vivid details that will help people retell your story?
4. Is your story about actual human beings?
5. Does your story have conflict?
6. Are you leaving your audience with a moral or call-to-action?

If you answer no to any of the above questions, I suggest you invest more time developing your story. Otherwise, you’re not only wasting your time telling your story, you are wasting the time of those who spend time listening to your story. And, if you are the parent of a four-year-old, you’re in for a long night.

Image courtesy of JeffChristiansen.

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