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Every so often, a traditionally nonbusiness word finds its way into the business world, fueled by an admirable desire to find new ways to think about old challenges. "Storytelling" has become one of those words. And though storytelling has been around since early hunters first gestured to each other in front of a fire, only recently has the corporate community recognized the potency of using storytelling strategically—to position brands, transform business, and engage and align employees.

As "storytelling" becomes part of the corporate lexicon, it runs the risk—as do all such terms that come into fashion—of being overused and misappropriated. The sheer familiarity of storytelling, then, can work against the best intentions of those trying to use it, because people liberally apply the term to everything (from media relations to corporate brochures) without really understanding what differentiates storytelling as a communications strategy and makes it "tick."

The following are four distinguishing facets of strategic storytelling that'll help you better understand what it is (and is not), what it does, and how it works.

1. Storytelling is a pull, not push, strategy

Storytelling, when properly practiced, pulls people into a dialogue. It's about engagement and interaction. The audience is just as active a participant as the storyteller. In contrast, many companies and brands still relentlessly push messages to their employees and into the marketplace—without meaningful context, hoping that with enough repetition the messages will stick.

Consider a recent award-winning campaign by the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) called "Locals Know." The objective was to encourage Canadians to spend travel dollars at home instead of abroad. The campaign showcased lesser-known spots across Canada, piquing people's curiosity and interest with the simple, provocative question, "Where's this?"

Intrigued Canadians were directed to a dedicated website that served as an incredible catalogue of "secret gem locations" in their own country. Some spots were suggested by the CTC, but the vast majority of destinations were recommended by fellow Canadians—like-minded travelers who longed to share the story of their favorite locations with others.

Though mass advertising created broader awareness for the campaign, it was storytelling through social media that served as its primary engine, pulling people in and getting them to interact with the brand, engage with fellow Canadians, and, ultimately, book travel in their country.

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Bill Baker is founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling, which helps organizations to advance their brands, businesses, and people with strategic storytelling. Reach Bill via storyteller@billbakerandco.com.