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Storytelling: The Key to Making Social Media Work

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I have the opportunity to work with large companies in the implementation of their social media programs. Much of my most recent corporate work has been with Intel's Ken Kaplan, who is the broadcast and new media manager for Intel's Global Communications Group.


He and I have discussed lately how important storytelling is to Intel's social media success. Being able to relate ideas and information through stories rather than just through the presentation of facts is what makes much of Intel'scommunication come alive. People's passion for what they know and do gets illustrated through storytelling in Intel's podcasts, videopodcasts and blogs.
Teaching executives how to storytell has been a well-used public relations tactic for many years, but I believe the ability to storytell is truly reaching a new level of importance given the prevalence of social media.
However, I am struck when I watch vblogs and listen to podcasts how many people today are not storytelling with social media. They don't have a beginning, middle and end to their pieces, but instead often just list facts and thoughts, and don't connect the information so that the viewer/listener etc. gets the point of the podcast, video blog, etc.
I suppose it comes down to media training for many of these individuals, or maybe others don't feel as strongly as I do about this need for storytelling?


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Jennifer Jones is the creator and host of http://www.marketingvoices.com/ Marketing Voices™ , a weekly video/audio podcast for PodTech.net providing fresh perspectives from marketing and technology leaders examining how social media is impacting the world of marketing.

Jennifer is a 25-year technology marketing veteran. Her career is broad and diverse: she was a marketing partner at Mayfield, a top-tier venture firm; a founder of her own successful marketing consulting firm working with venture capital firms, investment banks and attorneys including August Capital, Canaan Partners, Wilson Sonsini Goodrich & Rosati, and Goldman Sachs; an executive vice president and general manager of Regis McKenna Inc, a consulting firm where she led the marketing programs with Apple and Intel; the creator and host of the first television show in technology called High Tech Visions and a broadcast executive with CBS News affiliated stations.

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  • by Harry Hallman Wed Sep 12, 2007 via blog

    Very good point Jennifer. It just points out the importance of the melding of marketing communications and PR. Marketers need to learn how to tell stories better and PR folks need to learn how to tell the story very quickly. Consumers need to be engaged, but don't want to spend much time on any given subject.

  • by Paul Barsch Wed Sep 12, 2007 via blog

    I'm reminded of a scene from "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" where Steve Martin is berating John Candy's character with, "and when you're telling a story, have a point! It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!" Proper speech/story construction is a hallmark of good communications. I fear the lack of storytelling is not confined to social media.

  • by Lewis Green Wed Sep 12, 2007 via blog

    Jennifer, I suspect most communicators, especially writers, believe in and practice story-telling, when defined simply as a piece of writing with a beginning, middle and end. However, when we offer story-telling as a solution and don't define it, I think non-communicators become frustrated and detached because story-telling undefined can mean many things. I urge all of us who use the term story-telling to provide context, examples and a simple definition so our readers and clients understand what we are recommending.

  • by Jay Ehret Wed Sep 12, 2007 via blog

    Jennifer, Story-telling is difficult and that may be the reason it is not more popular. It's not enough to just tell a story. The story must be interesting and related to the point being made. Real life examples work best.

  • by Michael Rubin, Arment Dietrich Wed Sep 12, 2007 via blog

    Jennifer, Terrific post! You're absolutely right, of course. Storytelling is an art, but it is also somewhat of a science. There ought to be a primer on social media and storytelling. Just yesterday, I was conducting a training session on social media for a client. I passed on three key learnings essential for good storytelling: 1%3E Don't bury the lead (get to the point quickly) 2%3E Package your information with lists and bullet-points to help organize your story 3%3E Remember -- it's about people, not about technology Anyone have others to share? Let's get a list going! I actually wrote about social media as a vehicle for storytelling in my "social media and 9-11" post here on MarketingProfs Daily Fix. I'd love to know what you thought about it. Cheers, Michael ---- Michael E. Rubin Call me -- 312-787-7249 x212 Tell a friend -- fight destructive spin! http:///www.spinsucks.com See what I'm up to -- http://twitter.com/merubin See a picture of an orangutan -- http://tinyurl.com/yosceb

  • by jennifer jones Thu Sep 13, 2007 via blog

    Glad to hear from everyone and know that others see the importance of storytelling. It is hard to do, and Michael, I liked your tips. I hope others weigh in and give their thoughts. I pinged Ken Kaplan of Intel who is a great believer in storytelling to comment as he came out of the news business where storytelling is a must if a reporter is to survive long-term.

  • by Brian Thu Sep 13, 2007 via blog

    Creating clear and effective messages is one of my personal goals. Dan and Chip Heath's book "Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die" is a big help to me as I learn how.

  • by Stephanie Diamond Thu Sep 13, 2007 via blog

    These are great comments. In my marketing practice, I make storytelling the number one goal for any social media tactic. The problem I see is that people are so used to telling 'stories' in their daily life that they forget that stories for customers have to be thought through and properly constructed. They need to be reminded that these are not like messages for an answering machine :)

  • by Mike McKay Thu Sep 13, 2007 via blog

    Perhaps one of the problems with storytelling is that not enough people read books, and many have not learned how to write (beginning, middle and end). Text messaging and emails tend to diminish one's writing skills, not enhance them.

  • by christina Thu Sep 13, 2007 via blog

    You said the word "vblog" and that provides a hint to why there is a lack of formal storytelling structure. Blogs rarely tell stories, like this entry they are half-baked ideas thrown out into the world to catch the eye of fellow thinkers, and be developed into more developed forms like essays. To hold against a blogpost that it doesn't tell a story is like complaining a poem doesn't get to the point. That point's muddled, of course, by the fact that many folks use blogging software for multiple purposes, from running magazines to link collections. But the heart of a blog (and tumblelogs even more so) is a short pithy moment of insight and/or questioning. Now podcasts are another story, since they can be audio blogs, or audio magazines or internet radio on demand-- they are only a distribution channel and have yet to have structural conventions put upon them. If people are foolishly ignoring good structure in their podcasts, they are dooming themselves to the little exclamation point in iTunes that says "you don't listen we've stopped updating." You can't scan audio, only commit or abandon. But of course, choice of structure of your social media "posts" should be less about conforming to the conventions of the medium and more about intent of the content creator. If you want to "think out loud" or if you want to engage a growing readership you format your creative work differently. You get a larger audience via the compelling conventions of storytelling (and essay writing!). Even a comment can hold that form... When I was working on my book, every chapter, every paragraph I asked myself "what am I trying to say." I think the question "what am I trying to do" also helps focus us. Posting something to a blog, or vblog every day is not as useful in building and reaching an audience as saying something useful, and saying something useful is even more compelling when it's said well. It's well worth the price of a a GEL dvd just to see Ira Glass explain how to structure a compelling story that no one will ever abandon. Listen to a preview http://www.gelconference.com/07/ira.html

  • by David Armano Thu Sep 13, 2007 via blog

    "Blogs rarely tell stories, like this entry they are half-baked ideas thrown out into the world to catch the eye of fellow thinkers, and be developed into more developed forms like essays." Christina this statement is true, in parts (some people blog his way) but it's also a blanket statement that's inaccurate. Many people use their blogs as storytelling and do a good job with it. Stories don't have to be "fully baked" articles polished to the hilt. Stories around campfires weren't–why should we impose these parameters today? Here's just one exmple of a blog where storytelling and narrative are very much present: http://www.ownyourbrand.com/ There are many more. The basics of storytelling in the context of the original format (around the fire) can translate in any medium as far as I'm concerned.

  • by jennifer jones Thu Sep 13, 2007 via blog

    david and christina: great discussion! thanks for all the sharing!

  • by B.L. Ochman Thu Sep 13, 2007 via blog

    I participate in a story telling group called The Moth in New York City. People put their name in a hat to tell a story on a theme. You have 5 minutes, you can't do stand-up or stchick, you have to have a begining, middle and end to your story, and the audience rates you. Would that podcasts and other online stories were like that too. Bonus - it's fun!

  • by Steve Hoffacker Fri Sep 14, 2007 via blog

    Storytelling is such an ancient form of communication that continues to be important today, but to be effective it needs a message, an emotional and compelling delivery, and an audience. It's more than just talking. The message must be retained long enough and conveyed convincingly enough that it can be remembered and repeated essentially intact over and over.

  • by jennifer jones Sun Sep 16, 2007 via blog

    B.L and others: I do wish that people would rate their podcast and online stories. The MOTH sounds marvelous...great idea.

  • by Mike Wagner Wed Sep 19, 2007 via blog

    Jennifer, great observations about storytellng's place in the emerging world of social media. Social media will get there regarding its use of storytelling. Stories unite divergent ways of thinking and ignite conversations. Smart leaders know this and embrace storytelling as a way of getting "all the cats aimed in the same direction". Social media will become a more common venue for stories even if today it is a bit heavy on the left brain analytic side of things. Right now I think we are still learning how this new stage works. Keep creating, Mike

  • by rachel Tue Aug 18, 2009 via blog

    As a recent college graduate I find this post very helpful. In addition, I just finished reading the book, "Your Name Here: Guide to Life" by author Michael Rosenbaum. I do not remember the last time I read a book so motivational, helpful and inspiring. It was easy to read, filled with stories and I formed many connections with the book. Please check out: http://www.networldingblog.com/2009/08/01/great-new-book-your-name-here-gui... it was the funniest interview I read in a while. Also check out the reviews on Amazon for more reasons to get your hands on the book!

  • by Moon over Martinborough Sat May 29, 2010 via blog

    You're right that most users of social media aren't doing storytelling. I've got a blog where I concentrate on telling stories about living as an expat American on an olive grove in New Zealand. I get some really nice comments from people about how engaging my 'posts' are -- but I don't know if people are actually making the connection to the reason for that. Why is a 'post' engaging? Often because it has the components of story. It's not just another blog post, it's a story.

    The good thing is that people respond well to stories, even when they don't think, "Hmm... that person's a storyteller'. In fact, it's best that the storyteller become invisible and the story, then engaging bits, are all the listener/reader notices.

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