Storytelling – On the Astonishing Career of a Misunderstood Key Term

What does Storytelling mean -definition-filmpuls
Lost its explosive power long ago? What does storytelling mean? | © Graphic: FreePik

No two steps are possible without the buzzword storytelling. But anyone who asks what the term stands for is amazed at the vagueness and contradictoriness of the uses of the term. Therefore: It is time for a redefinition! The astonishing career of this misunderstood key term must not be allowed to become the loss of one of the most powerful tools of moving image communication.

Even the ancient Romans recognized that “like is to be compared with like, but unlike is to be compared with unlike.” Intelligence can always be recognized by how differentiated a thing is viewed. Because storytelling means everything these days – and therefore less and less – here you will find a new, practical and above all useful definition of this key term of communication with video.

What does storytelling mean?

There is nothing that can’t be made worse, dumber, or more misunderstood. Storytelling is not a universal fuse that automatically leads to a creative explosion and therefore more impact.

Well-intentioned but mostly fragmentary definitions prove the helplessness of the definition.

Practical examples: What does storytelling mean?
  • “Storytelling is the promotion of services and products on the web through marketing.” 1
  • “Storytelling today means translating complex content into coherent stories.” 2
  • “Today, content must be presented in an exciting way. This is where storytelling comes into play: Heroes, princesses and villains can be used to convey connections in a memorable way. In Hollywood style, that is.” 3
  • “There is something different at the end than at the beginning. Storytelling is a plot that consists of the beginning, the middle, and a coherent ending. From this, an arc of suspense is created.” [4
  • “First of all, it means telling stories.” 5
  • “Storytelling is a method of conveying information through the use of stories.”6
  • “Storytelling is at the heart of our social interaction. Every institution, every religion, every civilization is based on a good story. Let’s just think of our founding stories – those of Christian occidental culture, of our state, of our age. All these narratives, more or less true but just never whole and literal, all these stories strengthen our identity – and nothing man-made could endure without them.”7
  • “Only a really good story is true in the sense that it has a productive effect and moves people along in their own life’s journey. It becomes true by making true.”7

References: 1 Storytelling for SMEs, Nonfiction, 2019; 2 Content Marketing Wiki. Storytelling; 3 Blueglass, Digital Marketing Expertise, 2017; 4 Businessmind Agency, July 2017; 5 Christian Riedel, Story Architect, Jimdo; 6, Storytelling; 7, 8 Robert Harrison, Cultural Philosopher, NZZ, 9.4.2020

Origin of the term in the media

The term storytelling comes from the feature film business. Therein lies the reason that the term is primarily defined as a technical narrative method.

For those who tell stories for large audiences in the cinema usually know what story they want to tell. Especially since the story here is mostly fictional and thus already optimally geared to viewer interest.

In corporate communications, this definition falls short! Because here the mission, the content to be told and also the way in which it is told merge.

The chronologically staggered filters that precede the feature film, such as synopsis, treatment and story outline, are often missing here. Everything begins simultaneously with each other at point zero.

Storytelling as a narrative method

One popular way of looking at it sees storytelling as a “narrative method”. 9 The term is translated here equally literally: How to tell a story.

So it’s all about how a story is told. Granted: While this how is highly relevant. But that’s half the battle.

Because if storytelling were only about how, any content (sic!) could be told in a rousing way. This conviction is held only by the professional group of advertisers.

Everyone else knows the story of the chicken and the egg, of the river and the riverbed, and therefore knows: form cannot replace content. River and riverbed influence each other reciprocally. A chicken without an egg (and without a rooster) is no more possible than an egg without a chicken.

References: 9 Wikipedia EN

Enriching information with emotion: Is that called storytelling?

Again and again there are voices that explain the high trend factor with the fact that with storytelling one connects information with emotions. Because with a well-told story, according to popular opinion, you hit the target audience right in the heart. 10

Three challenges in conveying emotions with storytelling
  • Feelings are not a sprinkling of seasoning that can simply be poured over dry facts to make them peppy.
  • Dealing with emotions in communication is never without risk. And therefore not a panacea.
  • Emotions have to come from the content. Not be “put over it.” Lack of authenticity reverses the effect of feelings into their opposite.
  • Good communication hits the heart of the addressee. It moves the heart, uses it as an echo chamber, creates resonance.
  • Emotional stories require not only knowledge and experience on the part of the creator. But also above-average talent as a writer.

So the legacy from the entertainment business is evident here as well. No feature filmmaker would ever even think of questioning the necessity of emotion in a motion picture! Feelings are only an issue where communication has so far taken place without emotional components.

References: 11 Wikipedia EN

Greetings from Hollywood

The principle of showing what is at stake in a story in order to create concern and closeness before the superhero (or his surrogate, a heroic product) saves the world is borrowed from the world of feature films. 12

The problem with that:

If you take this principle to its logical conclusion, you will always end up with a story that is a matter of death or life. End of the world and danger of death, however, are often not necessarily what marketers expect from a communication measure. It’s not a good way to get promoted.

Based on the work of Joseph Campbell 13 and Chris Vogler 14 the US consulting firm The Content Advisory has adapted the classic feature film model of the hero story to corporate storytelling.

The CM process model shows (CM stands for content marketing): even this definition of storytelling has pitfalls. The 3-act structure model, Syd Field and consorts in honour – but for corporate communications Hollywood is often not the right shoe size! And inspiration and wannabe alone won’t cut it in practice.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell on Storytelling | © Vimeo

What does storytelling mean?

References: 12 Corporate Storytelling: Theory and Empiricism of Narrative Public Relations in Corporate Communication, Florian Krüger, Publisher: Springer; 13 The Hero with a Thousand Faces; 14 The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers.

Storytelling, properly defined

In the battle for the interpretive power of storytelling, it makes sense to start with what is indisputable.

Common components of the majority of all definitions and understandings of storytelling.
  • Those who throw around the buzzword storytelling expect it to have a greater impact. Even if you put the cart before the horse, you can work with it.
  • In order for an effect to be created, in addition to the knowledge of the narrative technique, content is needed that fulfils the following three conditions: Proximity to the target audience, topicality, narrativity…
  • A story that doesn’t interest the intended audience per se can be told no matter how well it is told. She doesn’t give a damn.
  • For the story to work and claim a closeness, topicality helps. The closer a story is to the viewer’s life world, to an experience or a currently felt problem or challenge, the higher the potential reference.

Often no soul questions whether a story can actually be told. This is by no means as self-evident as one might think. Video and image films have outstanding capabilities – but also limitations.

What cannot be visualized, cannot be put into words and/or pictures, does not lend itself to visual narratives.

The practical definition of storytelling for companies

A practical definition is: Storytelling for companies is the emotionalized telling of facts according to the rules of dramaturgy for a chosen target group. The content to be told must be subordinate to a desire to make a statement and must be structured in a meaningful way, without losing credibility in the process.

The above definition includes five core elements.

The five building blocks of storytelling for business
  1. The description of the form. Implicit in this are: Genre, dramaturgy and structure. The form says how a story is told.
  2. the content: what is being told? This is about content. For companies, it’s the message and the story built on it to illustrate it.
  3. Impact Objectives. Every good story has a message in the background. What do you want the story to trigger in the recipient? How do the proportions of emotions and information behave.
  4. Sender. An old journalistic premise says: name horse and rider! Every story has a sender. An “inventor” whose narrative perspective and intentions come to light overtly or covertly in a narrative. Accordingly, it is important to consciously deal with the question of the creator of a story.
  5. Target Audience. Theoretically, there are only two options. A story is tailored to a target audience. Or not – in which case she, perhaps, finds her target audience on her own. For example, through A/B testing on social media. In practice, mixed forms are found in the majority of cases.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the specifics:

The thing with the identification figure

Truisms usually have it in them. Storytelling, too. The required closeness to the viewer can be increased even further if a question is not only topical, but is also demonstrated by the example of a reference figure.

Those who choose to do so must keep two factors in mind:

Dealing with characters in a film, whether realized as a documentary or staged as a feature film, requires a high level of talent at all stages of realization. From the script to the direction to the production and picture and sound editing. It costs.

If the integration of identification figures fails, the image film, commercial or product film can quickly turn into a Punch and Judy show. Especially because reference persons again exacerbate the question of narrative perspective, and we can’t do without it.

Storyforming and Storytelling

If proximity, topicality and narratability are given, it is advisable to consider storytelling on two successive levels:

How does storyforming work?
  • Storyforming serves to define the story. What should be told? It’s just a matter of determining the content.
  • The how comes later. Storyforming is the process of breaking the story down chronologically correct on the timeline.
  • But beware: there is no room for gaps and jumps here. Because that would take us back to the narrative (the how).
  • All events and processes are presented in chronological order as causal chains. One conditions the other.
  • Logic and comprehensibility dominate. In the case of a feature film, these can also be psychological explanatory patterns.

Once the storytelling is in place, and only then, the dramaturgical toolbox is opened. Now it’s about the essential question of how storytelling is done.

The role of dramaturgy

Dramaturgy always has only one function: it must help to tell a story as well as possible.

People who watch a video usually already have a certain amount of preconditioning. I’m sitting in front of the TV, expecting a commercial. Or click on a video on Facebook. Or get an image film announced.

In all of these cases, as a viewer, I have an expectation. It is the task of dramaturgy to deal intelligently with this expectation. Beginners and autodidacts often forget that there are far more dramaturgical means than just contrast and surprise.

Each means has its advantages and disadvantages. These want to be carefully examined. Storytelling is like clockwork. One cog meshes with the next.

Not everything is a story

So it should be clear that not everything can and must be a story. Storytelling is the right tool when a content suitable for it can be dramatized. If that is not possible, not telling a story makes more sense. The decisive factor is always the effect of a story in an image film.

What does storytelling mean?

  • Storytelling is more than just a technique for telling stories.
  • It is not only the way of telling a story, but above all the content (the story) that determines a story.
  • You can narrow down the suitability of content for storytelling based on proximity to the target audience, timeliness, and tellability.
  • Content and the nature of the narrative influence each other. To do this, you distinguish between storyforming and storytelling.
  • Dramaturgy is nothing more, but also nothing less than a supporting tool.
  • Not everything is a story. Not everything has to be a story.

Even short situations can add value, especially in the form of video clips on social media. The beauty of this is that, unlike storytelling, a situation doesn’t need a beginning or an end. It’s simple. That makes them authentic.

This article was automatically translated into English using AI. If you would like to help us improve the quality, we would be happy to hear from you.

Gabriela Weingartner
About Gabriela Weingartner 24 Articles
Gabriela Weingartner ist überzeugt, dass der Autor Patrick Süskind recht hat, wenn er sagt: »Man muss gescheit sein, um in der dummen Sprache des Films eine Geschichte klug erzählen zu können.«

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