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The Neverending Story


Arwa Mahdawi asks what is the real story behind the resurgence of storytelling?

Once upon a time, in an advertising festival in a Francophone land, thousands of industry executives gathered together to talk about the return of storytelling. If you were at Cannes this year, and hadn't sufficiently anesthetized yourself with rosé, you will remember the ad nauseum references to storytelling well. It was impossible to walk ten feet in the Palais without hearing some variation on the theme. 2013, apparently, was the year storytelling made a comeback. 

But, err, where exactly did storytelling go? Well, the short answer is, not very far. It's true that last year's Cannes Lions appeared to represent a shift away from storytelling in the industry, with top awards being bestowed on "tools" rather than narratives. While awarding the Grand Prix for Cyber to Nike's FuelBand, for example. Jury President and ECD of Google Creative Lab, Iain Tait, talked about the importance of 'behaviour over storytelling.' Brands shouldn't be talking anymore, his reasoning went, they should be doing. Inspirational stories were not as powerful, his reasoning went, as enabling tools. But despite the sounding of these death knells, it seems that reports of storytelling's demise were greatly exaggerated.  

After a brief infatuation with tools and system-thinking, brands are realising they can talk and do at the same time, and storytelling has come back in vogue, albeit slightly 2.0-ed up. In a fragmented, non-linear, real-time world, even the best stories won't be heard unless they're told across multiple touch points, and through different media. So we've seen the growth of "transmedia" storytelling, and the slow embrace of multiplatform brand narratives in an attempt to redefine storytelling for today's digerati-literati.

The reassessment of storytelling in an age of digital reproduction has spawned a suite of agency IP that combine stories and system-thinking. SapientNitro has a tool called Storyscaping™ which, it says, is how they 'help our clients create experiences and tell their story in ever-present and never ending ways by marrying imagination with systems thinking.' Meanwhile co:collective champion something it calls Storydoing™  in which companies consciously convey their story through direct action rather than through PR or paid advertising. 

For a while we seem to have held up technology as almost antithetical to stories. Cold, hard, code versus soft, creative prose. However, far from being an enemy of storytelling, technology can actually be its best friend. It has transformed pretty much any touchpoint into a story-point, and given us ways to suspend our disbelief more thoroughly than ever before. Nevertheless, technology is most effective when it brings stories to life seamlessly, when it is behind the scenes rather than the story itself.  While we should be embracing what technology can do for storytelling, we should also be wary of ruining narrative with novelty. If we get too caught up in applying systems thinking to the way we tell stories, if we do too much StoryForcing™, we run the risk of storytelling by numbers.