Why Storytelling Scares Companies


The Olympics are a wonderful testament to the power of story. Captivating examples of courage, heroism and triumph weave memorable tales that inspire the world. It’s hard not to be sucked in by those dramatized stories chronicled by NBC and other media.

The Olympic games provoke our core human values and aspirations: teamwork, competition, achievement, destiny, success, joy.

Given the unmistakable potential of stories to inspire and influence, it’s curious that more companies aren’t willing to take on the role of storyteller more readily.

I think that’s because stories make companies nervous. As a communications form, stories are challenging, indirect, and unwieldy.

Here are several reasons why businesses shy away from storytelling (outside the realm of grandiose advertising campaigns):

It requires more effort. It’s much harder to weave a good yarn than it is to draft a one-dimensional message or narrative. It may require piecing together numerous interviews or connecting dots that aren’t readily apparent.

The most compelling tales don’t come from the top. I’ve yet to read a CEO message that inspires me to do much more than roll my eyes.  Creating authentic stories requires letting unexpected voices rise to the surface, which doesn’t always fit within a corporate culture driven by bureaucracy.

They’re rarely linear. Stories usually don’t follow a direct – or smooth – path toward a climactic conclusion. They are much less efficient than a wham-bam script.

The best stories involve struggle. Conflict plays a significant role in most memorable tales, which isn’t an ideal formula for conservative, risk-averse businesses.

There may not be an obvious hero. The company may not be the one who swooped in to save the day. It may, in fact, play a fairly minor role in the story.

Not everyone lives happily ever after. Despite what childhood fairy tales led us to believe, real life doesn’t tie itself into a nice, neat bow. Things don’t turn out perfectly for all the characters, and there may be casualties.

Fear of engaging the masses. Companies may claim to welcome comments and questions, but they’re probably not comfortable with the concept of provoking a groundswell of divergent opinions. It’s so much easier to manage those one-off, rah-rah comments.

I’ve started collecting examples of brands that are flexing their storytelling muscles through powerful advertising and marketing campaigns. Some of them are currently on public display as part of big-ticket Olympic sponsorships.

But stories don’t require multi-million dollar investments to make a profound impact. They just need a willingness to step up and tell them.