Storytelling has long been considered an invaluable skill for spreading ideas, sharing experiences, and bringing people together through shared narratives. However, it seems the term has recently become so overloaded and overused in marketing and business circles that it has lost much of its meaning.
Where discussions of growth strategies and customer acquisition were once focused on practical considerations like product-market fit, customer needs, and measurable outcomes, now every conference, podcast, and Twitter thread seems saturated with vague exhortations to “tell your story.”
Brands and founders who want to differentiate themselves constantly claim to have uniquely compelling (yet mediocre) “stories” to share, even when their offerings are similar commodity products or services.
The concepts behind effective storytelling—crafting emotionally engaging narratives, establishing clear protagonists and goals, and painting vivid scenes—still have merit when applied judiciously. But storytelling has somehow morphed from a persuasive technique into an empty buzzword, trotted out as a catch-all solution for any marketing or business challenge without considering whether the context truly calls for a narrative approach.
How did we get here? Some key factors that likely contributed to storytelling’s evolution from a nuanced art into a tired business trope include:
The rise of content as a driver of growth. As digital channels proliferated and competition for attention increased online, the ability to continuously produce and distribute written, visual, and audio content became a core competency for companies. With a near-infinite demand for fresh blogs, videos, podcasts, and social posts, the bar for what constituted compelling “content” dropped precipitously. Nearly any anecdote or observation could be framed as a “story” in service of feeding the content machine.
The impact of influencer culture. As thought leaders and social media personalities accrued large followings offering entrepreneurial advice and growth-hacking tips, their prescriptions became more reductive and easily applicable. Complex business challenges simply cannot be boiled down into consumptive Twitter threads or snappy podcast soundbites without some loss of nuance. Storytelling, with its emotionally resonant yet easy-to-digest format, proved a very portable growth concept for influencers to push.
Business school and startup dogma. Management theory and startup culture highly value lean experimentation and rapid iteration. With constant pressure to launch Minimum Viable Products, pivot based on data, and shrink development cycles, many founders and growth marketers looked to storytelling to compensate for minimal initial products or services with compelling brand narratives. Over time, this contributed to a mindset where the story became decoupled from any concrete customer value proposition.
Conference circuit tropes. Like influencer culture, the conference and speaking circuits where growth tactics spread demand simplification for event presentation purposes. Nuanced concepts are eschewed in favor of easily digestible frameworks, catchphrases, and advice applicable to many situations—such as emphasizing storytelling above other techniques. Conferences became another vehicle propagating storytelling as a sort of catch-all growth elixir without consideration for context.
Shallow copying and advice echo chambers. With little original thinking, many brands, entrepreneurs, and marketers uncritically echoed whatever growth mantras were trending without understanding the deeper roots of techniques like storytelling in customer and market research. This spawned a vicious cycle where hollow applications of approaches like storytelling were mindlessly repeated and spread without respect for how circumstances had changed since their original conceptualization.
In essence, the myriad contributing factors that elevated storytelling from a persuasive tool into an overwrought buzzword all revolve around how the propagation of business ideas online subtly distorted many techniques out of their original valuable contexts to instead serve simplistic one-size-fits-all growth scripts.
While stories will always have the power to move people when deployed skillfully where apt, entrepreneurs and marketers today would examine whether unfurling a “narrative” addresses their unique customer needs or if it’s just the latest conference trope du jour.