Along with juggling the daily chaos of our company’s comms channels, our executives’ egos and our teams’ pursuit of the proverbial ‘seat at the table,’ Communications professionals often double as the company storyteller, a key function of our work. However, the way we tell these stories must change — perhaps to the point at which they’re unrecognizable as stories at all.

In our world of digital experiences, linear narratives no longer bring in the crowds much less compel them to action. Sure, it’s nice to snuggle up with a nice cozy book or long-form written piece, but that’s hardly the most ubiquitous and engaging way of communicating ideas.  What does this mean for communications professionals? It means we have to rethink the value we place on stories and embrace new areas of opportunity for sharing and engaging through experiences.

Ironically, it makes sense to start from the beginning (I know, totally linear of me…but still!) Let’s take a step back and look at where it all began…

It’s the year 350 B.C., Aristotle asserts all stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end in his essay Poetics. Hello, plot diagram we’ve had hardwired in our brains since middle school.

You know, this thing:

I don’t mean to throw shade at this essential piece of literary theory and how it’s been reinterpreted and deployed over time; it is still essential to how we think about telling stories today. Think about the typical boy meets girl plot line. Boy meets girl (exposition), boy and girl begin falling in love (rising action), boy loses girl (climax), boy tries to get the girl back (falling action), boy and girl live happily ever after (denouement). Voila, catharsis achieved! Movies, TV shows and especially corporate communications fall in with this classic linearity of storytelling all the time. And hey, it’s often great!

But a slavish devotion to this trope creates the risk of so little variety that we risk falling far out of step with what our customers, our colleagues and communities expect. We have a seemingly undying and dogged loyalty to the following good and true dimensions of a story:

  • Reliable narrator with a single, identifiable point-of-view
  • Static location
  • Linear chronology
  • Singular outcome

These elements typify not just corporate storytelling, but linear stories we see all the time. While linear storytelling is not going away entirely anytime soon, it is no longer the single solution and, put plainly, it is not enough anymore. Take a minute to reflect on your own behavior and the stories that were worth your own time and money. Think: Instagram stories, data visualizations, scrolling through Hashtags on Twitter, games on your phone…the list goes on.

According to TechCrunch, the video game industry is raking in more revenue than the film industry and it’s growing at a faster clip. To say nothing of book publishing, magazines or the music business!

What does that say about the shift in our interests? We want to be a part of the story, to feel engaged, and have a personalized experience. A lot of money is spent in the storytelling industry and the video game industry has capitalized on these shifts and connected with their audience in a completely different way. The film and music industries are catching on as we’ve seen with Netflix’s release of Bandersnatch and Spotify’s video loop as song artwork, but now it’s time for corporate communications organizations to hop on the bandwagon and start creating experiences for customers and employees alike.

As communications professionals, we have historically ensured audiences feel connected and engaged with through content. But as mass audiences transform into audiences of one through micro-targeting and personalization, content consumers increasingly want to be a part of the story, and traditional, linear storytelling starts to feel like a blunt instrument to achieve that level of participation.

That’s why we need to shift from managing content to creating experiences.

An overview of the differences are great, but what does it actually mean?

During my time at Bloomberg we started a Bloomberg YouTube channel featuring short employee videos sharing what it was like to work there. Along with sending an email telling people their video was live, we tagged the people featured in the videos on social channels when we could. People featured in the videos were surprised, delighted, and wanted to share the videos through their personal handles. The outcome? More clicks to Bloomberg’s recruiting page and an increase in qualified applications and positions filled. Pretty sweet, low (basically zero) distribution cost, employer branding campaign, right?

The people who shared their stories with the Communications team and then shared the videos with their own networks is what made Bloomberg’s YouTube presence a success (well, that and the fact that the Bloomberg multimedia team are total rockstars, of course.)

Another organization bringing this level of authentic and personal storytelling to life is PVH, with their #WeArePVH initiative implemented by SVP, Tiffin Jernstedt and her team. The team activated PVH’s global workforce by empowering them to share moments on social media that make them proud to be at PVH with the hashtag #WeArePVH. The hashtag has gained huge traction and is now used by all of the brands housed under the parent company. This initiative not only increased the company’s employee engagement, but it helped develop a powerful recruitment tool. Now, any applicant can experience the PVH culture by scrolling through the hashtag and seeing it first hand from employees.

One of my client’s CEOs decided to engage in a massive world tour at the beginning of his tenure meeting with hundreds of employees around the world in structured, collaborative sessions. During the sessions the hopes, aspirations, and moments of pride expressed by these colleagues were carefully collected, categorized and then expressed in an interactive digital display that showed just how aligned the global team was to their shared values. It was epic. It was beautiful. It was interactive. And it was non-linear, data-driven story-telling that no plot-line could ever capture.

One more example, this one a bit edgy. A twitter user by the name of Green Chyna has built out a hilarious choose-your-own-adventure twitter feed representing the challenges and tribulations of being Beyonce’s assistant. It’s worth checking out, but maybe not from your computer at work. Profanity aside, it shows another example how twitter, which is predominantly experienced chronologically, can be reinvented into a compelling, engaging and side-splitting non-linear experience with a little creativity.

I often hear from my peers in the Communications profession that our core skill is writing. Ok, so then what’s the core tool…Microsoft Word? PowerPoint? Oy. I’m not so sure that’s right.

Which makes me think about the tools for shifting from linear to non-linear digital stories…how about data visualization? Tools like Tableau and Google Data Studio allow you to share data and metrics in an eye-catching, engaging and even thumb-stopping way. Data visualization allows us to tell a story through analytics rather than the typical linear PPT report, press release or intranet story. People can interact with the data and become a part of the story and experience through their interaction with it. Don’t believe me? Check out a few amazing, interactive examples here or here — many created by people with about as much (or less!) technical skill as you.

I know, it’s a bit ironic to preach the “end of linear storytelling,” in an article with a beginning middle and end. But I don’t think linear storytelling will ever go away. It’s a big part of how we communicate with one another because our brains are wired for it. And hey, sometimes a good story around the campfire is the best approach. But it might just be time to trade in our trusty catharsis for a little bit of engagement.

Ethan McCarty is the CEO of Integral Communications Group, a consultancy that enables international brands to engage, inspire and activate employees and their connected customers and communities. Engage with Ethan at @ethanmcc on Twitter or connection with Ethan on LinkedIn.

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Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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