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Storytelling Is a Meaningless Trope

By Melissa Rodier

For the last few years, every discussion, TED Talk, or article on branding has preached the power of storytelling. That makes sense: It’s science, and millennia of human history have proven it works. That ubiquity has caused storytelling to cross into cliché. The market is saturated with storytellers. LinkedIn feeds are inundated with articles about brand storytelling.

Of course, just because something is a cliché doesn’t take away its importance when done correctly. Overuse doesn’t strip away the science of storytelling, or the success it has proven. What it does mean is that the difference between true storytelling, and buzzword storytelling, is becoming blurrier and blurrier. And that savvy people need to learn the difference between the two.

I sometimes find myself lost on the website TV Tropes for hours as a time. One of the tropes I always come back to is called Seinfeld Is Unfunny. The trope is that something revolutionary or different for its time can become tired, cliché, and predictable in the future. Seinfeld is used as a prime example: the show created a new form of comedy, but every comedy after copied its format. Despite being the progenitor of a genre, Seinfeld might seem unfunny to contemporary audiences who see it as a more predictable version of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Hamilton swept through last evening’s Tony awards, but in ten-years time when half of Broadway is filled with hip-hop musicals, it will be hard for some to understand how Hamilton was a revolution.

Over the weekend, I binge-watched Halt and Catch Fire. One particular scene inspired me to pull up my YouTube app and watch Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl commercial. That short clip led my down a rabbit hole that ended with watching Steve Jobs’ keynote speech introducing that same ad to an enraptured audience.

As I listened to Jobs tell the Macintosh’s compelling narrative, I noticed a word missing entirely from his remarks: “storytelling.” Jobs was effectively brand storytelling, without leaning on the crutch that is the storytelling buzzword. As I listened to Jobs, in a video that’s more than thirty years old, that line between “storytelling” and storytelling became less and less blurry. Great brands don’t tell you they’re telling stories – they just tell them and draw you in.

I watch Seinfeld and still laugh, because as much of a trope as it may have become it’s still engaging and effective. I can listen to Steve Jobs walk me through the ways that Apple is giving me the gift of powerful and unique home computing because great brand storytelling has always mattered, long before it dominated our social feeds.

So I’m coining a new trope: Storytelling is Uninspiring. The originators of the art form will always inspire, just as Seinfeld will always deliver laughs. The cheap imitators who have turned brand storytelling into a cliché can live within the confines of this trope. It’s those who choose to be defined by their audience instead of their status as a storyteller that are expanding the genre. And I suspect even Steve Jobs would celebrate their ability to think different.

Melissa Rodier is an Associate at Woden. Whatever your storytelling needs may be, let Woden help. Download our free StoryBlueprint, or send us an email at connect@wodenworks.com to discuss how we can help tell your story.