The Late, Great Storytelling Hoax (and How to Fix It)

June 18, 2020

A significant number of companies have received scathing responses from customers and the media in the last few months – and rightly so. 

They’re making claims to support people and causes when everything about their behavior proves they believe otherwise. It’s clear many brands have a gross misunderstanding of the difference between fiction and nonfiction storytelling–and don’t give their audiences credit for their ability to see the difference and call them out. 

First, let me clarify the distinction between the two of them…

Fiction refers to stories that describe imaginary events and people. 

Nonfiction storytelling involves facts, real events and real people. 

You can’t turn one into the other just because you want to, or it’s convenient. 

Right now, people’s tolerance for BS is at an all-time low. The January 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer pointed out that even though there was a strong global economy at the time the report came out, people didn’t trust government, business, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and the media. Add to that the ridiculousness, insensitivities, half-truths and outright lies that have come from COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests and there’s even less reason to believe now.    

The truth of your story isn’t found in big splashes of hollow solidarity during chaos and uprising. Your evidence comes from a million little examples. On their own, these little acts aren’t enough to earn a headline, be worthy of splashy social media posts, or even see the light of day in a meaningful way.

Incrementally, overtime these actions prove whether the story you tell is fiction or nonfiction. 

Actions speak louder than words

My parents taught me this lesson well. 

You care about school but don’t do your homework? Actions speak louder than words.

You want to make the team but you skip practice? Actions speak louder than words, 

Making your community stronger matters but you never volunteer your time? Actions speak louder than words. 

It’s as if organizations have forgotten the transparency that comes with the digital world. North Carolina programmer Chris Franklin pointed out the trend that quickly showed up on social media…

He said the idea for his meme about the generic brand statements popped into his head after seeing responses from the NFL and Amazon. 

“I mostly made the image in response to Amazon and the NFL, who both were some of the earliest on the scene with these sort of tweets, but also have these long histories of making the situation worse.”

Chris calls these statements “performative.” It’s companies who want to go down as being on the right side of history but have no evidence — or even intention — of making these stories true. They’re egotistical and short-sighted enough to believe we’ll take their fiction stories at face value.

This takes things to the next level of a slap-in-the-face for everyone outside their board room. On top of disrespecting people in the first place, pumping out fake altruism is essentially gaslighting them. This is 2020…you can’t pretend your way out of this by claiming ignorance followed with a “continue to educate our teams in pursuit of a culture said better values and respects this diversity” statement.

The foundation of every nonfiction story is a whole-hearted belief in its truth and a commitment to seeing it through to execution.

Period.

Telling nonfiction stories

I don’t want to paint every company as an evil, insensitive entity that panders to people when they have the opportunity. There are plenty of companies that have a stellar performance with diversity and inclusion. Many have leaders who quickly responded with compassion and support to employees and customers during COVID.

But if you’re struggling with the credibility of your story either in our current environment or even the ones you tell about being customer-focused, caring about the experience you deliver, supporting growth for employees or whatever it may be, here are 5 questions you can ask yourself to perform a quick audit:

  1. What story are you in? This is your brand purpose. What difference are you trying to make in the world beyond the products and services that you sell? What evidence do you have to prove that it’s true? And most importantly, is the purpose you’re willing to fight for, even when it’s not popular?
  2. What value do you hold up as the pillars that support this story? What criteria do you have in place to ensure that these are upheld at every level of your employee base every day? HINT: If you say that innovation matters but you do not have a diverse workforce (including at the executive and board of directors level), then you don’t value innovation. If you say you care about the environment but don’t have a sustainability strategy, then you don’t care about the environment.
  3. Who’s in your cast of characters? Who do you support? What’s their “job to be done”? Obviously, this includes your customers. But who lies in the wings makes an appearance or influences the storyline? This can be bosses, teams, or other cohorts involved in the experience and buying process. It also includes people on your side of the table that make things happen. How well do the characters from marketing, finance and IT work together to make sure that your online payment form works without a hitch for your customer? You can’t claim to be customer-focused and then put people through a 19-step online form that makes them want to pull their hair out.
  4. Based on what your higher purpose is as a company, what and how do you deliver value that helps customers accomplish what matters most to them? If making the world a better places matters to you and your client base, then look into your supply chain
  5. Who and how do measure, review and evolve your approach to the story you tell and the integrity with which you deliver it?

What story do you tell?

Every single day, through every employee, the actions of people on behalf of your brand prove or disprove your story. Big differences can happen quickly when you believe in things such as equality for genders or increasing diversity across an entire industry. 

You care about customers but don’t empower employees to make decisions in the moments that matter most? You support anti-racism but everyone on your board of directors is a white male? You’re all about inclusivity but there’s only one color and one gender on the main stage of your events

Uoma Beauty founder Sharon Chuter created a social media challenge to test the sincerity of companies called #pulluporshutup on Instagram. She pushes brands to reveal the racial makeup of their corporate workforce and, more importantly in my opinion, their executives. When change is led from the top, it becomes everyone’s priority. 

Brands with integrity understand that to have credibility as a storyteller, you first have to have a story that’s true. Then it’s the micro elements about how you prove it’s true that decide whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. 

What evidence do you have to support the story you tell?

Let me know in the comments below. 

About Carla Johnson

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Carla Johnson is a world-renowned storyteller, an entertaining speaker, and a prolific author.

Over the last two decades, Carla has helped architects and actuaries, executives and volunteers, innovators and visionaries leverage the art of storytelling to inspire action. Her work with Fortune 500 brands has served as the foundation for many of her books.

In her latest project, Fast Forward Files, she contributes to a larger collection of thoughts by some of the world’s greatest minds -  Shazam co-founder Dhiraj Mukherjee, activist and entrepreneur Heather Mills and behavioral designer, technologist and mental-health champion Peter Trainor. Consistently named one of the top influencers in B2B, digital and content marketing, Carla regularly challenges conventional thinking. 

Today, she travels the world teaching anyone (and everyone) how to cultivate idea-driven teams that breed unstoppable creativity and game-changing innovation.