Share don't tell: Can you crowdsource storytelling?

I've recently become protective of the word "story." For me, story is a narrative. It engages you at the beginning and takes you on a journey of learning or emotional discovery straight through to a satisfying end. A story is crafted carefully, one word or one frame at a time, and is designed to surprise, delight, frighten, enlighten—whatever the storyteller intends.

"Story" isn't limited to fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, or film. Companies "tell their story" to present their face to the world; journalists develop news stories, expanding on them as more information becomes available. Heck, your uncle probably tells a good story at the Thanksgiving dinner table. 

Storytellers use a specific point of view to control how their stories flow and build. Corporate communicators craft their public relations outreach; editors corral the narrative of their reporters' news stories. Even your uncle knows how he wants to spin a tale.

At the INBOUND 2015 marketing conference in Boston last month, I attended an intriguing session titled "Revenge of the Storymakers," presented by David Berkowitz of agency MRY. Berkowitz focused on how brands are using user-generated content to tell their story. The idea is that companies are "backtracking" from crafting tightly controlled narratives to describe their mission, products, and services. Instead, they are letting users tell their stories for them by teeing up a framework for collecting user stories and letting it unspool, primarily through social media. 

In his talk, Berkowitz made the distinction between story "telling" and story "making." Storytelling is the conventional, highly controlled approach to creating press releases, corporate background statements, and other brand communications. It relies on carefully written language and slickly produced videos, approved by corporate marketers. 

In contrast, storymaking is participatory. These stories can be made by customers or prospects, often by submitting a photo, short video or tweet in response to a specific theme put out by a company (e.g., how do you wear a Burberry coat?). The responses, in aggregate, create a story that is more real and current than any canned narrative that a public relations firm could create through "storytelling." 

I have to admit I bristled at the use of the term "storymaking" in this context. Don't get me wrong. I take Berkowitz's point. User input can offer a fresh vision of a brand, helping to engage other customers and prospects. As he points out, today's brands can no longer simply dictate their views to customers; they need to invite, listen to, and accept their users' input to create buzz and develop advocates. (Still, there is skepticism about how well user-generated content works from an advertising standpoint. See Stephen L. Carter's BloombergView article for details.)

It was the "storymaking" term that struck me as inaccurate. It seems to imply that you can take any content from any user and make a good story, like creating a souffle from the ingredients in your cupboard on any given day. 

So, some alternatives: "Story sourcing" or simply "story sharing" may come closer to describing this "share don't tell" method of communication. There is little story craft involved in a simple aggregation of user stories, other than in curating the tiny puzzle pieces of raw material that users provide. That's fine; it's advertising. But this process should not be confused with truly collaborative art forms, such as filmmaking, in which storytellers work together to create and build stories with intentional themes and narratives.

Stories sourced from users are unpredictable and unlikely to produce a deep, meaningful or cohesive story in the traditional sense of the word. This is best left to professional storytellers; the ones who live by the tried-and-true writers' maxim, "show don't tell." Anton Chekhov may sum this up best in his quote: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Now that is storymaking.

Corporate story sharing (dare I say story baiting?) is no doubt here to stay. But it doesn't replace the need for skilled corporate communicators and it shouldn't be confused with true storytelling craft. For the real story, I'm sticking with Chekhov.