What Does a Chief Storyteller Do?

What Does a Chief Storyteller Do?

Chief Storyteller may sound like a joke for a job title — one of those one-liners from a LinkedIn profile that really means “Marketer”. But I believe that Chief Storyteller is an emerging role in the organizational landscape, which will take on increasing importance in the years to come.

In this post, I’m going to outline what a Chief Storyteller means, what, exactly, they do and why I think the role is so important to the future of digital business.

Chief Storyteller: A History

To understand the importance of a Chief Storyteller in an organization, we need to first explore two questions:

  • what does strategic storytelling mean within an organization?
  • what is changing in the way that organizations express their stories today?

Defining Strategic Storytelling

Humans have always used stories to make sense of the dynamic and changing world. As Yuval Noah Harari describes in his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, stories have played a vital role as a foundation for the birth of civilizations. Stories illuminate purpose, vision, mission and values through memorable and engaging narratives that inspire us to act.

Similarly, within organizations, stories play fundamental roles in defining both the purpose and the tactics of collective action. In a recent article from the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the authors outline three key ways in which organizational leaders use storytelling:

  1. Story as Light. Story illuminate the past, present & future, thus guiding us on our way and lighting up paths for change.
  2. Story as Glue. Story enables people to connect across difference and create an authentic sense of alignment.
  3. Story as Web. Story unites data and feeling to help us author — and re-author — our individual and shared identities.

In my corporate storytelling workshops for leaders, I like to distinguish between two types of storytelling: small-s storytelling and Big-S Storytelling. Small-stories are what we more conventionally think of as business storytelling: brands, social media posts, leadership addresses, keynotes, sales pitches, etc. These are the tactics of brand managers, recruiters, PR people, etc. These stories are tangible and concrete.

Big-S Stories, on the other hand, live in the realm of strategy. In an organizational setting, the Big-S story is the overarching purpose of the organization. Who are we? What are we trying to accomplish? How do we measure success? What rules of engagement guide the way we sell, manage, create, hire?

Unlike small-s stories, Big-S Stories are intangible. An example of a Big-S story in an organization is Core Values. On their own, an organization’s core values are not normally a particularly engaging example of storytelling. (They wouldn’t get a ton of likes on Instagram, and they are unlikely to go viral.) But if the core values are genuine and integrated into the business, they can have a profound guiding effect on the way the organization works.

The focus of Strategic Storytelling is naming and defining those overarching Big-S narratives that will guide the way that the small-s stories are executed.

What Does a Chief Storyteller Do?
An example of Big-S Storytelling from the tech industry. The Big-S story is the overall arc of the product. The small-s stories are the daily development cycles that get context and meaning from the overall narrative.

What is changing in Strategic Storytelling today?

The need for a Chief Storyteller derives from the most significant change affecting all of our lives today: technology.

Think about life pre-Internet. If you were a big brand — a Coca Cola or a Procter & Gamble — you had basically three media choices for telling your product’s story: television, radio or billboards. Because of the limited media bandwidth and other limitations of the time, brands focused on developing one message (a “campaign”) which they basically played again and again and again until people loved it or hated it.

“Some things in life are priceless. For everything else, there’s Mastercard.” This line was invented in 1997 and was reinforced through dozens of ads. Mastercard is still using it today.

But once the Internet arrived, the storytelling landscape changed fundamentally for organizations. There were three primary results:

  1. Brands suddenly had access to many more channels for engaging their customers. The age of the 30-second TV spot died.
  2. Other organizational functions suddenly had access to a communications channel. For example, in HR/recruiting, we saw the birth of the “employer brand”.
  3. Customers suddenly had a voice to talk about their experiences with a company’s products and services. Think review sites, Twitter storms and the other impacts that have become a normal part of our existence.

Before the Internet, the phrase Chief Storyteller or Storyteller-in-Chief was a cute reference to a particularly loquacious and engaging CEO — a Jack Welch or a Richard Branson. In those days, the job of the Chief Storyteller was primarily to stay on message.

But post-Internet, the nature of the organizational story has changed. Brand does not equal story anymore. Suddenly, the organizational story has become some combination of the story that the organization puts out through its channels and the story as key audiences and customers perceive it.

For clarity, consider the story of these three examples:

  • Uber, after the release of Susan Fowler’s memo about harassment in the workplace. This document led to the ouster of Uber’s CEO, and a federal inquiry into the workplace culture;
  • United, after a passenger was dragged off one of their planes. This incident caused the company to lose $1B in shareholder value, and led to internal trainings and restructuring;
  • the NRA, after the Parkland shooting. The deaths of 17 people and the outspoken teenagers who emerged from the incident changed the national narrative about gun control overnight.

So, what does a Chief Storyteller do?

What each of these examples show us is that an organization’s story has acquired a new dimension. Whereas traditional brand marketing was one-directional, between the brand and consumers, today we all take for granted that marketing is a two-way conversation — one that takes place on review sites, social media etc.

But there is a third dimension to this conversation: perception of the brand as told across multiple media and multiple sources. Maybe more importantly, in an organizational context, in each of the examples, we see that the responsibility for the key narrative fell outside the auspices of traditional brand marketing. Up until the Fowler memo, Uber’s brand managers hadn’t thought to talk about the internal workplace culture. (Why should they have?) Until the plane incident, United’s marketers probably weren’t connecting brand with the state of internal trainings. (Why would they?) And in no way had the NRA’s leadership prepared itself to deal with a group of motivated teenagers, who fell outside the traditional liberal/conservative divide.

In all three cases — I’m sure there are many more you can think of — marketing lost control of the story.

An essential role in the future of organizations: the Chief Storyteller

The best way to think of the Chief Storyteller is as the center of a vast, interconnected web of story. Part of the Chief Storyteller’s role is telling stories, of course. But a more profound part of their role is listening to stories, and unearthing unexpected connections that have not yet been unearthed. And the most essential part of the role is develop strategies for which stories should be told where, and how bridging together leadership, marketing, sales and culture communications might create a new and innovative kind of value.

Listed out in terms of job responsibilities, a job posting for this role might look something like this:

Culture Crafting

  • Translates leadership visions into easily consumable employee messages
  • Increases and sustain employee engagement and participation
  • Stewards collaborative dialogue across cross-functional groups
  • Trains internal leaders and teams in the key organizational narratives

Story Crafting

  • Uncovering, capturing and building storytelling assets for each organizational function (case studies, social marketing, leadership keynotes, etc.)
  • Supporting leadership in using narrative to connect the organization’s past, present and future
  • Overseeing and designing consistent messaging across all brand channels
  • Tailoring messaging for different audiences and strategic goals

Story Measuring

  • Optimizing key engagement metrics, such as views, clicks, shares, likes, etc.
  • Conducting qualitative testing with various internal and external audiences
  • Reporting on results to leadership, managers, board of directors, etc.

Key Requirements of the Chief Storyteller Role

  • In-depth understanding of
    • Digital and mobile marketing practices
    • Sales, pitches, presentations, persuasion
    • Modern media, including social, key content distribution channels and SEO/SEM
    • Modern metrics across owned, earned and paid: Conversion, amplification, ROI/economic value of investments, etc
    • Advertising
    • Branding
    • Traditional media, including radio, TV, print, packaging, OOH
  • A great eye for design
  • A passion for story, narrative structure and the creative arts
  • A skillful understanding of data reporting and analytics
  • A proven ability to translate business requirements across divisions, languages and cultures
  • The courage to try things that have never been tried before
  • The salesmanship to sell things that have never been tried before, to internal and external audiences
  • A deeply authentic approach to linking the personal and the professional

A Final Note about the Chief Storyteller

After the Parkland shooting, something unprecedented happened in the corporate environment. When the state and federal government refused to take meaningful action on gun control, many corporate CEO’s took it upon themselves to do something. Companies like Delta, Hertz and Symantec distanced themselves from the National Rifle Association by eliminating benefits to their members. Dick’s Sporting Goods took it a step further by announcing that it had unilaterally raised the age limit for firearms sales and stopped selling the AR-15, the weapon used in Parkland and other recent mass shootings.

Why? A recent NYTimes editorial posits that:

Corporate America thrives by selling us what we want, and they do that by appealing to our identities. In 2018, for many Americans, our political identity seems to define us more than ever. It already influences whom we socialize with on Facebook, whom we marry, what news we read and where we live. It was only a matter of time before this big sort started to shape our consumer behavior, too.

It’s this idea of appealing to our identities that underscores the importance that the Chief Storyteller will play in the future. One of the most profound yet least reported outcomes of technological disruption is the disruption to our own identities. Not so long ago, our cultural, community, religious and gender identities would have conditioned the choices we make and the ways that we define a meaningful life. Today, however, the disruption to those identities has up-ended our collective definition of a meaningful life.

More choice is a good thing, of course. But organizations are only starting to recognize the vacuum which that disruption has created. More and more, employees, consumers, their families and their communities are looking to businesses to help them define the values by which they live, and the metrics and milestones that architect meaning and purpose.

It’s to this higher goal that the really great Chief Storytellers aspire. Not just engaging their audience’s minds, but engaging their souls. And not just facilitating communication, but facilitating insight, meaning and purpose.

Further Reading