The Business of Storytelling: A Manifesto



I’ve always had an urge to write a storytelling manifesto. Each time I’ve sat down to write, I’ve thought two things: “Where do I begin?” and “Why me?” With each ponder of these questions, I fold down my laptop, get a cup of coffee, and wander around my co-working space until I came up with something else to do. What's held me back wasn’t a lack of expertise on the topic, it was more the worry that if I put these thoughts down on paper, they will be set in stone. And that notion is terrifying. The concept and ideas behind the word storytelling have grown so much. Humans have a multitude of channels for communicating the moments and ideas they hold deep. How can I dig through all of this in just one document? 

In the nine years that I’ve been telling stories on stage and working with others to tell their stories, my philosophy on the art and craft have shifted and grown. My viewpoint has adapted and morphed as our culture and technology has adapted and morphed. This is apparent from the ways in which a story is told through art, through brand marketing, and through these ever-changing social media platforms.  

In working with hundreds (maybe thousands?) of storytellers — both the performers on Tell Me A Story's live show, and the clients that I’ve taught — I've come to the conclusion that the concepts and definitions of the word storytelling need to be communicated differently to different people.

I’m writing this manifesto to help you figure out what storytelling means to you, and support you in telling your own story — even if you feel like there’s pressure to tell someone else’s. I think it's important to decide whether or not we let this word run amuck in marketing. Perhaps we need to reel it in, and actually share, and listen to real stories from real people

Storytelling: A Definition

Long ago Ira Glass did this interview with Current TV. The video below contains what is considered by many to be the ultimate definition of what makes as good story. Take a moment to watch:

Ira believes that the building blocks of a good story (particularly radio and video stories) are two fold: There needs to be an anecdote and there needs to be a moment of reflection.

The anecdote is a sequence of events with momentum.

The moment of reflection helps the audience understand why this story is being told in the first place.

The challenge with each building block is that they need to hold their own before they come together as one. You need to tell the anecdote in a way that will bring your listeners along for the ride. And you need to leave them with a better understanding of why they just went on that journey with you. 

Here’s the math equation of Ira Glass’ definition:

Anecdote + Moment of Reflection = A Good Story 

I agree with his philosophy. But I also think it’s important to allow those moments of reflection to live within the story. I never want the storyteller to feed me the literal message/moral/motive of their story. I believe the audience and the storyteller should go on the journey of the story together. And after experiencing it together, each individual listener can leave that story with their own own message/moral/motive.

I want to hear less stories that include the line “And at that moment, I realized….” and more stories that unfold those moments of realization through the action of the anecdote itself. 

Ira refers to the anecdote and reflection as a story's bare bones. I refer to Tell Me A Story's definition of a story as its vital organs:

A story is...

1. An experience shared with a beginning, middle, and end.

2. An intimate tradition between the storyteller and their audience.

From Buzz Word to Brand Story

I have a Google Alert set up for the word “storytelling”. Every day I get a digest of articles in my email inbox that include this term. From folk tales to video games to B2B think pieces, the word storytelling is everywhere. In fact, Instagram had a campaign last year with the catchphrase, “Stories are everywhere.”

Stories are everywhere. They take many forms and all of those forms are valid. But what happens when the word story is used with no story structure to support it?

This is my issue with a lot of brand marketing. There's a trend at the moment on company and brand websites. You will see an Our Story page in place of an About page.  However, more often than not, you'll click on the Our Story link and there is no narrative component at all. Sometimes there is a company timeline, a value proposition or a mission statement listed as data. This is all fair and good for an About page, but not an Our Story page. 

Here are examples of this disconnect, courtesy of Trivago and Hubspot. The Hubspot page features a section entitled “The story within our story” to differentiate the actual narrative from the rest of the company’s "About" style content. Very confusing.

Then there are the ad campaigns that insert the word story for no apparent reason. Here are some of my favorites (insert sarcasm here).

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Last year, I walked by a restaurant under construction on Passyunk Avenue in South Philadelphia. The building was fenced in, and the fence had a sign for the contractor company, Story Construction. I rolled my eyes at the sign and then took a photo. At that point I had about had it with people just throwing around the word story for no reason. When I Googled the company, I learned that this wasn't a buzz word gone awry. Turns out the owner’s last name is Story and he was using the word in the most genuine way possible for his brand.

For millennia, we have passed down knowledge through story and song. If you tell me a statistic, I’ll make up a story to explain why it’s true. Our brains are organized by narrative and image.
— Gloria Steinem

It is important for a brand to have a story. And this story should shape its identity, mission, and values.  It should also have a beginning, middle, and end. 

Here’s an excellent example of a brand story from a Philadelphia local food business called PS & Co. Not only do we get a sense of what this business is,  we learn about the team, their origin stories, and the inspiration behind the menu. 

Away Luggage has an Our Story page that breaks the brand narrative into five segments: "What we believe",  "How we got there", "What we make", "How we do it", and "Our Team".  We learn about the team through beautiful travel images. These photos serve as a through line to everything else mentioned on that page. It's a different approach to a story, but it still has a cohesive beginning, middle, and end.   

Glossier’s About page includes a quote from CEO, Emily Weiss, that speaks to the origin story and the "why" of a company that refers to itself as a “people-powered beauty ecosystem.” The brand identity unfolds as you scroll down the page. With words and mood board style images, we learn the Who, What, Where, When , and Why of this company.  

Ellevest has an excellent begining/middle/end structure to their Our Story page. It begins with the company’s origin story and the a-ha moment that led Sallie Krawcheck to where she is now. The page showcases the brand's identity through this person story and sharing its mission and values in separate sections. Everything is tied together with photos of the team. When you hover over the photos you get a bio that brings each team member to life.

Storytelling has the power to unleash a new idea, bring clarity to a broad concept, and engage an audience with action, excitement and curiosity. And it's a communication strategy.

Yes, it can be used as a marketing tool, but it needs to serve its marketing purpose in a storytelling way. Think back to the Ira Glass method. We need an anecdote. And that anecdote needs to have a beginning, middle, and end. We need to understand the message through some sort of reflection. Tell it to us directly, or, better yet, let us experience it for ourselves. 

Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.
— Jean-Luc Godard

For companies that use the words Our Story in place of About, I challenge you to rework this information into a true narrative. Who were the founders? What is their origin story? What story is your company telling right now? Once you have established a clear brand story, you can help everyone within the company insert their own individual stories into the mix. 

Early on, someone said to me, ‘The greatest gift you can give is your story,’ and that, for me, was the turning point. That became the premise of my work. That’s when I realized that maybe the things that I think are boring about myself are interesting to other people. Hearing what’s in your mind truly makes people feel less alone and gives them hope for things that they want to do and get through things that are difficult.
— Judd Apatow

You Are the Main Character of Your Story

There’s so much pressure to maintain a work persona that is different from who you are when you’re in your home, with your friends, or pursuing a side hustle or hobby. But each of us lives a full life that combines the personal and professional.

So why not share the whole you?

Your individual experience matters. Even if you represent a large brand, or lead a team that needs to understand a specific policy or value proposition. If we can articulate who we are, both professionally and personally, and with narrative structure, and through a lens that makes the most sense to our audience, we can communicate and engage with utmost impact. The best part of it all: you are the main character of your story and you can tell that story in your style and voice. 

The number one quality of great storytellers is their willingness to be vulnerable, their ability to tell on themselves.
— Catherine Burns, The Moth

We watch videos or listen to podcasts from live storytelling events, like Tell Me A Story’s, and think, “Wow I love this. It’s a fun cultural event and it's a deeper form of entertainment, and art!” We can also walk away from that experience without making the connection that we all have stories worth telling. There is a huge connection between the stories shared in performance and the stories we can tell in every day life, whether at a dinner party or inserted into a powerpoint presentation at work. 

I once heard someone in a leadership position at a large organization comment that it wasn’t her job to tell her story. It was her job to tell her company’s story. I consider this a false statement.

Those within a company should agree upon its brand story, overall mission, vision and value sets. And this brand narrative should be articulated both internally with employees and externally with clients and customers. But then it is your goal, and responsibility to make each individual that works for the company share a story of their own that mirrors your mission, vision and value set.

The sum is only greater than all of its parts when each individual can connect their work to the rest of their life experiences.

Once every individual knows their company’s brand story, they can have access to the tools to tell that story in the best possible way, as it is reflected in the people that make up that brand. It’s important to encourage each person that their story matters. 

Kathryn Minshew, one of the founders of the Muse, does a great job of fusing her company’s story and her personal journey together in this presentation from a Y Combinator event. 

Zia Hiltey is a Philadelphia-based photo journalist that specializes in photos of live wrestling. A few years ago, she told a story at one of our shows about an unforgettable wrestling match. As she unfolds the action with imagery, emotion and suspense, the audience is right there with her through every play by play. 


Once you listen to the story and look at her portfolio, her photographs come alive through an entirely new lens. When you tell a story of a experience that inspires the work that you do, it is far more memorable than a story of your nine-to-five obligations.  

Story-Focused Communication 

You have the power to tell your own story, you just need to give yourself permission to do so. Story-focused communication is a strategic way of implementing a personal narrative into a professional conversation. You choose the story, you choose when to tell it, and you choose who to tell it to. The value in this approach to leading, connecting, and articulating far exceeds the outcomes of traditional Toastmasters-esque public speaking, executive presence coaching, and media training. 

The point is not for someone else to give you your story.  Learn to discover the story for yourself. And learn how to tell it.  Once you have the tools to tell your own story, you can continue to work on it and adapt it to your communication needs. Stories are not static or algorithmic, they keep going and growing. 

If You Must Tell Someone Else’s Story…

Let them tell it for you and/or with you. Include them in the story-making process. Interview. Listen. Reiterate. Collaborate. 

JC Penny had a terrific brand story in 2016 called Here I Am. The video below is part of this campaign and features several women sharing their stories in their own words. This is so much more powerful than JC Penny telling us about these people in the third person. 

Rob Lawless of Rob's 10,000 Friends is on a mission to spend one hour with 10,000 people. He’s already 1500+ people deep into his project. He sits with each person and leads a conversation for a full 60 minutes without taking any notes.  Once he is finished, he tells a version of their story through text that accompanies a photo on Instagram. I had the privelage of being a part of his project and my story retold was 100% accurate.

He told his own origin story at a Tell Me A Story live event.  And within that story was a story about someone else. He was able to get away this retelling because of his full engagement when he meets with each person in the first place. 

Go Forth

Now it’s time for you to tell your story.

Be the change.

Tell a story as an introduction, infused into a presentation, with clients, on a conference call, in a networking conversation. Tell a story on stage. Go to a Story Slam. Use one in a keynote. Or channel Oprah Winfrey at the Golden Globes.

We’re listening. 

Note: If you share this manifesto elsewhere, please link to the source and make sure to credit Hillary Rea and Tell Me A Story. We want this information to go out in the world, but we'd like to be acknowledged. Thanks!