There’s a lot a of talk about authenticity in storytelling and its importance in what’s broadly characterized as brand storytelling.
And for good reason: authenticity in storytelling is indeed important. But it’s far from sufficient in telling an effective story.
Let me share a story of my own to illustrate the point:
An Authentic Story of Child Abuse Leaves Me Cold
Last spring I attended a fundraising event at a small performance space in New York. Its aim was to support a genuinely good cause: helping prevent child abuse.
Seven victims of abuse, now adults, were each given seven minutes to relate their childhood trauma and how they overcame it. Among the victims were a few professional writers.
Just minutes into the first story, I began to feel uncomfortable. A young woman was delivering a completely authentic and heartfelt account of being abused as a child. Yet —and it’s hard for me to admit this— I was kind of bored by her story, and, as you might expect, feeling very guilty about it.
How could I not be moved by this tale of horrific abuse? Was it that I was never abused as a child and couldn’t relate? Or was I just an insensitive jerk?
To make matters worse, I felt the same unease during the next three stories. My mind wandered. I squirmed in my seat, looked at my watch, thought about what I would eat after the event. And I berated myself for it.
Another Authentic Story of Child Abuse Moves Me
Fortunately at story number five things changed.
It was told by one of the professional writers, an unassuming middle-aged woman, and was riveting from beginning to end.
What was different was not that she was more authentic. Or that the facts of her story were more powerful than what I had heard earlier.
Rather, it had to do with how she told her story.
To Be Effective, Authenticity Must Be Properly Shaped
What this storyteller did, whether she knew it or not, was employ basic storytelling principles and techniques that go all the way back to the Greeks.
1) Her story had a structure. There was a beginning, middle and end.
2) Her story moved forward. It set up a problem drove to its resolution. All throughout I wanted to know what would happen next.
3) Her story was unified. Unlike the ineffective storytellers, the effective ones stayed within a limited set of images or scenes without wandering off onto tangents. They also repeated phrases that held their narrative together.
4) Her story painted pictures. Rather than speaking in abstract terms she used concrete language that makes you see things.
5) Her story was not about her. Although she relating events that obviously happened to her, she framed those events in a way that I could identify with. Not only could I sympathize with her story, I could empathize. There were universal lessons and insights in the story that I could apply to my own experience.
So the moral of the story I’m telling you here is simple. No matter how honest or revealing or genuine you are, your story can still fall flat.
Authenticity in storytelling, you see, is not enough.
To move your audience you’ve got to craft your authenticity. You need to shape your story so your audience has something they can follow, something that makes them want to know more, something that brings them close to you in a world they can inhabit and see as authentically their own.