The key to modern storytelling: authenticity

It’s become common knowledge these days that storytelling is a mission-critical skill for businesses; that tapping into our innate receptivity to narratives is a powerful tool for persuasion. But what’s not so clear is how to stand out among an increasingly crowded stream of leaders, people, and brands telling stories via millions of "branded content initiatives" that mostly get lost in the deluge of headlines we’re all drowning in.

So how do you cut through the noise? The answer is something that’s deceptively simple: authenticity.

What is authenticity?

The dictionary definition of authenticity is "not false or copied; genuine; real" and "representing one’s true nature or beliefs; true to oneself or to the person identified". But I’ll put it in more straightforward terms: Authenticity means that you walk the talk. You ARE you. It means that you’re telling this story because you BELIEVE IT - or better yet, because you’ve LIVED IT.

As an example from my own life, I cut my teeth as a pro photographer in the world of outdoor and action sports - snowboarding, skiing, surfing, skateboarding. My photos resonated with both the athletes and their fans because they were authentic - and they were authentic because I lived and breathed those sports and the lifestyle that goes with them. What I was depicting in those images was really just a snapshot of my own life, but with me behind the camera. If I wasn’t on the side of a mountain shooting these guys, I was either hitting the slopes myself, hanging out with them in the lodge or crashing on their couches. It wasn’t a job to me, it was my life - and my photos screamed that fact in a way that was instantly apparent to those who also lived and breathed outdoor sports.

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[As an adrenaline junkie myself, traveling the globe and living the life with the world’s top action sports athletes is what allowed me to capture images like this one. Photos like this are rarely made with huge crowds and TV coverage, rather it’s about access to the real-deal moments, which in turn comes about from being embedded within the culture for years]

If you’re asking yourself what exactly made my images authentic (and why the images of other talented photographers who tried to shoot outdoor sports weren’t as authentic), the truth is that I can’t point to a specific thing in a specific image as the element that makes the it "authentic", because it’s much more than that. It’s the sum total of of a million little details (many of which are processed subconsciously by both the creator and audience) that add up. It’s kind of like stacking pieces of straw on top of each other - those pieces of straw eventually become a haystack, and while it’s tough to say exactly when it happens, at some point you look at it and know you’ve got a haystack.

While, undoubtedly, authenticity is difficult to pin down, it ultimately comes down to is this: if you’re telling a story that’s true to you (and your life, your company, your vision) in the way that it naturally wants to be told, it’s authentic - and your audience will recognise it as such.

Read: Richard Branson's top tips for public speaking

Why authenticity matters

To understand why authenticity is so key to effective storytelling, you’ll want to take a step back and understand the context in which modern marketing messages (stories) exist.

Just as we’ve made bacteria resistant to many drugs by overusing antibiotics, after being bombarded by mass marketing messages for the better part of a century, audiences are now highly resistant - practically immune - to them. We’ve been burned before by brands who over promised and under delivered, and the standard marketing playbook (in which the goal is to separate the consumer and their money as quickly as possible) is no longer effective. And this resistance is reflected in the palpable shift in popular storytelling over the last 25 years.

One of the first major inflection points in this shift was reality TV. While some may turn up their nose, it was a game changer - a striking counterpoint to the hyper-polished and plastic media of the first part of the 20th century. It was a warts-and-all approach, much like punk rock’s gritty "realness" was a reaction to the glossy pop of the 1970s. In both cases these responses felt honest relative to their predecessors, like an un-retouched portrait of real people going through many of the same things that the audience was going through in their own lives. And media has never been the same since.

Social media was a follow-on inflection point, which gave us unfiltered access to just about everything and everyone (including faults, gaffes and missteps that would have been swept under the rug in the old media landscape). While celebrity culture still celebrates the posh selfie, the game has fundamentally changed for a new layer of "internet famous" stars - the majority of whom gained that fame by sharing the underbelly, "behind the scenes" of their life.

The trend is clear. Audiences now expect - demand - that stories are real.

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How to apply it to your brand’s stories

Applying this concept to your brand - whether personal or corporate - is easier than you might think, especially given that whether you think you do or not, you have all of the raw material at your fingertips.

First, understand what’s really in your DNA and what you (the storyteller) truly stand for - not because you chose it in some strategic planning exercise but because it’s who you are. This may require some organisational soul searching that isn’t easy, but it has to be done. Authentic stories can only be born from truth. I can’t overstate the level of importance here.

Second - find a way to get that story told.  If you’re thinking in terms of your personal brand - the tools to create and share your core values are more available now than ever before. Have mobile device, will travel. How does this translate in a corporate setting? Hire people who have lived the story you’re telling. People who get your message through having lived it themselves. These people don’t have to be FTEs, but be careful of the idea that you can outsource authenticity (you can’t). Once you’ve built the right team, listen to them. Trust them. If you’re working with the right people, trust that they feel the pulse of this story and let them tell it as it must be told. This is why big brands often struggle with authenticity - because they can’t let go and trust a message that comes from the trenches - the gritty soul - of a brand. Those that resist this will struggle. Those that embrace it will thrive.   

Finally, understand that production values don’t define authenticity. There’s a common misperception that "authenticity" is an aesthetic value, and this couldn’t be more false. Putting a gritty filter on a glossy, posed photo doesn’t transform it into something that’s actually gritty, and throwing some glib vernacular in an otherwise formulaic, safe script doesn’t make it raw. And by the same token, polished production values don’t make a story any less authentic. Tell the story as it needs to be told, with whatever production style feels right and natural. Authenticity isn’t a preset.

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Closing thoughts

Successful modern storytellers understand that authenticity is the defining characteristics of sticky, resonant stories. Embrace this new rule of law and you will be rewarded - the right people will notice, and they’ll become passionate evangelists.

Telling an authentic story isn’t as simple as tweaking a few lines in a script or the lighting in a shot - it starts with serious introspection and requires that you place a great deal of trust in the people you’ve chosen as storytellers.

It’s easy feel some anxiety about all of the above, but like anything that becomes "worth it", a feeling of uneasiness is the start. The beauty of this shift is that the only requirements are truth and grit and some simple technology to capture images, words, and narrative.  And fortunately, these are the things that life is made of... so you won’t have to look far.

With a little more self-awareness, you’ll be able to let down your guard a bit more than you were taught in school and through life lessons back in the day... and simply tell your story as it begs to be told.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.

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