The past few years have been kind to the concept of storytelling. Once narrowly shelved within brand ideations or team-building exercises, storytelling has broken out of its box and now infiltrates every corner of an organization. Leadership, strategy, sales, change management, internal comms, customer engagement--storytelling's now the panacea for all manner of individual, team, and market challenges.

That's a healthy development. Our time of information overload, data addiction, and irreducible complexity needs the most powerful sense-shaping, meaning-making, crowd-connecting machines we have. And stories are it.

But how do you grow the idea of storytelling--a cute, buzzy concept on its own--from a small-scale behavior to a transformative force with the power to link your team, focus your vision, connect with your customers, and shape your strategy? 

Leveling-up a company's storytelling efforts requires new organizational behaviors, like purposefully collecting and preserving personal, organizational and customer narratives; thoughtfully packaging those narratives in a way they can best be consumed; distributing them effectively; and then targeting them toward measurable ends.

Sound somewhat familiar? It should. There's a name for these kinds of curating, packaging, distributing activities: Publishing. 

Publishing's no longer a discrete industry. It's a practice. It's what storytelling wants to be when it grows up. That's why the companies that take seriously the science behind storytelling's power to organize, inform, persuade and connect, also take seriously their new identity as Publishers--and they adopt the practices that make good publishing work.

Here's what it looks like when Storytelling grows up into Publishing:

Over of a period of five years, Pfizer built an entirely new infrastructure for connecting their nearly 100,000 colleagues around the world to each other and the company's mission. Beginning with a complete renovation of their intranet capabilities, they structured internal communications around sharable narratives. The result, half a decade later, is an incredibly mature publishing infrastructure that has most recently powered the impressive Pfizer365, a project highlighting one story each day that demonstrates the important contributions of Pfizer employees to improve the lives of billions of people.

Intel manages one of the most sophisticated publishing programs run by a non-media company, iQ, a weekly digital magazine devoted to stories behind the development and application of emerging technologies, and stories of the people leading design and experimentation. Celebrating the culture of technological innovation, iQ is so good it transcends its parent brand as a standalone media success. Which says more about Intel than any traditional marketing campaign could hope to. 

FordSocial isn't as elegantly structured as iQ, but it pulls off something just as impressive: the integration of stories from employees, the corporation, and its customers. A story from Ford's internal marketing team spotlighting a retired couple's three-week road trip sits next to selected user-generated images and captions--and even ideas for improvements to forthcoming releases. What it lacks in editorial vision, it makes up for in authentic charm. 

These efforts go beyond content marketing or sponsored content strategies. The ambitions of these organizations required they adopt sophisticated publishing practices. Here are three investments these companies made, and they serve as a starting place for any organization serious about getting the most value out of the power and the practice of storytelling.

  1. Content discovery and development. Good publishing starts with good content, and that content doesn't make itself. Stimulating an army of content creators across the organization, and then staffing to curate or create content as needed, forms the pipeline of stories that make quality publishing possible. Pfizer sources from within, guided by a team devoted to finding the stories worth telling. iQ commissions accomplished freelance journalists to contribute to its magazine. Ford's staff scans the social web for individuals whose posts suggest they have stories to share. One of the largest urban churches in the United States even turned its congregants into content-producers. 
  2. Editorial layer. An archive of good content is nothing until activated, and it's the editorial sensibility that makes that content work for the organization. Trained professionals know how to refine content into its most readable form, ensure it aligns with the goals of the organization, and angle it precisely to its intended audience. Perhaps most importantly, editors ensure there exists a compelling voice that resonates with a reader and holds to the spirit of the company. That kind of editorial competence is not a naturally-occurring skill. Pfizer, Ford, Intel have all invested in internal or external editorial resources to guide their high-quality publishing product.
  3. Design and distribution. Content is king, but it's a lonely throne without container and context. How stories are packaged--the form, length, style, media--means the difference between attention and disregard. How they reach a reader--by email, intranet, social web, podcast, text message, blog, magazine--means the difference between potential and actual impact. Product design and channel management are musts.

Corporate magazines shouldn't suck. Enterprise newsletters shouldn't be boring. Company intranet sites shouldn't be irrelevant. Annual reports shouldn't be mind-numbingly dull. Consumer-facing content shouldn't be eye-rollingly self-promoting.

And they don't have to be. The best practices that undergird quality publishing have been articulated, refined, and optimized by the world's best book, magazine, and web publishers. And they're now available to any organization that understands the power of storytelling and seeks to capitalize on its verve to create storytelling economies, where stories gain greater value, becoming the currency that produces connection and loyalty.