If you believe the hype, storytelling is the new, must-have business skill. Just Google “Business Storytelling” to see that everybody out there seems to have advice. TED talks and online articles from every corner of the internet promise help. I am guilty of joining the blog bandwagon not long ago (pardon the plug, but see: Your survival guide to the marketing revolution). Not to scare you, but it’s true: storytelling really is the answer—to just about everything—but more than you think, storytelling is well within your grasp.
The manual labor of business storytelling
First off, storytelling is not all fireworks, meaningful anecdotes and pulling on heartstrings. It’s concrete and analytical, and it’s the simplest way to connect with your customers. I am not here to teach you how to structure a moving story (I’ll leave that to Ira Glass). I want to roll back your thinking to a fundamental level. At its simplest, storytelling is the meaning generated, intentionally or unintentionally, in the process of presenting your message to an audience. Like it or not, you already are a storyteller.
Here at the design agency where I work, we constantly wrestle with helping our clients tell stories. Sometimes, we’re hired to do exactly that, but usually in the process of designing a presentation, interactive website or motion graphic, we are forced to address bigger questions. Who is the audience? What is the essential message? What details are most compelling? Why does it matter? We do our best work when we have a solid grip on our client’s story.
The marketing revolution is upon us…
The great shift in current marketing thinking is the awareness that an emotional connection is the most powerful way to sell. Reason only goes so far. Storytelling, more reliably than anything else, generates emotional connection and the loyalty and excitement that follow close behind. A thread of narrative is far more engaging than a set of facts. Add to this wanting to connect with millennials—with their expectations of authenticity and meaning, particularly in the commercial world—and the story is the thing now more than ever.
…and its roots are ancient
As new as the storytelling trend is, its roots are ancient, going back to and defining previous stages in our evolution. Storytelling started as a survival tool, and it puts information into a form that stimulates our brains more intensely and shortcuts to our emotions. In the same way, that song lyrics are easier to remember than, say, an annual report, storytelling essentially adds “music” to underscore information. With that “music” comes empathy, perspective and engagement. If you don’t believe me, just watch one of these commercials from Apple or Extra or Always.
Storytelling, when practiced brilliantly, can seem like emotional slight of hand. Apple and Coca-Cola are masters of selling an experience and generating a brand loyalty that transcends the products themselves—and even reason. Storytelling drives these mechanisms, but it’s not magic. There is art to it, but storytelling is a craft. With some practice and sound thinking, anyone can put a more compelling story of oneself or one’s business out in the world.
And now the six tips to telling a better business story
There is no formula to tell a story—formulas tend to lead to formulaic stories—but there are questions and pillars that if your cover in your thinking, you will know you’re moving in the right direction. These pillars are a good place to start:
1. Think about your mission statement
Don’t have one? Then write one. Your mission statement should directly state how you want to change the world. Yes, it should be that big no matter the size of what you are selling. Think about how you will benefit people. Look at Coca-Cola and Pepsi’s mission statements. Pepsi’s begins: “As one of the largest food and beverage companies in the world, our mission is to provide consumers around the world with delicious, affordable, convenient and complementary foods and beverages.” And Coca-Cola’s: “To refresh the world…To inspire moments of optimism and happiness…To create value and make a difference.” Still wonder why Coke is winning that rivalry? Need more examples? Try here.
2. Ask why it matters
Did you start out in a garage? Are you literally saving the environment? Is your product smarter/cheaper/better made than the competition? Think of this as the kindergarten show-and-tell moment. What you do may be complex, but some thrilling part of your story is simple and accessible. Every company does something interesting, and you just have to do the work to find the best way to translate your selling points into words. Talk about your company to your friends. See what holds their attention and focus on that.
3. Tell the truth
Resist the temptation to embellish. Truth does make the most compelling, lasting story. If you’re stuck, always try a different angle before bending the facts.
4. Stick to your mission
Beware of distraction. Resist the urge to do “a bit of everything” and think about if what you are communicating is actually helping to achieve your mission. Are you targeting the audience you really want to target? Are you putting your best foot forward? In the fragmented state of marketing, you can’t just throw things up onto a wall and see what sticks. Religiously following your mission will keep you focused and efficient.
5. Be bold
A certain dose of singular, obsessive thinking will help. Get opinions from people you trust but avoid consensus by committee which reliably dulls the edges of your story. Be bold and vulnerable even if it’s scary as hell. It’s always best to tap into what is most yourself. Our best ideas often come accompanied by the disclaimer, “This may be a bad idea, but…” Don’t believe there are no bad ideas. There are bad ideas, but they are often on the way to great ideas. Explore them. With practice (see the next step), you’ll soon learn the difference between what’s too far in a bad way and what’s too far in a good way.
6. Practice, practice, practice
You’re not going to get it right and refined on the first try. The process of solidifying and polishing your story takes trial and error and time. But the more you try it out, the better you will get. As with any project that involves building something from nothing, there will a moment in the middle (more likely multiple moments) when you hate what you’ve done and want to throw it out and start over. Know this is normal. With more experience, you’ll be able to identify the 10% of the time you actually should throw things out. 90% of the time, the path is ahead, and you will be surprised—amazed, even—where you eventually get.
Best of luck finding your own stories.
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