Let me tell you a story about storytelling in business — the most important, most under-appreciated, leadership skill.
All business revolves around persuasion. You have to persuade prospects to buy, investors to invest, employees to perform and suppliers to deliver. There’s no getting around it… if you’re going to succeed, you’ve got to persuade.
You really only have two choices of how to do that: You can devise a rational argument using conventional facts, data, logic and powerpoint slides. In some cases that might work. Eventually. But it’s going to take a long, hard bludgeoning.
Or… you can gently pull people in by tapping the imagination and harnessing the proven, natural power of storytelling.
If you study the greatest business leaders of the last 50 years, they all had a knack for telling stories. Even the introverts.
Successful salesmen have always known that a good story will do most of the work for them. As the old saying goes, “facts tell, but stories sell.”
Harvey Mackay was an old-school envelope salesman who used stories to build a 100 million dollar business and published several best-selling management books. McKay never wrote a word about storytelling in business, and yet every chapter in every one of his books starts with a an anecdote of some kind…
“When I was a kid, my favorite ball player was Eddie Stanky, who couldn’t hit, couldn’t run, couldn’t throw, but he knew how to beat you…”
Mackay’s chapter titles had stories built-in: “Ask an old grizzly.” “The wisdom of Dirty Harry.” “Calling Mr. Otis.” “Send in the clones.”
Plus, he featured real characters like Melvin the Haggler to demonstrate his points much more vividly than most business writers ever could.
Even his titles conjured up stories; “Swim with the sharks without being eaten alive.”
That’s why Mackay’s books sold more than 10 million copies. That’s why he has earned millions on the corporate speaking tour. He has a flair for the dramatic and a natural, friendly way of connecting with people through his home-spun stories.
There are no secrets to great storytelling It’s in our DNA. It’s as natural as walking or hopping on a bike after 25 years of not riding.
Honestly. Anyone can do it. But in my experience, most business people do not.
They recite facts. They present cases. They try to impress with a lot of industry jargon. They literally talk till they’re blue in the face trying to convince, sell and cajole, when all they really need to do is tell a good story.
Storytelling is the only tried-and-true formula for holding people’s attention. Politicians know that. Comedians know that. Journalists know that. Even scientists and engineers know that stories are the key to getting their work widely accepted.
And now, neuroscientists have seen the fMRI data that proves that storytelling triggers the brain in uniquely positive ways. (Oxitocin synthesis)
Paul Zak, writing for Harvard Business Review sums it up:
“Our findings on the neurobiology of storytelling are relevant to business settings. They show that character driven stories with emotional content result in a better understanding of the key points a speaker wishes to make and enable better recall of the key points weeks later… When you want to motivate, persuade, or be remembered start with a story of human struggle and eventual triumph. It twill capture people’s hearts, by first attracting their brains. ”
There are many models you can borrow from for your own brand storytelling.
Pixar has a very simple framework that guides every movie they produce. Christopher Vogler, in his book “The Writer’s Journey,” lays out a useful formula, as does Donald Miller in “Building a Brand Story.”
Here are the five simple steps that we use at BN Branding when we’re devising brand narratives:
- Once upon a time there was a ___________. Introduce the main character. Worts and all.
- She lived in a world where ______________. Set the scene. Paint a picture of what life is like in the hero’s ordinary world. Convey the problem/pain point. Show what’s at stake. This is the “before” part of a before-and-after scenario.
- Then, one day, she discovers a possible solution to her problem. This is where your brand comes in. The hero is called to action because she’s been given a clear path to her goal. Your brand becomes the guide/mentor/tool that leads the way.
- With this new elixir in hand, she sets out on her journey. But it’s not easy. There are tests, allies and enemies along the way as she gets closer and closer.
- Finally, she prevails. She endures the supreme ordeal and comes back a changed person. This is “after” part of the before-and-after scenario, where you paint a very clear picture of how life changes for the better.
• All good stories include passion, conflict and resolution. Start with passion.
The ability to put your passion into words in a “why” statement is the first step in any brand storytelling effort. Simon Sinek’s massively popular book “Always start with Why” is a must-read on that subject.
“Every business person can explain what they do, but very few can clearly articulate why, ” Sinek says. That’s what stories are for.
Why are you in business, other than purely selfish capitalist reasons? What are you passionate about? Demonstrate that passion so like-minded people can jump on board and put themselves in the story.
That’s the passion part of the equation. Passion is what drives characters in stories. For whatever reason, they care! If you can’t convey your passion for the business you’re in, you’ll never win big.
• For storytelling in business, keep your customer in the center of the story.
Sorry to break it to you, but it’s not all about you! Your customer’s the hero, not your brand. It’s her journey, not yours, that’ll produce the most compelling story.
That means you have to really know your customers. Do the research so you thoroughly understand the conflict that’s driving your prospects toward purchasing your product or service. If you want your story to resonate, you have to get inside their heads and truly feel their pain.
• Embrace conflict. Without conflict, there is no story.
Numbers in a slide deck can represent conflict, but people don’t empathize with numbers.
If you want your story to resonate you have to capture the real, human conflict that is inherent in any business category. Come down from the 30,000 foot view and depict the problem in very personal terms. Find the pain points that produce the most drama, and then build your stories around those.
• For storytelling in business, you need a villain.
Stories revolve around opposing forces butting heads… The Starks and the Lannisters. The McCoys and the Hatfields. The Force vs. the Dark Side. Apple vs Microsoft. The ordinary underdog vs. The Man. (Sticking it to The Man is a common theme in business pitches, but it’s almost always watered down with corporate terms like “a paradigm shift” or “changing the Status Quo” or “disruptive technology.” )
You have to define your villain and show what’s at stake, in plain english. You can’t be afraid of the dark side of your story or your industry, or even your product. Those imperfections are what make stories interesting, and characters worth rooting for. If you try to paint a completely rosy picture all the time, your stories will never engage anyone, and never ring true.
• Tell truth stories.
Authenticity is a popular buzzword these days. Everyone wants authentic stories and an authentic brand, but what does that mean?
I believe authenticity begins by being truthful about your purpose. If you’re not clear on your ‘why’ you have no chance of being authentic.
Matthews & Wacker, in their book “What’s Your Story” talk about the difference between what’s true, and the bigger truth that a good story conveys. “What’s true is generally expressed as data points, but the truth always comes in the form of a story.”
“Traditional business communications have always been viewed as the simple, direct and timely transmission of true statements. But to be an effective corporate storyteller you must understand that your job is to build the truth — of your company, of your brands, of your history, and of your values.” (Try this post for more on truth, lies and advertising.)
Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos, tells of learning an important lesson back in high school; “Sometimes the truth alone isn’t enough. The presentation of the truth is just as important” So when Hsieh speaks at SXSW or at a Ted Conference he always follows a simple formula: Be passionate. Tell personal stories. Be Real.
It’s been said that a brand is a promise. And there’s a popular book on writing titled “A Story Is A Promise.” The parallels are undeniable.
A good storyteller must know his audience. An entrepreneur must know his, as well.
A good storyteller keeps people’s attention. Good managers do too.
Great leaders inspire people, just as great stories do.
Tell a good story and you can build a successful business. Tell a great story and you can start a movement that attracts a tribe and builds a brand. And if you combine a great story with an iconic leader you can change the world.