We just don’t tell great stories anymore. We don’t teach how to. We don’t understand their importance.
We tell our friends great stories, or at least we like to think that we do. We regale them of our college exploits, the crazed fun of youth, those first momentarily insane work experiences.
When we do this, what are we actually doing? We are making connections, defining ourselves with a richness you don’t get from a resume, from a list, from a proclamation, from a mission statement. It’s simply purely intimate you on a level no other communication can deliver.
When you first work a job, it’s not the HR intro, the pamphlets, the initial training that really tell you about the firm. Nope. It’s the water cooler, lunch and road rip stories, the tales told in the lab, the offsite meeting, the carpool, on the train that tell you what’s really going on. It’s those stories that more often than bot, whether you like or not, define your firm, it’s culture and its behavior and attitudes, the way you will work, the way you act and quite possibly when young the ethics you may choose.
Selling products? Services? Especially in B2B. All the decks, leaflets, brochures and webpages in the world will not truly represent your firm if the stories they tell, that the customers hear aren’t consistent with the latter.
Branding? Here’s where third parties conjure up stories finally, but often ones that have absolutely nothing to do with the reality of the firm’s culture, overtly stated strategy or even their product’s real function and delivered value. They sound good or even great – but just for a moment, an instant.
Overall corporate strategy and its communication, understanding and buy in? That’s where things get pretty bad more often than not.
No stories. None.
What do we see today? For the most part, company strategies and attitudes, positions and offerings are communicated in motionless sound bites first to management, then to staff and then to suppliers, customers and everyone else involved. Maybe that might get you in for that new burger, phone or car once, but in a day and age of exponentially available data, including stories in the form of reviews, news articles and speeches, developing a narrative and insuring you actually believe it and are true to it means everything to long term success, strategy execution and tweaking all of the way to the tactical development of products and services that actually matter in the context of their offering, relative to both competition and our dynamic world demands.
Peter Denning’s 2004 HBR article “Telling Tales” explained:
“… most executives operate with a particular—and generally justified—mind-set. Analysis is what drives business thinking. It cuts through the fog of myth, gossip, and speculation to get to the hard facts. It goes wherever the observations and premises and conclusions take it, undistorted by the hopes or fears of the analyst. Its strength lies in its objectivity, its impersonality, its heartlessness.
Yet this strength is also a weakness. Analysis might excite the mind, but it hardly offers a route to the heart. And that’s where we must go if we are to motivate people not only to take action but to do so with energy and enthusiasm. At a time when corporate survival often requires disruptive change, leadership involves inspiring people to act in unfamiliar, and often unwelcome, ways. Mind-numbing cascades of numbers or daze-inducing PowerPoint slides won’t achieve this goal. Even the most logical arguments usually won’t do the trick”
All through history, it’s stories and their person to person communication, validation and ultimate belief that drive brilliant idea communication. A story can be short and powerful – like Apple’s early 80’s “Think Different” campaigns. ere.HH Here, Apple insured that the stories were not only consistent, simple, and powerful but that they were validated in the actual products and how they worked and in what and how the staff believed, not simply the customer. Fast forward 30 years and counting and Apple has generally continued that success, but it was at it’s best when Jobs was alive. He understood that it was about the nature of time itself and how Apple’s products fit into peoples’ overall lives, from being productive to being entertained to being healthy and making sure that every single employee, partner and supplier understood this, not simply customers. Jobs told stories.
Communicating strategy means going beyond the slides and bullets. It’s tying the core strategic precepts to how a firm first fits into the world around it – not simply it’s immediate competition, but I mean truly the world. Why should anyone care that our firm exists? What’s it’s purpose?
This often links throughout the organization, it’s supplier’s and customers and other influencers and requires multiple stories – those anecdotal tales both boring and exciting that allow the stakeholder to see the story not simply as the firm’s but as the targets own. Can they themselves as a key to the story – like for a safety test engineer putting together the cars that transport his children, as in a recent safety dummy ad where the dummies are the staffer’s own family, even himself. P& G does not simply make great consumer products – aren’t they instead transforming time for families just like their own, freeing up time for the more important things? It’s not just about about paper towel, diaper or sweeper – it should be more than that. At Tesla, you’re saving the planet. At AirBnB, you can intimately experience local and global culture.
Effectively luring one’s staff into that story telling web allows them to see how they are a key piece to the strategic puzzle that transcends pamphlets, slides and bullets again. For those operations and finance pros, it’s not simply cutting costs – it’s also about improving effectiveness as part of the bigger picture. It’s not just quality or value, it’s about our brand’s ability to improve lives.
Such an approach then plays to the bigger things – strategic adaption in a complex world. Staff and partners, even customers can play a bigger role in not only communicating through story telling, but in allowing for adaption by communicating subtle and emerging bigger changes in a firm’s ecosystem and its place in the world. This allows better products and services to emerge more effectively, ore consistently and more persistently. Innovation actually happens, is effective, on point and works.
By example, powerful, effective storytelling keys terrific product, service and business model development. Randy Rossi and his firm Bally Design affirm this wonderfully with his stories of how they do not simply gather data and conduct analysis to develop products, but rather they get on the ground and role play as a story unfolds, seeing the difference between what someone say and what they really do, between what they observe versus what the tape shows.
Such an approach far differs from cold, stark and typical market research where real people are distant. Big Data – don’t get me started on that rabbit hole. There is simply nothing like actually first using the product – you’d be shocked or maybe not at how few executives actually use their products, let alone have a personal interest or tie. There is also nothing like watching people use products in real settings – not some contrived focus group. The use of in home product testing, by example, far better determines not only use, but actual interest or knowledge of what the product can do at all and why anyone cares.
What can you do? Listen to the stories and find your own. Sit on the production line, do all the jobs in your firm, use your own products, go in the field, build customer partnership that go beyond quarterly meetings or annual fishing trips. Rotate staff everywhere as you get the chance – build empathy, understanding – and let them here the stories from a myriad of perspectives and see how they are not what you thought and how that strategy you “communicated” most people do not even know or understand.
A lesson there at the top for leadership? Tell a tale to one person in a circle and by the time it gets back to you it may be unrecognizable or maybe just different enough to provide for your own demise. CEO’s and management had best realize this and understand that storytelling can key their success but can also be their undoing if they themselves like Jobs don’t take it the trenches themselves.
So how about you? How are your stories? Tell us a success or maybe a failure!
Tell us about some big impact stories!
We hope we’ve left you better and thank you for your time.
The Elemence Team
ideas that ship, ideas that sell