Storytelling in Business

Last week I had the pleasure of attending Skyword’s Content Rising Summit. Robert McKee, a well-known ‘screenplay lecturer’ and the author of Story: Substance, Style, Structure and the Principles of ScreenWritng, talked about storytelling. His speech made me think about storytelling in business. It’s hard for me to relate the notion of “storytelling in business”. When I think of storytelling, I immediately visualize books and movies, which are the most common forms of storytelling. A story usually involves drama, joy, pain and suspense.

Stories are about characters, not about products and brands. It’s about the characters’ experiences or quests.

Storytelling in business is a way to amplify their experiences and emotions as a sequence of heart-wrenching or triumphant moments. If it’s about a product or a company, storytelling tends to focus on the unique innovations of products or the rich heritage of a company.

If the word “storytelling” is used in the business world, it usually points to the Marketing Department. It’s marketing’s job to tell a great story about a company’s products and company.

Most story-oriented campaigns tend to focus on the top of the purchase funnel: build awareness for products, educate people about product features or establish company’s thought leadership. There’s not so much focus on the purchase.

Here are great examples of telling a great story about products or brands:

Google Parisian Love (Most of you have seen it. A great way to tell a story with its products weaved into the story).

Google Reunion (a similar creative approach, but localized it for India)

Storytelling at the management level

Rather than talking about storytelling in marketing, Mr. McKee discussed how storytelling is essential for all businesses. He used Amazon as an example:

Jeff Bezos requires his staff to write a six-page (1500 words) story to present their new ideas or strategic recommendations. Everyone will read the six-page treatments together, then talk about them.

Robert said: “Imagine what kind of pressure would be?” Frankly, this is a real test to see how well thought out the idea or recommendation is. He joked “Powerpoint is only illustration: a junior high school [student’s work] with special effects.” If you can’t move your idea logically into a 1500-word story form, you don’t know it. As a blogger, I can attest to that! McKee went on and discussed the role of data from his perspective. In the business world, we love using data to prove our points. Data becomes the key bullet points in our presentation. By looking at the data, we make recommendations, which are also in bullet points. That’s all good. He reminded us that

data only tells what has changed and stories tell you how and why. There are always two sides (or multiple sides) of arguments.

You need to tell a story backed up with data to show why the business needs to take a different strategic direction. He ended his keynote with two points: a leader creates his own story (aka go out and do something wonderful) and storytelling is essential for businesses.

Storytelling beyond marketing

McKee’s point helped me realize that

storytelling is not a marketer’s job. Rather, it’s a skill set that’s needed for senior executives and employees alike.

Essentially, it’s your ability to relate your points to your internal or external audiences in an emotional way so that you can convince them to be on your side. In modern marketing, we encourage our employees to be our brand ambassadors so that they can be advocates for our companies and products.

In most companies, you can be a brand ambassador after you take a short course on social media and legal guidelines. Then, off you go! If you want to make your employees great ambassadors, there should be a series of follow-up course (it doesn’t have to formal, it can be as informal as lunch-and-learn) to help them in writing, creating videos or even how to tell a story.

They don’t need to become copywriters, video producers or graphic designers. However, it’s great if they have a sense on what they can do to be better ambassadors. Ultimately, as you help them improve their communication skills, gradually, they become an extension arm of marketing.

In Summary

Storytelling in business is hard. It touches on topics, writing angles, tones and creative decisions such as set-up, character selection and content format. It’s especially challenging for B2B scenarios. Storytelling is also situation-dependent. If you are creating content on pricing and feature comparison, it may not make sense to take the storytelling approach. McKee said it: “Stories are narratives, but not all narratives are stories.” In the business context, the focus needs to be on fact-based storytelling. In a way, stories are sequences of events.

Events are moments of changes linked with causes and effects. Storytelling in business connects the sequence of events so that an audience can understand and relate to the message.

It’s a matter of “how” you tell your story.   Curious about building a worldwide marketing strategy that works? Download the first chapter of my book Global Content Marketing.

What can Pam Didner do for you?

Being in the corporate world for 20+ years and having held various positions from accounting and supply chain management, and marketing to sales enablement, she knows how corporations work. She can make you and your team a rock star by identifying areas to shine and do better. She does that through private coaching, keynote speaking, workshop training, and hands-on consulting. Contact her or find her on LinkedIn and Twitter. A quick note: Check out her new 90-Day Revenue Reboot, if you are struggling with marketing.