Chapter One: Tell Me a Story
“Tell me a story.”
From our earliest days, we want to hear stories. As kids we want the narrative, the drama, the heroes to cheer and the villains to fear. Ascent and falls, challenges, failures and triumph. Then, throughout our life, as listeners, we never lose that fascination with a tale well told. There are the stories we love to hear – soaring rhetoric from politicians, the report of last night’s big game in the morning paper, a neighbor’s tale of good or bad customer service experiences, adventures and misadventures of family and friends.
So why, when promoting our businesses and the work we do, do we fall back to facts and figures, unoriginal descriptions, information unencumbered by passion?
It’s a mistake. We can do better – engage our key audiences, have more impact, build more loyalty and persuade more people to act – when we think deeply about how to connect with others and remember what it felt like when we first begged, “Tell me a story.”
In this three-part series, I want to ask you to consider what it would mean if you could turn more prospects into customers, help your employees internalize your mission and execute it better and more faithfully, and get your investors to truly understand your passion and support your plans. In today’s post, we’ll explore the power of stories; next week, we’ll talk about how to develop your narrative and work stories into it; and in two weeks, we’ll wrap up with great tips on how to present your message effectively in person, in print and online.
But first, a story.
Once Upon a Time
Earlier this year I worked with a senior product marketing manager at an East Coast software company. She was preparing to present her product’s roadmap at her company’s annual user conference and dreaded her audience’s reaction because her team was behind on their migration to a long-promised new user interface.
She did have several good facts to share about progress being made on the new platform, interoperability between the old platform and the new, and enhanced functionality still being added to the legacy platform. In her last Product Advisory Group meeting before the conference, however, the stubborn fact that tripped her up was the delayed date. Was it worth it, her most important customers were asking, to wait for her company to get its act together or was it time to move to a competitor? My client could not afford to have that question come up in a room with hundreds of customers.
As we started to plan her presentation, we found a story to address that question before it surfaced. Instead of explaining all the reasons the delay had happened, and once again showing a timeline that had slipped, we told a story based on a powerful user from a well-known nonprofit organization who had used a recently added capability in the legacy platform to get tremendous benefit.
The nonprofit was losing tens of thousands of dollars every month because credit cards for recurring donations were expiring or card numbers had changed after cards were lost or stolen. Contacting their customers to update card information could mean months of lost donations; some donors, once reached, decided to cancel their recurring payments and others were just too busy to respond to the charity, so those gifts, too, were lost.
And then the nonprofit discovered the new functionality built into their platform, technology that regularly updated the charity’s database with up-to-the-minute information directly from the credit card companies as soon as re-issued cards went out in the mail. Boom. From tens of thousands in lost donations every month, plus the time and expense of chasing down donors, to not missing a beat in revenue and not inconveniencing generous but busy people – a huge win.
As each member of my client’s audience listened to this story and recognized himself or herself in it, breaking into a sweat over the very problem every consumer-focused company and nonprofit has, they got the chance to imagine how much easier this could make their lives. The IT department looked like heroes. Finance could count on a steady revenue stream, customer support could support customers instead of chasing financial information and marketers could rest easy knowing they would not lose customers for reasons they could not control. The nonprofit mission could continue without losing momentum.
My client had given her audience reason to stick around, to show faith in her company. She got to be a hero. It felt good – damn good. All because she told a story.
Great Companies Are Storydoers
In 2013 the founder of co:collective, a branding company, wrote about storytelling and “storydoing” for the Harvard Business Review. Companies that were considered great because they made stories come to life as a central part of their mission and marketing were growing 70% faster than their counterparts, who were just okay.
Why? What’s magical about stories and why do they work so well? We’ll get into that more in part two. But for now, ask yourself, Do I want to outgrow less creative competitors? By 70% annually? In every story I tell myself about my own business, that answer is yes. I’ll presume it’s yours, too.
Check back next week for part two in Bryan's series, "Six Steps to Story."
About the Author
|As principal of 3C Communications, Bryan Rutberg and his team work with Fortune 100 executives, startup founders, career-climbers and nonprofit leaders to help them find their voice, craft their message and drive their key audiences to action in person, in print and online.
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