Storytelling is a powerful way to engage customers, coworkers and suppliers. It is the difference between 5 bullet points on a slide, describing why you are a great company to work with - versus listening to a teary-eyed aircraft mechanic, telling a cameraman what it is like to work for Southwest, and how they supported him and his family through the aftermath of a devastating storm that put him and his wife in the hospital.
So how do you decide what kind of story to use - to engage people, to set change in motion, to help create alignment? Guy Kawasaki writes about Beyond Buzz: The Next Generation of Word-of-Mouth Marketing by Lois Kelly, and suggests that if you are not using one of the 9 story lines suggested in the book, you have a problem.
Here are the 9 categories:
- Aspirations and beliefs. Aspirations help us connect emotionally. Watch the "corny" factor, though. Keep it authentic.
- David vs. Goliath. We love the underdog, though Microsoft, Wal-Mart and IBM are not always evil.
- Avalanche about to roll. We love to get the inside scoop - and hate getting hit by blindside surprise. Be ready to back it up, though. Remember when everyone HAD TO go to a new ERP system and embrace e-everything?
- Contrarian/counterintuitive/challenging assumptions. These frames are not only invaluable for innovation, they also have tremendous viral appeal. Defying crowd wisdom, resolving head vs. gut and challenging accepted reasons all serve to provoke meaningful debate and discussion.
- Anxieties. This is about using uncertainty to drive action. The dark side: FUD. The upside: risk management.
- Personalities and personal stories. I had the opportunity to spend a recent morning with Bill George, retired CEO of Medtronic and current Harvard professor. His authenticity was striking. His willingness to share revealing, intimate stories of challenges past and present took much of the mystery out of his ideas for great leadership.
- How-to-stories and advice. The key here is to put a fresh twist on what people already know. I find that pictures and simple 2x2 models help people make sense of opposing tensions.
- Glitz and glam. We make fun of movie stars and heiresses, but we are drawn to the glamour of celebrity (Does seeing them stumble make our lives seem just a little bit better?). Key: create a credible link to glitz and glam and you will surely kick off a conversation.
- Seasonal/event-related. We are creatures that flow to a rhythm of calendar and news. The New Year means predictions. March means brackets. July brings parades and cookouts. September means back to school, even if you last set foot in a school 50 years ago. How do you tie your message to the rhythm of your customer?
The strength of stories, and even great comedy, comes from their "truthiness," to borrow from Stephen Colbert. There are a few speakers I have seen give presentations several times to different audiences. They are engaging, passionate storytellers, and use many of the forms described above. The essential truth of their stories makes me laugh, think or feel something new. But their slippery relationship with truth makes me want to wash afterward.
When the telling of the story shifts the core facts, sequence and dialogue, I realize I am listening to fiction, crafted to suit the need of the moment or the attention span of the speaker. Fiction can be a powerful tool. We can all relate to the archetype and message of stories like Icarus, the Trojan Horse, and the Hare and the Tortoise. Just be straight when you are using fiction versus citing a reference.
These days, the truth of your product performance, implementation success or client results are easier to check. Clients have less patience for fabrication. Besides, every lie you tell is one more that you have to keep track of and make true.
Kawasaki concludes with a great exercise that I will adapt slightly. Get your marketing team, strategic account team or business development team together. Review the list of story types you are using in your presentations, advertising and sales conversations. Then, answer these questions:
- What story line do you currently use?
- What is the truth behind the story?
- What story line should you use?
What insights came from the discussion?