Be an excellent business storyteller

How to excel as a business storyteller, now that everyone’s doing it

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Stories are now such a *thing* even in a B2B context that it’s easy to think that every marketer can and should be a business storyteller. Effective business storytelling though is harder than it looks. If you back yourselves to tell an extraordinary story that the people who buy from you will want to specifically engage with (at the expense of your competitors), there are three things you need to organise.

Before we get into that, why have stories become everyone’s go-to approach for getting their brand out there? Business storytelling has come about as companies – particularly those that are looking to demonstrate the value they add in the supply chain – have increasingly turned away from just providing proof in the form of facts to asking business storytellers to shape what they hope are much more human and insightful narratives that bring their brands, and the ideas they want to be associated with, to life in the worlds of busy decision makers.

That’s a fascinating dichotomy in this age of big data. Suppliers know so much about customers in terms of patterns and behaviours. They have access to stats and facts about those people to substantiate every decision they make – but as the dependence on what is “known” increases, there’s also increasing unease that that is enough. Hence, the mushrooming of business storytelling as a way of engaging people in the stories companies want to share with them.

Stories vs data

If you want to read a fascinating comparison of the contrasts between these two modern forces of data and story, read the opinion piece by John Allen Paulos on Stories vs Statistics. I particularly liked this: “In listening to stories we tend to suspend disbelief in order to be entertained, whereas in evaluating statistics we generally have an opposite inclination to suspend belief in order not to be beguiled.” And this: “The focus of stories is on individual people rather than averages, on motives rather than movements, on point of view rather than the view from nowhere, context rather than raw data. Moreover, stories are open-ended and metaphorical rather than determinate and literal.” That, of course, is why they are seen as more involving. The infographic below focuses on B2C storytelling, but many of the principles apply to communicating effectively as a business storyteller today.

The Science of Storytelling #infographic

That’s not to suggest for one moment that we should ignore data. In the recently released Data Story, Nancy Duarte examines how data and stories are not opposites. Rather, data becomes more involving and stories become richer when both come together. As she explains in an accompanying video, “What happens when you learn to communicate well is your data moves from making sense to creating meaning.” That matters she says because, according to PwC, two thirds of roles are enabled by data, so everyone’s ability to do better work – and that includes business storytellers – is going to be impacted by their ability to work with data.

The key shift, she says, is the ability to move from an explorer of data to an explainer of data. For business storytellers, the opportunity to go from talking in numbers to including numbers in rich stories is about making the shift from dry proof to substantial (and substantiated) stories.

Every business story needs robust infrastructure

Business storytelling is not the only way to successfully convince others of your value of course. You can do it through relationships and the sheer power of word-of-mouth for example. You can back yourselves to bring an “efficiency factor” to your transactions that others cannot, or will not match. You can back your ingredients, algorithms or formulae to out-perform everyone around you. You can decide you will out-service everyone around you. But if you do decide that business storytelling will underpin how you build and grow your business in the years ahead, simply creating a “story” will not be enough. Keep in mind the words of Stephen Denning in terms of the role of the business storyteller: “storytelling is a tool to achieve business purposes, not an end in itself. When introducing storytelling, therefore, a sharp focus needs to be kept on the business purpose being pursued with the tool …”

With that in mind, here are the three steps you need to take to ensure that business storytelling works for you.

First, to be a storytelling organisation or brand, you need to embed storytelling not just as a way of communicating but potentially as part of the wider way you work. In other words, you as the storyteller need to commit to more than writing a business narrative. Kate Kenyon suggests you need to put in place a total content infrastructure – of which there are five core parts:

  • Strategy – the role that business storytelling and the content connected to it will play in your business, and how, where and when you expect to see ROI from that
  • Operations – an operating model that enables you to structure your corporate storytelling resources to work effectively and at the level of intensity required
  • Governance – the sign through and sign off processes to ensure you as the business storyteller can get your brand storytelling online or wherever else it needs to go quickly, efficiently (and legally)
  • Structure – your business storytelling content needs to be intelligently monitored and controlled across multiple channels to ensure maximum co-ordination
  • Measurement – clear metrics will help establish what resonated and what didn’t, and enable you to shift your content style or even your business storytelling framework to achieve what is needed

You need to tell a story, not just have a story

Second, let me ask you this. Are you going to have a brand story? Are you going to tell stories – or perhaps use anecdotes? Are you going to take your customers on a journey? Those three questions alone point to the confusion over what business storytelling is and how it is used.

Here’s how I separate the ideas:

  • A brand narrative – an overall arc, built from your business strategy, that explains how you as a brand intend to strive for your purpose in the years ahead, the challenges you expect to encounter, how you might tackle those and where you will emerge. Often, such a story spans the history of the company, a present turning point and a future projected narrative that may of course change (and introduce plot twists of its own). This is an internal business storytelling approach for the most part.
  • Anecdotes – a Shawn Callahan idea. The stories that people inside a culture tell each other, and that act as proof of the ability to change and the success of that change. Read my interview with Shawn for more on this type of cultural storytelling.
  • Stories – pieces of shorter content based around your philosophy and products that companies release into the market to gain attention, reinforce credentials and win the confidence of others. These are stories because they have a beginning, middle and end. This is the form I see the most – videos, interviews, opinion pieces etc. B2C brands also use “brand stories” to explain their origins and point of view in a back-of-the-envelope format such as on packaging or in-store.
  • Guided universe – a long form, episodic form of story that a brand or company uses to tie their products and services into a storyline and bring them to market. New releases add to the story, introduce new chapters or take the audience into new areas that the brand wants them to explore. This is a business storyteller’s adaption of the techniques used by the likes of Disney and gaming companies. To do this well, you need a strong brand backstory.

Right now, the role of the business storyteller remains confused. As Shawn Callahan says, “Many branding specialists are talking about stories but are not telling any. You have to know what a story is and what it is not. A story has some basic features such as a series of causal events and something unexpected happening. Stories have characters doing things.”

This is an excellent piece by him on how to spot a story. A story he says, has some key components:

  • It often starts with a time or place marker; sometimes a character
  • It involves a series of connected events
  • People do things and talk
  • Something unanticipated happens
  • If it’s a business story, it has a business point

Four things I think marketers need to realise about business storytellers:

  1. Storytelling is more than just writing. Increasingly marketers are telling themselves that anything they transcribe is a story. Not so. Strong stories spring from a strong backstory and lay out a narrative that weaves, surprises and delights. It’s not just words. It’s not just news or a sales blurb.
  2. Content is an expression of story, it is not the story itself. Long story forms such as a brand narrative or guided universe act as the backdrop that all branded content should report to. Just using the same words or even ideas across a range of channels is not a story, it’s a script or a (social) media release. Content must collectively capture the breadth and depth of a brand’s story in the broadest interpretation of that word. In that sense, a brand’s full story is a prism and the content is light. What consumers see at any one point is an aspect. These smaller stories invite discovery.
  3. Stories require wonder. Stories are imaginative. They evoke a response that greatly surpasses what people would simply have done with the information alone. Anyone can write about boring things in boring ways. The purpose of a story is to inspire and involve. If it lacks that “lean-in” factor, it’s not a story – or at least it’s not a story for that customer. Business storytellers should be using stories to deliver moments of wonder to buyers. They don’t just make an impression, they leave an impression.
  4. Stories are journeys. If a story doesn’t traverse time, it is a statement. Rich stories pull consumers through a storyline filled with challenges, opportunities and encounters. Too many brand stories don’t go there – and as a result, they lack dimension, tension and any sense of resolution. A battle won is first a battle fought. Here are 11 story structures for business storytellers to choose from.

Three ways to develop powerful brand storytelling

Finally, business storytellers need to create storylines that serve the brand and serve the reader. 

  1. Deliver magic, not just facts. Build your story around people and their dreams, not products and business cases. David Geffen, the founder of DreamWorks Studios and Geffen Records, once said that “we are a figment of our own imaginations”. I think the role of business storytelling is to contribute to that – to place brands in the context of what people most imagine they want in their lives. That’s what makes stories personal and shareable. That’s what motivates people to make another story part of their own story. That story articulates what they want to tell themselves – and it needs to do this from a position of truth.
  1. Find ways and places to tell the story in glimpses. If you are using a longer form of storytelling, know the story as a whole, but don’t necessarily tell it that way. As I suggested in another post on how to tell the world a story, “Your story … needs to be about the journey towards the world that you advocate for.” But that doesn’t mean people need to see all of it, all at once. Rather look for creative ways to keep people coming back to discover more. “Remember, as you craft your brand storytelling that stories aren’t defined by the teller. In the end, their success is decided by the listener and the watcher.”
  1. Give the story momentum. Build revelations and twists into what occurs over time. Stories come alive for people when they feel they can participate in some way. Take your prompt for those twists and turns from how your audience will want to get involved. This is where it helps if your storytelling is hardwired into your overall business strategy and your marketing. It can’t live apart from your core business drivers, but neither can it just be a reflection of them – because who (besides you) is going to be interested in that?

Summary: 8 questions for every business storyteller

  • Will business storytelling work to help you engage better and more profitably with your customers? What’s lacking specifically in your relationships now that storytelling could potentially fix?
  • How will being a business storyteller change how you do business? What will it mean for your customers in terms of the experiences you deliver? Can you, for example, link storytelling to your innovation programme? Can you use it to redefine how you compete?
  • If you are using a long form story framework such as a guided narrative, how will you synchronise your product development and releases to your storyline(s)?
  • What sorts of story/stories will you tell?
  • How will you collect/create those stories? How/where will you distribute them?
  • Who will you trust to tell your stories? Will you do it yourselves or will you hire an agency?
  • How freely will you allow those stories to flow into the marketplace? What will your controls be around risk, sign offs etc? How tightly will you hold the stories to the wider ‘plot’? How spontaneous are you prepared to be in your interactions with customers?
  • How will you judge success? Where, how and why do you expect business storytelling to contribute to your overall goals as a business?

Updated: This post was originally published in November 2017. It has been updated in December 2019.

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