Storytelling in Business: Art, Science, Necessity

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I've spent a lot of my career telling stories. Some of them are for business purposes, a lot of them for the hell of it. But all of them, one way or the other, had a purpose—and that was to either get across or prove a point.

Data’s benefit is in furthering a narrative, not in the data itself, so I will use some to further this narrative. Stanford University did a study finding that if you present data by itself, the retention rate for that data is 5 percent to 10 percent. If you present the data with an anecdote, the retention rate is 65 percent to 70 percent. I’d rest my case, but that’s nowhere near the end of this story.

THE MARKETER AND THE NARRATIVE

A marketer’s responsibility is the creation and telling of a corporate narrative and the other stories associated with that narrative, be they human- or lifestyle- or persona-based. This is the fundamental task of an organization trying to impact a market or engage its customers.

I could talk all day about the marketing funnel, ad spend, and A/B testing, but marketing’s focus should be to create a picture that reflects the personality, the story, of a company and forges an ongoing bond of trust between customer and company. The customer has to trust the company’s products and services, the experiences and interactions they have with the company, the promises the company makes, and (encompassing all of this) the story the company tells.

But why is storytelling so important in the first place?

Human beings have been telling each other stories for millennia. Stories evoke an emotional (and physiological) reaction in the people telling them and hearing them—one that can lead to listeners gaining an insight or making an association that allows them to understand what you’re trying to convey. Sometimes it’s verbal; other times it’s visual.

Several years ago, a senior executive reviewed another software company’s technology at my request. I told him beforehand that the company’s representatives would be unable to explain what the technology does, so he’d have to tell them, “I don’t have a clue what you’re talking about, just show me.” That is exactly what happened, and the result was he was able to “see” their story. The result was a strategic partnership resulting in significant revenue for both companies.

WHAT MAKES A GOOD BUSINESS STORY

A business story is viable when customers are able to connect to it in a personal way. No matter the medium in which it’s told, a story that customers respond to has certain characteristics:

It is emotional. A story should make its audience feel good, perhaps via humor or a shared passion.

It is believable. Customers can relate to it in some way. A story should come across as authentic, told in the voice of the company.

Its purpose, lessons, and outcomes are satisfying. Unless there is a deliberate reason to be counterintuitive, it has an ending that the person hearing, reading, or seeing it expects it to have and still manages to reflect the company’s message.

It is consistent. The story’s look, feel, and emotional DNA is corroborated by what the company says and does in its everyday life. If the company makes a big deal of its corporate social responsibility, it needs to show that it contributes to worthy causes, watches its carbon footprint, promotes equal pay to all—things that are so culturally embedded that the story is seen not as a marketing message but a reflection of who that company is.

It is actionable. This means that the audience can both identify with the story and be moved to action by it.

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