Business Storytelling – The Do’s and Don’ts
— May 25th, 2017
I’ve been staring at my laptop for 23 minutes. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. During that time I’ve made several attempts to kickstart this blog about business storytelling. But it’s not easy when you know it’s going to be difficult if not impossible to write something original, something that hasn’t been written many times before.
Many, many, times, in fact. After listening to a Rob Biesenbach webinar I tapped ‘storytelling’ into Google and found it had been searched over 82 million times. A week later it was over 84 million. Who knew so many would be in search of the holy grail, which storytelling has come to mean in business?
Who knew the galaxy of answers to the simple question,’ what makes a good business story and how do you tell it?’ could be so vast and so overwhelming? It’s an issue Rob touched on in his Poppulo webinar Unleash the Power of Corporate Storytelling.
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“We’re inundated with stories about storytelling...but amidst all this hype a few very fundamental things have been lost. “There’s not a lot of clarity around the simple things. What is a story? How do you go about finding, shaping and telling a good story? ” he noted. A very good point, and worth coming back to again, and again.
We don’t need 84 million answers to know that a good story well told is a powerful thing, whether it’s in our private life or work. We don’t need to be told because we know it, and we’ve known it all our lives, from our earliest memories, from fairytales and bedtime stories passed down through generations.
We don’t need to be told that anybody can become a great storyteller because we know that’s a big fat lie. While great storytellers are not rare, they’re not a dime a dozen either, and that’s the way it’s always been, as long as mankind has been communicating. Anybody saying any different is being less than honest.
But on the other hand, it’s good to be reminded that most people can learn to tell stories better, provided they are willing to put thought and effort into it. Effort into learning some uncomplicated business storytelling techniques. And before that, lots of thought into:
- who your audience is
- what you want to tell them
- what you want to achieve through telling your story
- what is the most appropriate medium or channel to try to amplify your message
Once you’ve figured out the answers to those four questions the path to getting your story heard, listened to, and hopefully remembered, is easier.
But first, there’s the fundamental question from which everything else follows.
What is a story? What makes a good story? And right there in the unspoken heart of those key questions is something that’s quite often the biggest elephant in the room, what’s not a story?
You won’t have to go far into those 84 million Google searches to find that there are very many and varied answers to those questions, and it can all get very confusing. And like a weak story badly told, highly forgettable.
Rob Biesenbach acknowledges that it’s hard to define what a story is but a widely accepted definition is that it’s “a character in pursuit of a goal in the face of a challenge or obstacle. And how that character overcomes that challenge provides the dramatic interest”. He says it’s the structure of every story, citing as just one example Romeo and Juliet, whose goal was to be together but faced with the challenge of their feuding families. The resolution to their story? Their unification in death.
Matthew Stibbe of Articulate, the inbound marketing website, defines a story as “something that an audience will want to read” (or hear). And having worked as a journalist for 30 years, over half of that time as a newspaper editor, I can very much relate to that. Identifying a message that will interest the audience you want to reach is the critical essence of any story.
As an editor it’s normal to have people pitching stories to you for publication, frequently PR companies or lobbyists acting for businesses and organizations looking for publicity for their activities. It’s astonishing the number of non-stories that are pitched at editors and that haven’t a snowball's chance in hell of ever getting published, even if somebody has been paid well to write and pitch them. It was natural to frequently wonder why anybody would be willing to pick up the tab for this type of stuff.
So, some do’s and don’ts: (...and yes, I know, it can also be dos and don'ts!)
Do think carefully about your message or story and ask yourself if anybody really would want to hear it. Or put another way, who is your audience and what’s the message you want them to hear. Just because you and your colleagues, your department or company might be working on something you think is very interesting, it might well have a very limited audience beyond that. Strip it down and detach yourself from it emotionally. Try to look at it from a neutral point of view and ask yourself if it still works in that context.
If the answer is no, ditch it. If you’re still unsure, test it out on someone outside the company, perhaps a friend, who you know will tell you the truth.
It might help to think of yourself as being in a cafe, or on a bar stool or on an airplane and telling the story to a total stranger. How long would they want to listen to it, beyond initial politeness, if they weren’t in the same business as yours? What would it take for them to have any interest at all? This will help you gain an understanding if you have a real story to tell and to help define an audience for it if you have.
Don’t ever forget that a magazine or a newspaper or a website, is only going to be interested in your story if they believe it’s of interest to their readers. Their allegiance is to their readers, their audience, period. It doesn’t matter how interesting you think your story is. For example, your business might have won an award or achieved some goal, and everybody in the company is excited about it. Everybody wants to get the good news out there to the world. But unless it’s exceptional, forget about it. Awards are ten a penny these days. Use it instead to communicate an internal company feelgood message.
Do apply the same story evaluation principles as above for internal communications. Think carefully about what you want to communicate, who should receive it and who shouldn’t - and what you want to achieve as a result. Just like the stranger next to you on that flight, colleagues and employees will similarly be turned off by something that isn’t interesting to them. Better no story than a boring or irrelevant one.
Don’t be reluctant to modify the message for different audiences. Unless you’ve got a really big story that can be distributed unchanged throughout your company, most benefit from being tailored and adapted for specific audiences, where a more nuanced and differentiated approach is more effective than a scattergun hope--for-the-best approach.
Do use clear, understandable, concise language, whether your story is for print, audio or video.
Always remember the words of George Orwell: “Never use a long word where a short one will do. Long words don’t make you sound intelligent unless used skillfully. In the wrong situation, they’ll have the opposite effect, making you sound pretentious and arrogant. They’re also less likely to be understood and more awkward to read.”
Have a clear understanding of the structure of your story, with an engaging start to catch attention. That’s crucial. Otherwise, you lose people straight away. After that, if you’re clear about what message you want people to take away, keep focused on that goal and the story will flow. If you’re grappling to find the start point, just go to the top of this blog!
Take as much time as you can to think of different options. Do a bit of basic research - use those search engines to find out what other companies in your business are doing, to give you ideas.
Don’t get hung up on too many details such as dates and other incidental information that might detract from the flow of the story. Unless a specific date is really important in the narrative, leave it out. Also, don’t use jargon as it’s a total turn-off. And if you do happen to find an interesting item from your Google search to illustrate your story, never pass if off as your own. If you’re not authentic you’re sure to get rumbled and take a credibility hit, with the obvious negative fallout.
Do use common sense about where and when you’re trying to get your story published in traditional media, print or digital. Identify which organizations are most and least likely to carry your story, and then look at specific sections within their publications that might be most appropriate. Always supply good quality visual imagery, photographs or video to supplement written material - it takes up more physical space and therefore has the potential to give the story more prominence and impact.
Always supply detailed but concise captions to photographs, and never omit names of people featured. All of them. Otherwise, you risk everything being canned. Be certain names are spelled correctly. Marc isn’t Mark and Anne doesn’t like Ann….and you really wouldn’t want to be confronted by Sean Penn if you described him as Shawn.
Don’t spray and pray, hitting the ‘send to all’ email everywhere and hoping for the best - kamikaze communication at its laziest.
Also, don’t annoy a newsroom on an obviously busy day. Try to get your timing right. I once picked up a call from someone who should have known better asking if we had received their press release about what he said was an exciting initiative. It was the day terrorists bombed Brussels. “Are you serious? was the response he got.
Or words to that effect....
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Do tap into emotion, it’s the single most powerful element of any story. Up against emotion, facts don’t just get beaten every time, they don’t even get remembered.
As Rob Biesenbach says in his Poppulo webinar: “Facts are called cold and hard for a reason: because they don’t have the capacity to warm hearts, which is the key to changing minds”.
To inject emotion, to engender empathy, always put a face on a story, a real person - you or a colleague or a friend - real people and their personal experiences.
Sometimes all it needs is some creativity and thinking outside the box.
Take the case of the Irish airline Aer Lingus. What’s its business? Flying people from A to B.
Not much emotion there. Not a very engaging story to tell. And they’ve been doing the same thing since 1936.
But two years ago they told the story of what they did at a specific time of the year - with lump-in-the-throat unforgettable effect. Ireland has always known that Aer Lingus flies its emigrants home for Christmas, but seeing the story told in this video captured the emotional hearts of a nation, and helped cement already strong links with the national airline. It’s a textbook business storytelling example, cleverly identified and simply told.
Don’t overdo it. It’s hard to go wrong with a story that taps into our emotion. People relate best to stories about people that evoke feeling. We can feel the same emotion hearing about something as we do from witnessing it. You don’t have to have been there to see a tragedy to feel sick to the pit of your stomach when it’s related to you. Our brain doesn’t differentiate. Rob Biesenbach again: “research shows an emotionally charged event (or story) carries more weight and persistence in our memory than any ordinary neutral event”.
Just don’t overdo the emotion.
And don’t make yourself the star of your own or your company’s story.
That’s where we get back to boring, and that’s not a place you want to be.
Interested in reading the 12 Top Tips for Storytelling in Business (pdf), based on Rob Biesenbach's webinar? Check it out here