Here’s how to use storytelling as a strategic communications tool
Telling a story seems like a straightforward concept — until you have to figure out how to tell a strategic story for your business. You can get bogged down pretty quickly trying to figure what a good idea for a story is and how to use it effectively in your business communications.
But stop and think a moment about what scientists have told us about story — it’s a way of knitting together disparate information into a cohesive whole. And, story is strategic. That means you can deploy story as a strategic communications tool, and your audience will remember it.
As an example, let’s look at how to use strategic story instead of a press release.
Say you’re a start-up and a huge beast of a company suddenly announces their own launch of a service oh-so-similar to your secret and innovative idea.
Your stock falls, your reputation takes a hit and your investors are unhappy. If you’re like most businesses trying to control bad news, you issue a press release.
Now, not only are press releases incredibly uninteresting, but when you use the release to send out information, you’re handing over control of your story. Because that’s what a press release is — a release of information to the press so they can create and disseminate a story. You have no ownership of your narrative because you have no control over how they’ll tell your story—if they even tell it at all.
But you can control the narrative if you tell a story instead.
For the sake of our story, let’s say you’re launching an innovative cupcake business called ‘Taste’. What sets your cupcake business apart is your use of organic, locally sourced ingredients. You have a storefront in a hip and emerging neighborhood, and the local media’s done a lovely profile of you, complete with photos.
Then a regional mega-baker announces the launch of its own organic cupcake line. The milk and eggs are sourced from farms in your state, so the cupcakes are also kind of locally sourced. Now the press is all over their story because they’re a very popular brand.
You decide to issue a standard press release with a quote. And it says “Taste” is still going ahead with its launch and you believe that once customers taste your cupcakes, they’ll be able to taste the difference. You send that release out to your media contacts and you release it on your Twitter feed.
What’s the problem with this release? First, there’s no story. Second, you may be right that people will be able to taste the difference, but how are you gonna get them to your bakery to taste it when they can just swing by the convenience store?
Your media contacts delete your release and tell you they don’t see a story here anymore, so now you can’t get media buy-in for your opening. Your investors are clearing their throats and asking for a review of your business plan and even your friends give you the look most people reserve for wakes and funerals. You wonder if you should postpone your opening. You wonder if you open whether anyone will actually show up if you do open.
Now let’s say you react to the news with a story that’s anchored in your message (which is, that customers can taste the difference). And here’s the story you tell:
When I was growing up my mom was a terrible baker — she burned everything. She had a lot of great qualities, but baking wasn’t one of them. But you had a friend down the street whose mom was a fantastic baker. You took to hanging there after school for the freshly baked cookies. And then your friend’s mom happened to be baking when you came in from school one day and she let you lick the bowl — it was transformative!
Chocolate chip cookie dough. Is there anything better? So you decided to learn how to bake yourself, so you could have this batter whenever you wanted. It got to the point where you could tell how good the cake was going to be based on the batter — you knew it before it went in the oven. You could taste the difference in the bowl.
Now you conclude your story by saying, you want everyone to be able to taste the difference in the bowl and that’s why your bakery is going to be saving batter from every cake it bakes and every cupcake it makes and you’re going to be putting that batter out for people to sample so everyone who comes into your shop will be able to lick the bowl.
This is something the big bakery will never be able to do. And to drive your point home, you send out small stainless bowls to the local media with an invite to come fill their bowls with batter at the opening.
Now you have a story and an experience that personalizes, engages and differentiates you and your product from the big baker. And because it’s a fun story, others will be motivated to pass it along. Even if they don’t remember all the details, they’ll remember why you call your business “Taste” and that they, too, can lick the batter and taste the difference.
That’s a strategic and effective story that puts you in control of the narrative. And that’s just one of the ways that story can work for you in business.