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Why great storytelling makes better business

Terence BarryTerence Barry·

I tell stories for a living.

For 15 years, I did it in the car business. Told stories for BMW about ‘Ultimate Driving Machines’ and, by inference, the ultimate drivers that drove them. That registered with a particular type of buyer (you’ll know the type) and sales boomed. From there, I worked on stories for the re-birth of the MINI. This time we told stories about how the world needed ‘better and smaller’… better cars with smaller physical and ecological footprints… and how the smartest, savviest, ‘coolest’ consumers would recognize this. Sales boomed.

I told stories about Rolls-Royces and then went off to live in America and tell stories about Bentleys. In both cases, sales… swelled satisfactorily (for ‘booming’ is much too vulgar for those two).

Turns out, stories work on pretty much everybody. We all love ‘Once upon a time… ‘, feel empathy for the orphaned child (Bambi), get hooked on the hero’s journey… it’s in our blood. So, when – one, fine, crisp morning – I realized I was much more interested in the stories than the cars themselves, I decided to make a career change (or ‘commit career suicide’ as one ex-colleague referred to it). I headed off to Hollywood.

Now, I could tell you stories about my rags-to-riches adventures there, how my commercial storytelling skills were recognizd for the incredible talent they were and how I was soon writing movies from my pool overlooking Malibu. I could… but there’s a word for those sorts of stories. Lies.

What I actually did, was spend three years begging and bluffing my way into writing rooms all over L.A. I never got a job (I wasn’t a WGA registered writer) and was constantly having to leave and come back as my visa expired. But I did sit in rooms as teams of writers broke most of the popular shows you watch today. I was the quiet guy in the corner, watching and listening. The guy you practiced your pitch on in the coffee shop. The guy that was learning how stories really worked.

And it’s that learning I apply today.

Because, just like Poppulo, I believe companies can – and need to – tell better stories. CEOs, whether they like it or not (and the answer is ‘not’ in most cases), now need to be broadcasters. They need to tell and sell their company’s vision, its mission, and build the culture with their words.

But most of them have no idea how. They might not have the technology (that’s Poppulo’s world), but just as often they don’t have the skills. They don’t know how to use narrative to spread their message. Instead of moving their employees’ hearts and minds… they bombard their brains with facts and figures. They tell them scientifically why they should do something, but remain mute emotionally.

What we do (we have a business, called BRAND-and-STORY, in Amsterdam) is teach executives how to become world-class broadcasters. We help them find and shape their stories, teach them how to craft compelling messages, develop ongoing themes, and present them with power and energy. We help them make great content and then work with their junior executives and comms department to ensure everybody is ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’.

We ensure companies’ stories don’t get drowned out by normal life. And, on October 19th last at Poppulo’s Communicators Forum in Amsterdam, I gave a little insight into how. So, after all that, it only seems right that I leave you with a little story.

Once upon a time… (see, you’re hooked already, aren’t you?)… once upon a time, there were two very different tribes of people in Ireland: one with long, dark hair and dark eyes, called Fomorians; and another, golden-haired and blue-eyed, led by a great chieftain called the Dagda.

Now, the Dagda had a magic harp, beautiful to look upon, mighty in size, made of rare wood, and ornamented with gold and jewels; and the wonderful music he coaxed from its strings could raise his warriors to fight like no other and to forget any wounds they might sustain.

So, when – in the midst of a great battle – the Fomorians stole the harp and fled away, the Dagda was very keen to get it back. He tracked them through the night and, finally, in a vacant castle, far from the battlefield, found them sitting down to a banquet, the stolen harp hung on the wall.

The Dagda burst open the door and, before any Fomorian could even grasp a weapon, he called out, “Come to me, O my harp!” Recognizing its master’s voice, the mighty instrument whirled through the air, sweeping aside any men who got in its way. Once safely back in his hands, the Dagda struck three great, solemn chords, releasing the magical Music of Tears and reducing the Fomorian warriors to whimpering wrecks.

Another three chords and the Music of Mirth leapt from the harp. The Fomorian warriors laughed until the cups fell from their grasp and the spears dropped from their hands. They laughed until their limbs could no longer hold them up.

And then the Dagda played three, final chords, this time soft as dreams and sweet as joy: the magic Music of Sleep. And as, one by one, the Fomorians’ heads got heavy and they drifted into blissful oblivion, the Dagda stole softly away and returned to the safety of his home.

And so I hoped the same for everybody who enjoyed Poppulo’s Communicator’s Forum. That the stories I told moved you to tears, tickled your funny bone and, when you were safely back home in your bed, lulled you into beautiful dreams…

Watch my Poppulo Internal Communicators Forum presentation here:

 

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