How to make your story drive results for your organization
Communicators, marketers and business leaders agree: great storytelling is a key pillar of success for an organization. Yet it's the most misunderstood skill for communicators, marketers and the organizations they serve. Why?
Storytelling: We love it – and often misuse it
In recent posts, we've explained why storytelling is the most successful approach for brands, organizations or causes that need to move hearts and minds. Yet few are able to do so consistently. And fewer still are able to share the most important story of all, the only one they own, their Capital S Story, the one that answers why someone should buy from them, work for them, invest in them or partner with them. How can this be?
For starters, persuasive storytelling, the most powerful of our uniquely human abilities, is frequently misused. Have you ever been swept away by an intoxicating mix of great storytelling, only to be cheated at the conclusion of the tale?
Perhaps that tearful, emotional appeal turned out to be a disguised sales pitch. Perhaps the tale struck you as somewhat off-kilter, but you knew or trusted the storyteller until you discovered you placed your trust in a conniver or liar. Or perhaps the story and storyteller were great, but the tale was shared in the wrong place at the wrong time, with the wrong audience, falling completely flat.
Let’s break these examples down one by one because they highlight the three essential elements of a story that creates success, whether it’s the story of a brand, an organization or a cause.
The three elements critical to successful organizational storytelling
First and foremost: Your story must be authentic – rooted in fact and transparently genuine. In film or literature, great works pull us in so deeply that we suspend disbelief about the ability to fly, travel through time and many other seemingly impossible situations that, in real life, would be entirely inauthentic.
Business leaders and marketers work in real life, so they must use the tools of fictional storytelling with great care. This is especially true in our 21st-century, social media-driven culture. Inauthenticity earns swift and painful rebuke in our wired world.
So how does this work in real life? If you and I witness an auto accident from opposite corners of the same intersection, it’s likely we saw different aspects of the event. When a police officer interviews us about the accident, and we share different versions, does that mean one of us is telling the truth and one of us is lying? No. Our recollections, based upon the same set of facts, are equally authentic. They are just different.
This is a critical distinction lost on far too many organizations sharing a story. In nearly any situation in life, there is more than one version of a story. And that’s OK, as long as it’s rooted in fact and is genuine, meaning that while it may be shared to persuade an audience, it’s easy to trace that persuasion to an interpretation of facts that’s genuine.
Our hearts and minds are always searching for authenticity, the interpretation of facts that gives us a clear picture, the language that rings right and the experience that makes us feel comfortable. This is why the scene in which Dorothy’s dog Toto pulls back the curtain in the 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz, is so well remembered – it illustrates this timeless human principle of authenticity.
A great story needs more than authenticity for success. It needs a storyteller who is fluent. A fluent storyteller demonstrates certain attributes: First, they are great practitioners of storytelling. The ability to move hearts and minds defines a fluent storyteller, but that’s not enough, or else we’d be erecting monuments to flim-flam men. Yes, we sometimes DO erect monuments to flim-flam storytellers. Later, when we find out they aren’t authentic, we pull their monuments down. We like to be entertained by storytelling, but we don’t like liars who manipulate us with storytelling techniques.
We seek storytellers we can trust before we will let them play with our emotions. And if we don’t know a storyteller, he or she must be able to earn the benefit of our doubt (and then our trust) before we’ll let them into our hearts and minds. The musical and film The Music Man offers a great example of a powerful storyteller who’s not authentic in the character of “Professor” Harold Hill, who schemes to trick an entire town of its money by painting them a picture of a future in which his great musical skills and their money will give the community a great marching band for their enjoyment.
The third critical element of storytelling success is being able to read the audience and share the right story at the right time and the right place. Sometimes, when done wrong, this can be funny, as in one of my favorite scenes from the film The Blues Brothers, when John Belushi’s character “books” his blues band into a country and western bar.
On the other hand, The Three Tenors are a dramatic example of success in reading the audience. This union of opera stars Placido Domingo, José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti took opera out of stuffy opera houses and put it in soccer and football stadiums, leading to hit albums, a world tour and exposure to new audiences. Instead of bemoaning declining traditional audiences for their flavor of classical music, the tenors sought out new audiences in new places and found success.
This is the element that ties successful storytelling together. You might be the finest opera singer the world has ever known, but if you’re singing to the wrong audience in the wrong place at the wrong time, the world will never know you.
Storytelling, the approach that delivers the best results in moving hearts and minds, relies on authenticity, fluent storytellers and continual reading of the audience to deliver success. That’s a great combination of elements. It’s also a daunting challenge to deliver well.
Tools to get you started on your Capital S Story exploration
So how can you get started? Here are three approaches that may be helpful to you in uncovering the Capital S Story that creates success with those who buy, work for, invest in or partner with your organization:
Consider what sort of character your organization would be if it were alive. Ask questions such as:
- Who are we today, as a person?
- What demographics define us?
- What is our worldview?
- How do we like to interact with our clients?
Try metaphors and similes to bring your organization's character and nature to life. These prompts are meant to start ideas flowing:
- Our firm reminds me of _________________
- Our company is like ________________
- If only our firm were more/less _________________
- Our company is a (noun) and our competitor is a (another noun)
Download our Capital S Story worksheet. This one-page tool is one of the first steps we take with a client leadership team to uncover the raw material at the heart of an organization's most important story.
The good news for storytellers of all stripes is that the best storytelling relies on our own biology and collective cultural memory to make it easier to deliver success. This is a universal truth that’s not owned just by storytellers – the psychologist Carl Jung, the mythologist Joseph Campbell, and even the filmmaker George Lucas understand that the best stories are the ones we tell ourselves over and over again.