At a recent meeting I attended, one of the participants was going on and on about the value of storytelling, as though telling meaningful stories was a new invention. In fact, from business newsletters to best practices podcasts, everyone seems to have jumped on the storytelling bandwagon. To be sure, storytelling is an effective way of communicating value and connecting with audiences. But so much of business storytelling falls short, because the stories lack a purpose.
Remember Aesop’s fables? The tortoise and the hare, the boy who cried wolf, and the goose who laid the golden egg were all compelling stories. But we remember them because there were important messages within those stories. And the messages were so important that they have survived thousands of years.
So….what’s your message?
When thinking about storytelling for your company or organization, you must have a clear message, and you have to be clear about what you’re trying to convey. The best messages, of course, lie within your corporate identity and your organization’s value to others. What is your secret sauce, your distinguishing characteristic, your shtickiness? When you’ve identified what you want to say about you and your team, you can connect the dots to a story that reveals that particular truth to others.
Next, look for personal experiences that convey meaning to your audience. If you say you care about customers, then look for a good story that tells how you or your team went above and beyond for customers or clients. Did you do the right thing? Did you willingly sacrifice a cost to do right by your client or customer? When you tell a story that’s grounded in concrete actions, you’ll do more than express what you believe or want to provide. You show it.
Think Drama Like the “Frozen Suit.”
At the consulting firm Booz Allen, they like the story of the frozen suit.
A consultant who’s in Switzerland for a very important board meeting arrives at his hotel and sees that his suit is all wrinkled. He hangs it in the bathroom to steam it, but falls asleep, and when he wakes up, the suit is soaking wet. The consultant hangs the suit on the balcony outside to dry and falls asleep again. When he wakes up, the suit is frozen solid, but his meeting is in less than an hour. He manages to force the suit on and then walks to his meeting, where the suit thaws, makes a huge puddle on the floor, and draws laughs from the team at the table. The meeting chair, though, invites our wet consultant to lunch. Why? The board saw how much trouble the consultant went through to put them first. At the same time, he was authentic, showed vulnerability, and took a risk.
The story didn’t just build the foundation for a productive business relationship. It gave the entire company a corporate fable that demonstrates a high regard for clients.
Begin with action.
The best stories begin with an action you did or did not take. You want to communicate a behavior that speaks to your commitment to serving the customer or client. Or you want to say what it means to be the best in your field.
Too often, the most memorable stories are associated with a brand’s bad behavior. A few years ago, an airline passenger complained about how United Airlines baggage handlers broke his guitar. When the airline failed to respond to a $1,200 claim for damages, he wrote a song, recorded it, became a YouTube star, then wound up making personal appearances to talk about customer service. Good for the songwriter, but not for the airline.
Alternatively, good behavior can achieve almost mythical proportions. California-based Aspire Public Charter Schools’ work revolves around a motto that “College is for certain.” And its leaders point to what they call UFOs, or Unexpected Fortuitous Observations. One of their favorites is about a custodian who was overheard saying to a student, “You look like you know how to walk on a college campus. Keep doing that, because that’s how they walk at Cal Tech.” The story—and the custodian—have since been celebrated in an enduring story that resonates with students, parents, and every staff member.
Build in truth for trust.
The best stories build trust. Therefore, they must be based in fact. It’s O.K. to create a composite client or build on a scenario that you’ve encountered repeatedly. Just make sure your audience knows that’s what it is. Because, in the end, your stories should demonstrate why the audience should trust you. And that trust must be based on something besides fiction.
Keep it simple and anchored.
Don’t make it too complicated. And don’t spend too much time telling the story. Every good story can be easily related—even by someone who doesn’t know you or your enterprise well. After all, word of mouth is critical.
Remember also to tell stories that are anchored by a larger theme. When seeking or refining your stories, make sure they relate back to those messages you most want to convey. When you develop stories with a solid purpose, tied to the brand messages you’re trying to communicate, you’ll win support and influence audiences—well beyond those you sought to reach in the first place.