How to Master the Art of Storytelling
Issue 93, February 2, 2023
Storytelling and narrative have become the buzzwords of modern marketing. You’ve heard it before: What’s your organization’s brand story? Make your organization come alive through narrative. Help customers relate emotionally to your business by telling a story. And possibly the most ominous: Tell your story, or else your stakeholders will write it for you.
Storytelling has been around as long as humans; the 50,000-year-old cave paintings and petroglyphs tell stories and validate “I was here.” What those stories mean is still a matter of debate. We recently visited the Museum of Modern Art in New York and saw an exhibition on Guillermo del Toro’s making of Pinocchio, nominated for one of this year’s Oscars as a best-animated feature film. Aside from the fascinating models and videos of stop-action technology, there was a storyboard about the arc of Pinocchio’s life that caught our attention. When we studied the production notes, we realized that we are looking at the blueprint of the story of an organization’s life, from birth to old age, and life after death when it transitions to another level.
Although it’s popular to look at any organization’s (or stakeholder’s) timeline by demographics and chronological age, we advocate looking at and relating to customers and the workforce, and yes, even organizations, by life stage.
We wrote extensively on that topic in our book, “The Truth About Transformation.” And have focused from time to time on helping our newsletter readers in understanding the importance of “life stages”.
In that spirit, we took del Toro’s storyboard and applied it to the life stages of an organization. It is a useful exercise for your team to give context to your organization’s current story, its origin story and subsequent history. One might also call it a cautionary tale as a time capsule of the life of an organization, its system(s), market orientation and shared purpose.
An organization’s origin is built on a foundation of optimism, excitement and promise that manifests hope, commitment, faith, stability, trust, bonding, and love. Optimism often begets lofty aspirations and risks are easily dismissed or overshadowed by the optimism of perceived possibilities. Not unlike how a parent relates to an infant, a founder, who is charismatic, often brings an organization and its teams to life with that same optimism and promise.
As the organization enters its metaphorical childhood stage, it is driven by wonder, joy, purpose, loyalty, naivete, obedience and the promise of success and impact. The childhood stage experiments with fantasy, game-playing and adventure. Sometimes it even quickly dismisses what isn’t working or what isn’t going well and focuses only on what is working and/or going well. This stage is still powered by optimism.
The years of maturation of an organization evolve into acceptance, pride, success, and fame. But the same as young fearless adults, the organization can also experience manipulation, exploitation, and conceit as it grows, and leaders become guilty of hubris. Adolescence also brings confusion in determining who the organization is, has become and wants to be. This is especially true when it wants to be different than what its market (stakeholders) expects.
Reaching an apex of success and maturation in an organization’s life brings clarity, freedom within expectations, and control. But this is when taking things for granted can become a risk resulting in anxiety about survival along with the frustration of what adulthood demands: the expectations of what maturity should be. Tension develops across the organization when the journey from birth to adolescence and adulthood is less exciting, more routine. Risk is a road less taken, performance is set at a high standard, and there is little tolerance for failure.
If an organization falters and is failing, the culture and ecosystem become desperate, confused, fearful of loss, and longing for the past. The culture and ecosystem include not just the internal organization, its workforce and leaders, but all stakeholders whether they be customers, shareholders/investors or even governments. At this point, it’s a wide-open field for all stakeholders to transition from influencers to analysts seeking to determine what went wrong with their own advice on how to fix what is broken. At this point, the organization and its story heroes can simply die and disappear, or they can find a way to radically transform into something changed or completely new. As humans, we may not have the same opportunity for rebirth given our natural limitations, but collectively an organization comprised of many individuals working together for a shared purpose can seek to be reborn shedding what it once was and becoming something completely new and vital.
- Life After Death
Transformation can be liberating for an organization as it faces a rebirth. With experienced leadership, an organization can reinvent itself through balance, recognition of lessons learned, and hard-won wisdom. And the life stage cycle repeats itself with the caveat of learning from the past, bringing forward and leveraging what still remains relevant, embracing a new or renewed shared purpose, and most importantly having the courage to be forthright, if not critical, in ensuring mistakes are not repeated.
Who Is Your Story For?
Typically, we write our stories for our customers as a marketing strategy. As Inc. states, “It’s no secret that storytelling is a powerful force for driving learning, retention, and engagement, which is why it is so central to the marketing that you do as a business.” To inspire what informs your organization’s storytelling, one approach is to remember what it took to start your organization, and is that journey still an anchor to who the organization is today? Another is to identify is there is a moral to your story. Does the purpose and promise, according to the organization’s origin story and birth, still exist? Is it still relevant? And how does your story relate to your workforce, workplace culture, your organizational system? Your shared purpose?
Writing the Story
Using del Toro’s storyboard, try writing/rewriting your story from this different perspective. Brian Morrison states, “Stories are how we make sense of the world. We tell stories about ourselves and about the world as we perceive it. We cast heroes and villains.” The most successful stories need heroes (who, by definition require villains to overcome). That is not necessarily a frivolous construct. Fairytales and fables always have morals and virtues, dramatized by the heroes and villains. The morals and virtues of who we are, and our organizations are defined as the heroes. Inc. advises, “The story that you tell your employees, from onboarding and beyond, is going to have an impact on the work they do. From there, your team gets to buy in as participants in the ongoing story.” So, simply put, your organization is or should be the hero, and your competition are the villains (metaphorically).
Let’s begin. Many experts offer case studies of storytelling in business. We culled the best to curate what we think are interesting tips to consider. Computer scientist Paul Graham cautions, “It can be hard to separate the things you like from the things you’re impressed with.” To build this out, resist the temptation to clone a model or culture that you admire in another organization. We explored in depth the challenges of this default behavior and chain of thought in The Truth about Transformation. Authenticity takes hard work to define, don’t replicate what others are doing or have done, it comes with significant consequences.
The best stories “spark curiosity, make emotional connections, and persuade people to take action,” according to content expert Kai Tomboc. She adds, “Storytelling is the process of sharing relatable stories instead of facts and figures with your audience and building a relationship with customers and helping inspire others in the community while staying true to the mission and voice of the organization”. We add that building relationships within the workforce is important and central to the plot of the story.
Inc. reports, “Nothing has the power to motivate and change our thinking like well-told stories. When we have a good story, we can take advantage of this brain-hacking tool and lean on it anytime that things get tough. It can act as a reminder of resilience. Armed with a good story, your success can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
A great leader tells the story of his or her organization, vision and shared purpose in a way that invites investors, customers, and employees to want to join them on the journey to success. From Bilbo’s perspective, very few would want to be on the side of Mordor or as Harry Potter resisted alignment with Voldemort. Or there’s always the case of Snow White and the Evil Queen. The majority of us want to be on the side of right and good. A great story then is the essence of strong funding, standout sales and marketing, and successful hiring in a tight labor market, adds investor Pratyush Buddiga
The HBR reports that persuasion and setting people on fire are the lynchpins to good storytelling. Quoting screenwriter Robert McKee, “A big part of a CEO’s job is to motivate people to reach certain goals. To do that, he or she must engage their emotions, and the key to their hearts is story. There are two ways to persuade people. The first is by using conventional rhetoric, which is what most executives are trained in. It’s an intellectual process, and in the business world it usually consists of a PowerPoint slide presentation. But there are two problems with rhetoric. First, the people you’re talking to have their own set of authorities, statistics, and experiences. While you’re trying to persuade them, they are arguing with you in their heads. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you’ve done so only on an intellectual basis. That’s not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.” He adds the more powerful way to persuade people is uniting an idea with an emotion. “It demands vivid insight and storytelling skill to present an idea that packs enough emotional power to be memorable. If you can harness imagination and the principles of a well-told story, then you get people rising to their feet amid thunderous applause instead of yawning and ignoring you.”
Successful narrative cannot be simplistic (good vs evil) or justifying the past, but rather the story weaves its origins with a compelling view how they feed into the future in relevant and meaningful ways. A story cannot be perfect. It needs to be relatable and vulnerable emotionally. McKee suggests skepticism: “The skeptic hunts for the truth beneath the surface of life, knowing that the real thoughts and feelings of institutions or individuals are unconscious and unexpressed. The skeptic is always looking behind the mask.” And good storytellers understand the principles of a good story, simply stated, human nature. That requires self-knowledge and empathy
Create a Memory
It may be too ambitious to create a story that every single stakeholder can relate to personally. But if you can embed your narrative into people’s memories, stakeholders are more likely to resonate with you. Memories are built on emotions and feelings. So, back to the heroes, your story can communicate how your organization is a problem solver. And a superhero is an organization that generates solutions on steroids.
There are core basic principles of storytelling:
- Make the journey fascinating and an adventure
- Keep it simple
- Practice your storytelling so it is intuitive and natural
- Be honest and authentic
- Keep it consistent to avoid confusion
- Make it entertaining to keep their attention
- Make it a story of us; universal with common ground to reach a wide base
- Make it about something bigger than your organization — a purpose, a mission
- Be sure it is relevant and in context of your market.
- Have a clear outcome with actionable points
- Make it interactive and get your stakeholders involved
Storytelling in Action
At 2040, we work with clients to tell their stories effectively by reflecting the evolution from a tried-and-true strategy of the unique proposition to a more modern approach, the unique product differentiation that encapsulates benefits to constituents, whether they be the workforce, stakeholders, shareholders, or customers. This requires a complete reframing of what and how the organization communicates its distinctive differences. Key here is to shift the perspective to constituents.
Researcher Pam Danziger echoes many storytelling best practices with a few additional guidelines:
- What was the original spark that the organization was founded on? How has it evolved over time? Has that originating spark been extinguished? How can it become a roaring fire?
- What are the subtle differences that distinguish the organization from the competitors and how can those differences be magnified and made more real for the customer?
- What makes the organization great? Organizations lose focus as they expand into new categories or products and services. Refer to our thoughts on “less is more”. Sometimes it pays to return to the original mission.
- Is the organization’s mission and purpose communicated clearly and often? For example, every communication should include some statement about the organization’s mission and promise. It must communicate the why, not just features and functions.
- What unique processes does the organization follow that make it uniquely different from others? Competitors may do the same things, so the unique differentiation needs to be stated in the different ways those same things are done. An organization’s unique talents and strengths can often be found in internal processes that are then reflected in their products and services.
- Importantly, the story needs to be aspirational for both constituents and the organization. Danziger says don’t be afraid of making big promises to customers, stakeholders and asking for big commitments from staff. Ensure however, that those promises are achievable. That is how great disruptive and impactful organizations are built.
So, are you ready to tell your organization’s story?
Get “The Truth about Transformation”
The 2040 construct to change and transformation. What’s the biggest reason organizations fail? They don’t honor, respect, and acknowledge the human factor. We have compiled a playbook for organizations of all sizes to consider all the elements that comprise change and we have included some provocative case studies that illustrate how transformation can quickly derail.