“We need stories so much that we’re even willing to read bad books to get them, if the good books won’t supply them.” —Philip Pullman
Just under a year ago, my friend Ron Ploof sat in my kitchen and told me his idea for a simple tool that would help businesses become better storytellers. Only… it wasn’t really an idea, it was—to describe it more accurately—an obsession.
As he talked, I felt that stirring I get when I hear a good idea: part quickening (Whoa! Now THAT is cool!); part jealousy (Damn! Why didn’t I think of that?); which promptly morphs me into motivator (WHY ARE YOU STILL SITTING HERE? Go do it! You’ve got this!)
Stories surprise and delight us. They put flesh on the dry bones of data. They add narrative to your messages and presentations, making them memorable. Stories give your business-to-business “solutions” a heartbeat and a pulse.
As I talk about in Everybody Writes: Storytelling is telling a true story well, at least for businesses. But as the writer Anne Lamott says:
“After a few days at the desk, telling the truth in an interesting way turns out to be about as easy and pleasurable as bathing a cat.”
In other words, storytelling is hard.
“People understand the importance and significance of story, yet they freeze up when asked to ‘tell a story,’” says Ron, an electrical engineer-turned-marketer who most recently headed up social media for Epson America. “Some think it’s a talent reserved for the few. [But] it’s a skill that can be learned, practiced, and mastered.”
Which is the business idea obsession Ron talked through, last fall, in my kitchen. What he ultimately created is something wonderfully old-school: the StoryHow Pitch Deck.
It just came out a few weeks ago. It’s a 60-card deck (slightly larger than a common deck of cards) that features four “suits”; when arranged in (a thousand) different ways, it delivers the scaffolding for a narrative. It sells for $49 on Amazon.
The four “suits” are role cards (customers, products, ideas, etc.), event cards (situations that drive actions), influence cards (that uncover various motivations to fuel actions), and technique cards (that add structure to your story).
“I set out to create a resource for communicators to tell their business stories,” Ron told me this week in a conversation from his office in Aliso Viejo, California. He created a card deck instead of, say, writing a book because he wanted to create a tool that budding business storytellers could use to easily mix and match concepts, as well as something that teams could share around a conference table.
“I researched existing ‘how to tell a story’ resources, and I found two dominant categories. The first used personal anecdotes and told the readers to ‘just do what I did.’ The second relied on entertainment industry references such as The Hero’s Journey by Joseph Campbell or used non-business terms such as inciting incident, rising action, falling action, and dénouement.”
But the StoryHow deck teaches storytelling using the words of business.
Ron and I went on to chat about storytelling and business and especially marketing. Here is our conversation.
Why do you say marketers make terrible storytellers?
Marketers make terrible storytellers because they rarely have empathy for their audiences. Instead, they treat them like enemy combatants.
Don’t believe me? Just look at the words that marketers use to describe their relationships with audiences.
They attack marketplaces. They organize campaigns to target people so that they’ll engage and be captured. They use roadblocks on web pages and blast them with emails.
Words matter and warfare terms aren’t appropriate for communicating with people who want to give you money.
Storytellers have empathy for their audiences. They understand that the more they know about the audience, the better their chances for clear communications.
Business storytelling isn’t new, though.
It’s not. There’s nothing new here. The act of doing business is an old story about people, their wants, and the risks they’re willing to accept.
Sellers want profits, buyers want the most return on their investments, and each seeks to minimize their respective risks through negotiation. If a mutual risk balance is achieved, the story ends in a sale (the exchange of money, the adoption of an idea, or a resulting action). The act of conducting business is a story unto itself.
Therefore, the ability to craft and tell these stories is one of the most important skills that a business communicator can have.
Are there some story frameworks or templates that are most useful to businesses to follow? Or is every story unique?
Every story is unique, but the basic structure is similar.
My favorite story definition comes from Emma Coates, former Pixar animator who documented 22 rules of Storytelling. Rule #4 describes a story as…
Once upon a time ______.
Every day _______.
Then one day _________.
Because of that ________.
And because of that ________.
Until finally ___________.
It’s the archetypal story that humans have an innate ability to understand.
Rule #4 can be used to describe our customer’s journey, our company’s journey, our origin story, etc. Used strategically, it can uncover everything that we need to know as communicators.
Who should “own” the story? Marketing? C-suite? Whose responsibility is it?
The corporate story supports the business model. So it should be owned by whoever sets business strategy.
The top-level story consists of a storyline that unfolds throughout the customer’s journey. Once it’s set and the team understands the story’s roles, events, and influences, communicators (C-suite, Marketing, Advertising, Sales, PR, HR, etc.) have the guidelines by which to tell their respective sub-stories.
Think of it like fan fiction writers who use previously established roles, events, and influences as inspiration for their own sub-stories. As long as they remain true to the storyline and its elements, their stories work..
Your deck helps companies uncover their story. What value does a writer bring to the process?
Companies need to develop storytellers and the best place to start is with their writers.
And while a storyteller doesn’t need to be a writer, a writer-storyteller is the most powerful communicator on earth.
Can you repeat that?
…the part about the writer-storyteller?
A writer-storyteller is the most powerful communicator on earth.
BOOM. So how do you connect story to sales? Or can you?
Are you asking me the ROI question, Ann? Yes, you can connect story to sales. And the ROI of story is 27.06.
No joke. It comes from the Significant Objects Experiment, where a group of writers set out to see if adding a story to an insignificant object could increase its value. They scoured flea markets and yard sales for tchotchkes, trinkets, and thingamajigs. Then they wrote a story for each of the 100 items and offered them for sale on eBay.
The items cost $128.74 to purchase and were sold for $3,612.51, resulting in an ROI of 27.06. The lowest ROI was 1.18. In other words, out of 100 individual investments, the worst investment doubled their money.
Sure, I’m being a little facetious here. But at the same time, the best stories are grounded in truth. The truth is that story has value and experiments can be devised to determine that value.
Here’s a more personal example. I was once the business development manager for an engineering services company that outsourced electrical engineers to chip-design firms. The day after we’d signed a multimillion-dollar deal with a new client, my manager called.
“What PowerPoint presentation did you use to get that deal?”
“I didn’t use any presentation,” I said.
“Then how did you sell all of those services?”
My answer was simple. “I listened to their concerns and told them stories of how we worked through those issues with other clients.”
The power of story.