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Four Facets of Strategic Storytelling

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In this article, you'll learn...

  • Why you should add storytelling to your marketing arsenal
  • Four facets of strategic storytelling

Every so often, a traditionally nonbusiness word finds its way into the business world, fueled by an admirable desire to find new ways to think about old challenges. "Storytelling" has become one of those words. And though storytelling has been around since early hunters first gestured to each other in front of a fire, only recently has the corporate community recognized the potency of using storytelling strategically—to position brands, transform business, and engage and align employees.

As "storytelling" becomes part of the corporate lexicon, it runs the risk—as do all such terms that come into fashion—of being overused and misappropriated. The sheer familiarity of storytelling, then, can work against the best intentions of those trying to use it, because people liberally apply the term to everything (from media relations to corporate brochures) without really understanding what differentiates storytelling as a communications strategy and makes it "tick."

The following are four distinguishing facets of strategic storytelling that'll help you better understand what it is (and is not), what it does, and how it works.

1. Storytelling is a pull, not push, strategy

Storytelling, when properly practiced, pulls people into a dialogue. It's about engagement and interaction. The audience is just as active a participant as the storyteller. In contrast, many companies and brands still relentlessly push messages to their employees and into the marketplace—without meaningful context, hoping that with enough repetition the messages will stick.


Consider a recent award-winning campaign by the Canadian Tourism Commission (CTC) called "Locals Know." The objective was to encourage Canadians to spend travel dollars at home instead of abroad. The campaign showcased lesser-known spots across Canada, piquing people's curiosity and interest with the simple, provocative question, "Where's this?"

Intrigued Canadians were directed to a dedicated website that served as an incredible catalogue of "secret gem locations" in their own country. Some spots were suggested by the CTC, but the vast majority of destinations were recommended by fellow Canadians—like-minded travelers who longed to share the story of their favorite locations with others.

Though mass advertising created broader awareness for the campaign, it was storytelling through social media that served as its primary engine, pulling people in and getting them to interact with the brand, engage with fellow Canadians, and, ultimately, book travel in their country.

After two years of running this campaign, the CTC estimates that travel dollars kept in-country well exceeded half a billion dollars.

2. Storytelling is a selfless, empowering act

Great storytelling points people toward a desired conclusion but gives them the freedom to draw that conclusion themselves. When people draw a conclusion on their own, they not only respect it more but also respect you more for helping them reach it. They're also much more likely to act on those realizations. A prime example of a leader who uses stories to shape the way people think (instead of forcing it) is master storyteller and Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh.

Hsieh has built a culture of storytelling at Zappos, using stories to make the principles and ideas that drive the company's culture real for employees—most notably, an unyielding commitment to remarkable customer service. The stories that Hsieh and others share help employees more fully recognize the hard-to-define nuances of Zappos's customer service and give shape and dimension to the concepts they read in their employee manuals.

Here is an example of Hsieh's empowering storytelling in action.

3. Storytelling draws from both magic and logic

Truly great storytelling touches our hearts as well as our heads, getting us to feel as well as to think. It understands that ideas with emotions resonate with people more effectively and linger longer than ideas do on their own.

By connecting with people emotionally, storytelling opens a channel for mental connections to take place, a pipeline through which key messages, facts, and relevant information can flow. Information alone almost never changes people's minds, let alone their lives; but logic with feeling can make magic.

Luxury hotel and restaurant brand Relais & Châteaux understands the power of mixing magic with logic in sharing its story with the world. With roughly 500 locations across the globe, Relais & Châteaux had long focused its communications solely on the more tangible, physical features of its fine hotels and restaurants.

More recently, however, Relais & Châteaux discovered that what truly set it apart from other brands was the collective passions, ideals, and approach of its members—the hoteliers, chefs, restaurateurs who have all dedicated their lives to hospitality and service. Although Relais & Châteaux still showcases its properties, it gives equal billing (if not top) to the magical characteristics of its members, enabling them to share their unique stories and perspectives with discerning travelers around the world, as well as with its staff of 22,000.

4. Storytelling looks to the future

Successful storytelling respects the past and appreciates the present, but it also looks boldly into the future, moving people past "what is" to "what if?" Done well, storytelling helps people collectively imagine a vision of the future that is achievable and worth achieving, helping them to understand not only what they're working on but also what they're working toward. In this regard, storytelling connects people in deeply profound ways, linking them to each other and to the ideas and goals they share.
Great leaders in history have long understood the power of telling a story of the future to unite people and compel them to act. To watch Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. deliver his "I Have a Dream" speech is to witness future-facing storytelling at its finest.

* * *

As you consider using storytelling strategically to give meaning to your brand communications or employee-engagement efforts, don't do so simply because it is "the next big thing." Do it because, if you truly listen and you are willing to be generous, authentic, emotional, and collectively creative— it works.

As one senior client recently said, "This is a bit frightening. I feel vulnerable; but at the same time, because I'm being myself, I feel more confident." If your organization is ready for that journey, there's a great story ahead.


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Bill Baker is founder and principal of BB&Co Strategic Storytelling, which helps organizations to advance their brands, businesses, and people with strategic storytelling. Reach Bill via storyteller@billbakerandco.com.

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  • by Carole Mahoney Mon May 16, 2011 via web

    This is one of those basic human concepts that can be so hard to explain. I would only add that story telling is a talent and a skill that applies to both sales and marketing.

    I recently told someone that I love analytics because it gives my stories detailed characters with a solid foundation. 'telling stories through numbers'. At a workshop I gave, someone commented that web analytics was like "CSI for business". I thought that was the best comment.

    Was it Chris Brogan that said, "Be human."?

  • by Janet Peischel Mon May 16, 2011 via web

    This is what I tell my clients. They shouldn't be just telling their clients what they do, but how they do it. When developing content for blogs, newsletters and websites, I work with my clients to include examples--I want them to position themselves as problem-solvers--what was the challenge and how did you solve it. Telling a story is visceral--connecting with clients on an emotional level helps build relationships. Read my blog, The Pragmatic Marketer, http://thepragmaticmarketer.wordpress.com/

  • by Larry C Mon May 16, 2011 via web

    Story telling has been around forever, but we've tended to see it used more for internal culture building. For example, Nordstrom's use of journaling to record truly outstanding instances of customer service - where these "stories" become part of the fabric of the company's culture of service. Another example was Grumman's use of storyboard mosaics in lobby areas depicting the history of the company from the early days of manned flight through the space age. These stories tend to define the organization's culture for all to see.

    Bill's call for "care" in the use of storytelling is critically important. The use of less than genuine or contrived stories will do more harm than good - both with employees (who know the true story) and customers and vendors who will easily separate the wheat from the chaff.

    Good article. Thanks.

  • by Debbie Dreher Mon May 16, 2011 via web

    I particularly agree with your comment that storytelling is not just a fad or "the next big thing." We have been working with clients for the last three years to tell their story visually, through documentary style stories. We've encountered the same hesitation and surprise when they look inward at unscripted messaging but, as one of our client's senior VP's of marketing/advertising stated, "we captured it just right; the heart and soul of our organization." Don't discount the power of storytelling. If done well, it can be incredibly powerful.

  • by Lori Silverman Mon May 16, 2011 via web

    I agree with your premise that strategic storytelling is key in business. Only, unless I'm missing something, the examples you've given aren't of narrative in the form of story. They are anecdotes that have the potential to be crafted into compelling stories.

    Anecdotes, examples, case studies, news reports and the like aren't stories. Stories have specific defining characteristics, many of which these examples are missing. To aid in this understanding, my colleague, Karen Dietz, and I have written a piece called "Narrative Forms" that distinguishes various forms of narrative. It can be found at http://www.wakeupmycompany.com/biography.htm. The reason we wrote this is because I did workshops for IABC and learned from the audience (professional internal and external communications consultants) that they themselves weren't clear on the distinction!

    Thanks for allowing me to share my observation.

    Lori Silverman, author, Wake Me Up When the Data Is Over and Stories Trainers Tell

  • by Bruce Gabrielle Mon May 16, 2011 via web

    Storytelling is definitely hot in business right now, but most of the advice is intended for keynote speeches, motivational talks and such.

    I've written a 7-part blog series entiteld "Storytelling in the Boardroom" which you and your readers may enjoy

    http://speakingppt.com/2011/04/04/storytelling-in-the-boardroom-part-1-the-power-of-storytelling/

  • by Karen Dietz Mon May 16, 2011 via web

    Love the article! I agree with the observation that too many people call almost anything a story, which completely dilutes its power and causes confusion. I also agree that storytelling is not just a fad. For years I've been advocating that it is in fact a core competence. And just like any core competence, it takes skill and training to be good at. Very few have been trained in the art and science of oral storytelling, and how to move that into various media for maximum leverage. Thanks for the article and all of the comments.

  • by Archelleo S Tue May 17, 2011 via web

    Predominantly in African societies, story telling is known to be one of the ways of management, as leadership is taken to be the ability to make activities meaningful to the entire members of the community. It sticks the message in the human mind, pictures are played as it is told and stick for replay when retrieved. In the African pedagogy it remains the best teaching and learning tool. Itís great that it climbs the business ladder in Marketing and Branding.
    thanks Bill

  • by Philip Gibson Tue May 17, 2011 via web

    Two offerings for those of you interested in storytelling in organizations. Firstly, a story guide we produced for the Swiss Agency for Cooperation and Development. It includes chapters on:

    - warm up exercises and icebreakers
    - questions for finding stories
    - shaping and sharing stories
    - checklists
    - different story techniques
    - things to watch out for

    Itís called Building bridges using narrative techniques and itís available for free from http://www.deza.admin.ch/ressources/resource_en_155620.pdf.

    Our website (http://www.sparknow.net) includes two blogs that focus on stories to support branding, change and knowledge transfer.

  • by LarryC Tue May 17, 2011 via web

    Thanks for the link, Philip. We can all benefit from this information, and it's particularly important that attempts to integrate storytelling into the organizational lexicon be done properly - with taste and aplomb. I believe these techniques tend to work best when they develop organically, but we can still "nudge" the process if done appropriately without forcing the issue.

    Thanks for all the really helpful comments from you all.

    Cheers.

  • by Clare Price Tue May 17, 2011 via web

    Great article that clearly explains WHY storytelling in business works because it empowers, because it draws on magic as well as logic and because it looks to the future. Every good story should take the listeners on a journey that somehow changes them. Another area that is often neglected in business storytelling especially online is developing a voice that shows off the personality of the storyteller. We focus a lot on developing that voice in our practice at www.findyouronlinevoice.com.

  • by Bill Baker Thu May 19, 2011 via web

    Thanks for all the great comments on the article, everyone. It's heartening to see so many people interested in and passionate about this topic. If history has shown us anything, it has demonstrated how powerful a well-crafted story well told can be.

    I wanted to add one additional thought to the discussion, and that is around what constitutes a story in the corporate world. We define strategic storytelling as the authentic exchange of meaning between people, for a purpose. In this regard, storytelling does not always have to be someone standing up in front of a group of people and staring with, "Let me tell you a story." That is one way to do it (and certainly, an effective one). But an exchange of meaning can also be a great quote, a picture, a YouTube clip, etc. All of these things can help one person exchange meaning with another and, in doing so, establish context for the messages they want to send out and connections with the people they want to receive them.

    All my best, Bill

  • by Karen Dietz Thu May 19, 2011 via web

    Love this discussion and everyone's contributions. Yes, I agree -- the authentic exchange of meaning between people is an essential quality of storytelling. The quote, picture, YouTube clip, etc. however are definitely not stories. But they are story triggers -- i.e. packets of sensory material that trigger stories within people, which is a critical activity to master in our work.

    Storytelling in business is particularly identified by being able to share a story that moves people to action. That distinguishes biz storytelling from Hollywood.

    I also agree that storytelling conjures up on one's mind someone telling someone something. I so wish there was a better word to use! Because the real secret of oral storytelling is in story sharing and listening. Deep listening is the first skill trained storytellers learn, and it is the most essential skill that often gets overlooked when working with stories in biz settings. When I teach my 5-day storytelling intensive for biz folks, their increased sensitivity to, and delight in listening to others becomes a profound experience for them.

    Just like a painter needs to know the difference between oils & acrylics, pastels & watercolors, canvas and other substrata, so we as professionals working with stories in biz need to master the tools of our trade. There's more to storytelling than meets the eye. If anyone wants to assess their Story IQ, feel free to take my on-line assessment at http://www.polaris-associates.com/StoryIQ

    I love discussions like this for the opportunities to learn from each other, and I like what I've learned here. Cheers --

    Karen

  • by phil Tue May 31, 2011 via web

    joseph campbell has been telling the power of storytelling and how it has evolved for centuries but most importantly how it is so ingrained in our culture. there are so many examples of telling a good story from a sales pitch to a celebrity. this is nothing new.

    think of it this way .....sarah palin is a great story and the media covers here because of her entertainment value rather than her substance...same with donald trump, lindsay lohan, cnbc etc. but its the changing dynamics of the media that has truly changed its power and how we react as an audience.

    are culture is now an entertainment circus and storytelling is at the center of it.

    love to hear some comments.

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