Years ago, before we were married, I took my wife to a very fancy restaurant. This was the kind of place where you try for months to get a reservation, then feel fortunate and special when they let you in the front door. As our elegantly dressed waitress glided ahead of us, steering us towards a candlelit table in the corner of the room, I felt a rush of gratitude and excitement. I am so honored that you are allowing me to spend my money here.
That place blew out our budget for fancy restaurants for years. And you know what? It was worth it. It was worth it not just because the food was amazing, but because everything was so distinctive and memorable. And at the heart of that experience was something unexpected. Storytelling.
As each course made its appearance at the table, our waitress would gesture reverently at the food, lean in towards us, and deliver in hushed tones an amazing story about the dish.
The butter course: For years, our master buyer has feverishly searched the world for the perfect butter. Finally, he found a small farm in Pennsylvania Dutch country, run by an elderly Amish couple who feed their cows a diet of wild flowers, flax, and honey...
The dessert course: Our berry tart is a triumphant marriage of the old and the new, of tradition and innovation. The berries are picked in the mountainside Swiss village of Vilmon-St-Croix by schoolgirls specially selected for their small hands and delicate fingers…
You might think we would get tired of all this exposition before every phase of our meal? We loved it. Fascinating! Tell us more about this butter. SO MUCH MORE BUTTERY THAN REGULAR BUTTER. I think I detect top notes of lavender!
Now, years later, I remember the stories even more than I remember the food. In fact, I think I remember the food as well as I do because of the stories.
That is the power of storytelling.
Storytelling: the future of corporate communications
It is no accident that my encounter with storytelling came at an expensive restaurant. Anyone selling luxury items must learn how to tell a story about their product. If you are going to ask someone to shell out $100 for a bottle of wine you had better be able to say something other than, A whole lotta folks really like this here Chardonnay.
Lately, storytelling has been gaining traction in the rest of the business world. There is a reason that storytelling is being recognized as a critical skill for business leaders and entrepreneurs. If you are pitching a new product or business, you need more than just a great idea and a winning value proposition. You need a story, a frame that helps your thing stand out from everybody else’s thing.
Storytelling has long been the domain of startups and entrepreneurs who needed to inspire and engage investors and customers. It has not often been a focus for communications from larger, established corporations. Big companies have a lot of messages, but few stories to tell. Instead of weaving together a narrative, they tend to put out flat, loosely connected messages about their products and their business.
What is the story of most press releases? Here is something new that we are doing.
What is the story of most product launches? Look! Here’s a new product. It is somewhat better than our last one.
In a loud world, stories are the way to get break through and get heard. While other messages fade away, stories stick with us. They deal in struggle, adversity, opportunity, and sometimes, triumph. They have a dramatic arc – a beginning, a middle, a resolution of some kind. They include people, not faceless organizations. Most of all, they involve tension and transformation. For there to a be story – for there to be something engaging, interesting, human – there must be change.
Storytelling brings new focus to content marketing and social engagement
Stories are more critical to corporate communications than ever. Communications teams are focusing ever more on content marketing and social engagement. They are building longer, more complex content pieces, like white papers and e-books, that can be broken into components and used as fodder for cross-channel social engagement campaigns.
The content is getting deeper. The social engagement is getting better. But often, the story across it all is weak or missing.
If you focus on the content, but forget the story, you limit your results. A good story frames and colors everything you say to your customer. It helps your audience understand and place your actions in the context of a larger narrative. It makes it much more likely that they will care about what you have to say, remember it, and have a sustained positive reaction to it.
If you want to understand the relationship of story to content, consider the world of politics. Political campaigns create plenty of content – brochures, position papers, policy statements, and so on. That detailed content is important, but it only serves to advance the big narrative that the campaign wants to promote.
A good political marketer will not tell you about complex strategies, or five-year plans, or economic forecasts. They will tell you a simple story that is carefully designed to be memorable and relatable:
Political candidates do not win or lose because of the strength of their content. They win or lose based on how effective their campaigns are at getting people to accept their simple (sometimes, cartoonishly simple) story. The content is just a means to push that narrative forward.
Find your story
Look around. You will find that the best brands and companies – the ones that are most effective in engaging their audiences – wrap their messages and content in a memorable story. If your company is not already doing this, then you need to find your own story.
While your story should be unique and authentic to your company, you can draw inspiration from a few classic structures that work very well for corporate narratives.
The fighting-for-a-better-future story
This type of story is important in the technology industry, where it often takes the form of a vision statement. A vision is the story of why your company exists, of the change it will make in the world, and how people will benefit as a result.
Probably the most well-known vision in the world of corporate communications today is Google’s commitment to “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful.” That is a very compelling, elegant frame. Think about what it does:
- Helps the company explain its enormously complex business in simple terms.
- Unifies activities and investments that might otherwise seem random and disconnected.
- Puts a disarming, positive spin on a company that could easily come across as menacing (think about it: we’re coming for your information!).
Google is far from the only company that understands the value of telling a big, transformative story of social impact. Consider LinkedIn, whose CEO recently gave the following comment:
LinkedIn has plenty to talk about – growing subscribers, new offerings and products, and so on. To gain the attention and interest of the marketplace, however, they are reaching for a larger, more aspirational story. We are not just a successful business networking site. We are the company that is trying to get a job for everyone in the world.
Now that is a powerful vision. And a provocative and engaging story.
The upstart-vs-established-player story
There is a core principle of storytelling. First, find yourself a villain.
That is why Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, gleefully skewers HBO at every opportunity. In a very real sense, Netflix needs HBO – and the rest of the entertainment industry – as a foil. Hastings wants his company to be seen as a disruptive force tearing down a creaky, outdated industry.
Not so long ago, HBO was seen as the innovator, pushing out edgy content on a subscription basis that challenged the traditional entertainment model. So the company makes a perfect target for Netflix, which wants to seize the role of disruptor for itself and recast HBO as the face of the establishment.
The story of an innovative rival fighting against the industry champion is a powerful frame. This narrative is working. The companies are constantly being compared by the press and the industry, a comparison that works entirely to the advantage of Netflix.
The back story
Beginnings matter. There is a reason that every good superhero has a great origin story.
If you want me to care about where you are now, it helps if I know where you began. The right back story can put a compelling, human face on a large, impersonal company.
Think about Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in 1939, beginning a lifelong partnership and friendship that would make turn a small, nondescript Palo Alto garage legendary.
Think about Dee Hock, the founder of what would become Visa, a man committed to the idea of a universal currency that would transcend national boundaries, organizing fiercely competitive banks into an unlikely coalition that would usher in the age of credit cards.
Think about Jeff Bezos in 1994, fresh from quitting his comfortable job as a Wall Street executive, flipping through a dictionary to find the name of the online store he wanted to make the biggest in the world and stopping on the word “Amazon.”
Your own origin story may be far more humble, but it need not be less interesting to your audience.
I believe in the power of stories. I believe effective storytelling is the answer – the only answer – to making corporate communications memorable and engaging.
What is your story? And how will you use it? Answering those questions has a lot to do with how effective and focused your corporate communications will become.