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BOOK REVIEW: Give your business the storytelling edge

Mar 01 2018 06:00
Ian Mann

The Storytelling Edge: How to Transform Your Business, Stop Screaming into the Void, and Make People Love You, by Joe Lazauskas and Shane Snow.

“STORYTELLING has been the buzzword off and on since the advent of advertising,” Snow and Lazauskas explain, but this time it’s different. Firstly, storytelling has currency beyond the marketing department. Let me explain…

Stories are timeless: they have been used throughout history for good and evil. Dictators have used stories to inspire fear and mistrust, and to make people believe in wrong and hateful ideas.

Since the earliest of times they were also used for good. Evolutionary biologists believe that the brain developed the ability to tell stories around the same time as our ability to speak. To survive, people had to work together, hunting, gathering, building shelters, and so on.

Before we developed writing, the lessons we needed to teach our children so they would survive had to be passed on through stories.

This may be why we are now hardwired to dramatise, to imagine, and to be drawn into good stories. Stories also have the effect of causing us to feel connected to people who share stories, even stories that are not about ourselves. Simply recall how experiencing the same movie brings you and your partner closer.

“Storytelling is becoming an essential skill in any job,” the authors assert.  Bombarded by PowerPoints and status updates, many have forgotten how to tell a good story. No one I know of ever came home and excitedly shared a good PowerPoint with their partner, but many have shared a good story.

Smart leaders tell stories to inspire and motivate us. The best business books and speakers use stories to help us remember their ideas. Good stories help salespeople get in doors, enrich a company's reputation, and can increase clients’ connection with the organisations.

In the late 2000s, Ford was in trouble. The brand was getting a reputation for low quality.

Stories get Ford back in the game

To respond to this, Ford used stories to get people to care again. Documentary films were made in their factories where employees were interviewed while working on the assembly lines, and designing the next generation of cars.

The interviewees told the audience: “We know that we have screwed up. We know that Ford isn't what it used to be, but we are all working hard to turn things around and to make our cars awesome again. So, we're going to show you the stories of the people who are your neighbours, who are working on these cars, who are working to make this product once more the product that you know and love.”

This series of videos was an important early step in Ford's long journey to changing the quality perception.

General Electric (GE) faced multiple challenges in 2008. The global economy was in trouble, the company's shares were falling, and GE had developed a reputation as stodgy and out of touch.

The reputation was contrary to the facts. GE makes some of the most exciting inventions in the world, from jet engines to solar generators. While it is a monster-size, Fortune 500 company, it has a start-up culture.

GE began telling stories, and it isn’t a coincidence that years of significant success followed. 

One commercial shows a fictitious engineer, Owen, trying to explain his cool new job developing breakthrough code as a GE engineer to his befuddled friends and family. They think he is going to work on a train or in a warehouse. This sparked one of most successful recruiting campaigns in GE's history, with applications for engineering positions going up by 800%!

The company has become a magnet for science nerds on Reddit, and its shares have quadrupled from $7.06 in March 2009 to $31.44 in 2017.

The ease of posting stories or sharing them verbally makes storytelling ever more difficult. In 2010 Google CEO, Eric Schmidt, reported that we now create as much information every two days as we did in human history up until 2003, and it is increasing.

Our storytelling must be superb to be given a hearing, let alone shared. The author offers much good advice, and I share just some items.

Good stories must have “Relatability”, because we cannot get emotionally and intellectually involved in a story that is “too out there”.

BuzzFeed has headlines such as '25 Things You'll Understand If You Grew Up with Asian Parents'. Many people sent this article on to people with Asian parents who could really relate to it, resulting in literally millions reading it.

“One of the secrets to BuzzFeed and a lot of the modern Internet's successful viral sites, is they don't try to speak to everyone in every story; they try to relate very deeply to specific identity groups and bet that those groups will share these stories prolifically.”

Good stories must have “Tension”. The worst love story ever, would be: “Jack and Jill grew up in houses next to each other. They were friends since they were kids. They decided to get married because, well, why not? It made sense. The families knew each other. And everyone was fine.” No tension. No hardship. No drama. Everything was just… boring.

Compare this to Romeo and Juliet, where there's so much working against the characters. Their families hate each other. They must keep their love secret, and they're willing to die for each other so that they can be together.

The most popular writers (including JK Rawlings) write at lower reading levels than their peers. The authors call this “fluency”. The reader doesn’t have to think about what it means - the story simply flows as efficiently as possible.

You can't create mediocre content and expect to stand out. The authors suggest you ask this question: “If they're searching for an answer to a question, would they rather reach your piece of content than anything else on the Internet right now?”

Unless the answer is: Yes, this is 10 times better than anything else out there, it may not be worth publishing.

Insights:        High --+-- Low
Practical:        High -+--- Low

  • Ian Mann of Gateways consults internationally on leadership and strategy and is the author of Executive Update. Views expressed are his own.

ian mann  |  opinion  |  book reviews


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