A Tale Well Told

Storytelling as a skill or art form is not often associated with marketing. Marketers are commonly seen as purveyors of facts, knowledge, insight and strategy. “Storytelling” is most often thought of in a fictional sense. Considered an artificial construct of imagination rather than reality. But, there is another kind of storytelling, often overlooked, that can help in presenting or sharing marketing information in a much more concise, compelling and actionable way.

We’re frequently faced with situations where we have a brief amount of time to share information about an often complex situation that has been quite some time in the making. Whether it’s a presentation or just a conversation, some of those in the client audience are often less familiar with the background and details than we are, since we’ve been living with it day to day. Yet, we are often asking for agreement

on a critical decision based solely, or primarily, on the information we’re providing. It’s at times like this that storytelling can be your best approach.

“Storytelling” differs from more traditional delivery of information in a couple of significant ways. First, the objective is not to impart everything we know about the subject (despite our pride or excitement about the accomplishment) but, to frame a desired result. Second, it is most appropriate and successfully used in situations where the goal is to gain buy-in or consensus rather than simply inform.

Telling a compelling “story” involves bringing the audience along an understandable arc that is focused, provides just the information required to get the picture clearly and shapes their perception of what a defined and fulfilling conclusion would look like.

Examining the enormous number of marketing discussions and presentations we’ve participated in has led to some principles for using storytelling effectively in marketing situations. Here are a few of those principles to help you master marketing storytelling.

Starting at the end What better place to start our observations than the end. While we are dedicated to building our strategies inductively from the ground up to the conclusion, communicating what we have learned needs to be driven by where we ended up. Once the process of learning, analysis and solution has been completed it has to be reversed to identify only those elements along the way that fed the final result. Only then does the story lead linearly and unambiguously to the important conclusion.

Finding the thread One tool for building that linear story is the thread or arc of the story. While the process you went through likely covered a broad range of efforts and generated a lot of learning, the story needs to proceed stepwise through only those points that lead to and support the conclusion. There is always the risk of providing too little detail, leaving the audience questioning the thoroughness of the conclusion. Finding the balance between detail and linearity is part of the art of storytelling.

Resisting the temptation to tell all James Gleick, in the introduction to the painstakingly factual book “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” allowed that for purposes of clarity and linearity he found it necessary to take some liberties with timelines and juxtaposition of events. He felt that otherwise the essence of the “story” might be lost in the facts. While replicating the project’s journey in detail may provide an appreciation for the depth and complexity of the process it can create too broad a landscape where the key points get lost in the forest of information. Yes, there is often unanswered questions in the mind of the audience. So, have all of the details readily available and accessible will enable you to address those questions and even have the added benefit of implying that you have all the answers to the other unanswered questions as well.

Being entertaining Google the term “death by PowerPoint.” You’ll get over 2 million results. Not so rare, huh? We are not suggesting frivolous or lighthearted diversion for borrowed interest What we affectionately refer to as “Vampire Video”. But, the first step is easy enough, by avoiding text heavy pages and uninterpreted graphs. (Ok. We’ve been guilty, too, but we try.) Is there a way to make the story more digestible by providing some interest in the form of unexpected graphics, sound bites or video snips. Hearing someone else tell the story lends credibility beyond your own and gets you and the audience on the same side of the table.

PowerPoint … the movie One trick we use when we are getting close to the end of developing a story is to flip through the slides quickly to read the details. Our goal is to get the flow of the story from the headlines or bold statements and graphics. Can we tell what the story is and was it compelling? What was missing? What got in the way? We love all of our slides, but we have to learn to love some more than others. Once we’re satisfied we call in a team member who has not been part of the project and have them do the go through the presentation the same way. Then tell us the story. If it holds up, we’re done!

So for today’s Strategy Break here are a few questions to ask yourself to help ensure you’ve got the best story to tell:
  • Is the story simple and clear enough for anyone to retell it without all of my background knowledge?
  • Can I predict with some level of certainty how the people I am talking to will think and feel when the presentation or conversation is over?
  • When I’m done with my “storytelling” will my audience be as excited about the outcome as I am?

And if you have a marketing challenge that needs the learning and insight to build a strong brand story or you’re just working on selling your business plan, give us a call.

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