Storytelling in BusinessOct 02, 2023
BULLET POINTS VS STORY
Once upon a time, a friend told me that the career they were hoping for was to be a technical writer.
Four years of English after completing a rigorous high school AP class loaded with the most amazing prose from William Shakespeare to Salman Rushdie and this person wants to write instruction manuals? I can understand defaulting to “technical writer” because I was able to deftly parlay my dreams of being the bassist of a famous band into being a human resources call center operator. But actually waking up and getting excited about the idea of being a technical writer was (is?) hard to wrap my brain around.
In my head, I was picturing my friend sitting in a warehouse watching workmen put together Ikea-style armoires and saying, “Wait, stop. So the first step is to put the façade in the grooves, THEN use the provided miniature wrench to tighten the bolts, all before sliding the drawer into its appropriate slot? Wouldn’t it be easier to put the drawer in BEFORE putting the façade on?”
It’s so boring. And yet, the bullet point and multi-indented outline style of content creation that is the hallmark of technical writing so often becomes the format so-called creatives default to with its dry and lifeless gravity. From writing to speaking, communicators throng to the austere step-by-step approach like software coders crafting if this, then that statements.
Why? Well, it’s easy.
Actually, it’s lazy. It’s a lot easier to create a list than it is to write a story.
A tremendous percentage of the communication we participate in is persuasive in nature, especially if you are a leader. In the last week, I have had to: convince my teammates that an idea I want to implement in the organization is a good one, assure a partner that the changes being implemented will make their experience better, and sell a product to a customer I have no prior relationship with.
That doesn’t even get into the persuasive communication I’ve had to utilize with my kids. Sheesh.
Could I just bullet point next steps for people? Sure. Easy…or lazy. I could give bullet points and my teammates may do it begrudgingly because I’m their boss. Our firm’s partner may not end our partnership, but they probably won’t lean into it. The potential customer probably would weigh their other options.
But, if I incorporate the bullet points into a story, maybe some magic happens.
Outlines, bullet points, and timetables may be the way we experience something, but metaphor is the framework we use to understand something.
Enter the art of storytelling.
Storytelling works by giving the listener a way to see themselves doing the thing you are imploring them to do. Beyond a list, you provide your audience with a place in a story and a perspective from which they can contextualize the rewards of recreating the story themselves or the consequences of failing to pursue it.
If you look into “storytelling marketing,” you’ll find an encyclopedia of research that supports this. Much of this literature is about how storytelling impacts purchasing behavior, but with just the tiniest bit of imagination, we can extrapolate how storytelling impacts behavior in general.
João Ricardo de Oliveira Júnior and a team of researchers synthesized a bulk of this literature through bibliometric analysis and found four oft-repeated features of how storytelling works. I’ll try to summarize them and generalize them beyond just “marketing.”
1. Storytelling stimulates identification with a brand/product.
Imagine that instead of “brand/product,” it said, “Storytelling stimulates identification with a brand/product/idea/behavior/etc.” We all have an “extended self” which means we define ourselves with things beyond just us. Marketers use this to understand how consumers define themselves with possessions, but we also define ourselves with beliefs and behaviors. What we buy and what we do is not just a part of our self-image, it is a part of our identity.
Storytelling creates an emotional connection with your audience and builds identities, establishes empathy, and demonstrates how to engage. When you tell your story, make sure you know where your audience is coming from so you can connect the dots to where you want them to go.
2. Storytelling allows consumers to create emotional value.
May I suggest that storytelling allows any audience to create emotional value? Stories provide a Delorean-free method of time travel for your audience because you can show them how they’ll feel in the future. Marty McFly actually went to the future to experience the joy of riding a hover-skateboard, but if you tell a story well, you can transport your audience to the hover-skateboard experience without the risk of enriching that jerk, Biff.
Your story can start with acknowledging how your audience feels now, then take them to the climax of making the decision you are hoping they make before bringing them to the happy ending of how they will feel. Note: Man, I hope a lot of the readers of this article have seen Back to the Future Part II (and also, who missed the opportunity to call that movie, Back 2 the Future?).
3. Storytelling supports consumer engagement behaviors.
Storytelling supports engagement behaviors, period. When someone starts to see themselves in the story you are telling, that story becomes a part of their life. When someone believes that you, the communicator, understand their needs and attitude, they are going to become more willing to engage in the behaviors illustrated in your story.
This is why positive customer reviews are so important for brands. Future potential audience members will listen to the stories of past audience members before you even get a chance to tell them your story. So make sure you connect with every audience member. Every audience member should see themselves in the shoes of the protagonist of your story so they can model the protagonist’s behavior (and give a positive review). A bullet-pointed list may tell someone how to be the protagonist, but it doesn’t tell them they already are the protagonist and what you are providing is another tool to help them succeed.
4. Storytelling is a propagator of hostile speech.
This point is cautionary. If you are using negative storytelling or defensive behavior in your story, the audience will see themselves in the story, too. However, when negative storytelling is utilized to put down a competitor or alternative choice, then the rhetoric adopted by your audience is likely to become an exaggerated version of your story.
Has anyone seen some of the things people print on political flags and signs recently? I know my kids have learned how to spell some specific four-letter words. What if you’re the target of hostile speech? Oliveira Júnior et al. suggest that you be as transparent about your brand as you can possibly be.
Dare I add another point, or maybe a summation of the previous points:
People remember stories, not lists.
The Goal by Eliyahu M. Goldratt uses a fast-paced novel format to introduce the world to the Theory of Constraints and the beginnings of lean management to the world. I read it in 2010 and still remember how the protagonist, Alex Rogo, overcame bottlenecks and other constraints.
Patrick Lencioni transformed offices around the world with his narrative, Death by Meeting, and now you can look forward to a strategic quarterly meeting as opposed to the “why are we here?” meeting you were dreading.
Coca Cola has an ad campaign that tells the story of someone’s day being made by receiving a Coke. They even made Coca Cola bottles with random names on the side, literally putting you in the story (unless your name is Ariella, like my daughter, then you’re not likely to ever find a bottle with your name). This campaign was genius because I could see myself (Matt is a super common name) as either the generous Coke-giver, making someone’s day, or I could see myself as the receiver and realize I just need a Coke to make my day.
Storytelling works. It is the most effective tool you have when it comes to content for communication. The world needs technical writers. I don’t want to read a novel about how to install my bathroom fan. But I may need a storyteller to help me decide which fan to buy.
Final note: I recognize the irony in writing about storytelling but having 1/3 of the article be a list. I’m a technical writer that tells jokes who is working to evolve into a full-time storyteller.
By Matt Murphy, MBA - VP of Mission Support, Stadia
Matt oversees staff and strategies regarding internal finance, all external marketing, communications policies, event management, software development, technical support, and training. Matt works with teams all around the world.