Everybody likes a good story. We spend billions of dollars a year going to the movies to see stories play out on the big screen, watching them on television, anding read them in books.
We use them to illustrate how our day went or why the person who cut us off on the way home is a jerk.
Stories are great fun but they can be more than mere entertainment.
In the business world, we use them to persuade and to build trust. We also use them to explain our culture and set expectations.
Truly, a story is a valuable tool if used in the right way.
The Talking Horse and Other Wild Stories
When my niece was little, we never knew what was going to come out of her mouth. She had a great imagination.
When she was two she told us about a talking horse named Bellado who had her go to Exico to get pink caterpillars. Bellado also killed a bad guy by making him eat bee guts.
That was just the tip of the iceberg with this child. She had a sister (she has no sister) who went to school with Troy and Gabriella from High School Musical. Jenny, her doll, killed her dog. Her dad got arrested and was put in jail for smoking and I danced on the roof of the high school.
One day, which I luckily caught on video, she gave a little talk on kidnapping. According to her, if you want to get kidnapped, just go stand by the side of the road but only if your dad has a gun. That’s just a taste of that story. You could give her any topic and she would spin some crazy yarn.
Just telling people that we never knew what she was going to say didn’t really evoke much of a reaction from people. Telling these stories did.
Stories Help Us Understand
Stories aren’t just for entertainment. They help us understand the world around us. Whether it is a person, like my before mentioned niece, an organization or even a product, stories help us make sense of the world around us.
I used to work at a Fortune 100 company. The companies that I had worked for prior weren’t the best at setting expectations. Not so with this company. I had heard many times, “We don’t set people up to fail.” I always knew what was expected of me.
One of those expectations was communicating when we had problems. Ignoring an issue wasn’t tolerated because of the potential fall out it might cause. My manager illustrated this with a story.
There was a team of people working on launching a new product. A few days prior to launch, it was discovered that a team member had fallen behind but he hadn’t ever said anything. This meant that there was no way to deliver the product on time. The delivery date for the project was missed by two weeks costing the company an estimated $60 million in revenue.
As you might guess, this guy lost his job but it didn’t have to be that way. If he would have communicated that he was having an issue getting his work done, it would have been dealt with. The launch wouldn’t have been missed and this person would still have his job.
I never forgot that story. A couple of years later, I was working on a project. We were unexpectedly busy and that meant that my job one duties came first. I was going to miss my deadline. I immediately went to my manager and we worked it out so I would have the time I needed to deliver without impacting my job one work.
The story helped me understand the culture I was working in. When I found myself in a similar situation, I knew I didn’t have to worry that I was going to get in trouble or fired. I just needed to be honest and communicate the issue and we would find a solution.
A Simple Story Structure
This isn’t a creative writing blog so I’m not going to go into all the different story structures that are out there (but feel free to google them). Let’s keep it simple.
Every story has a protagonist and an antagonist. Essentially our hero and the bad guy. While some authors have muddied the waters with imperfect heroes and bad guys who garner some sympathy, in most cases, it’s easy to pick out which is which.
If you’ve seen Star Wars, it’s pretty obvious who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. Likewise in the superhero movies or the old westerns.
The protagonist is always trying to overcome something to achieve a goal. Sometimes that something is the antagonist. Other times it is the obstacles that are in the way to catch the antagonist.
The antagonist isn’t always a person. It can be something such as the weather as in the movie, A Perfect Storm. If there is any redemption in the tale, maybe it’s somebody overcoming their own faults to be a better person.
I like reading spy and crime novels. In every story, there are multiple obstacles in the way. As the hero overcomes one, another one comes up and they usually grow to heighten the tension until they finally succeed.
Storytelling can be valuable for businesses. While your CEO might not get caught up in an international incident in which he or she helps avert a nuclear attack on New York City, there is still a relevant story that can be told.
It may be that your CEO founded the company in a garage and grew it into a multi-billion dollar business like Hewlett and Packard. Maybe your company was weeks away from bankruptcy but rebounded to become one of the most profitable companies in the world like Apple.
Most likely its something more simple. Your product was used in a meaningful way that helped a customer overcome an obstacle.
Last week I read an article about how a gentleman in Washington crashed his bike and was knocked out. His Apple Watch called 911 and an ambulance was there in a minute.
That’s a great story but yours probably won’t be as dramatic. Maybe your product or service helped a company improve its efficiency by 30% or exceed the revenue target. Perhaps your customer service team was able to help a customer solve a major problem that was causing a load of stress.
When you tell these stories it helps future customers understand what they are getting. Saying a product will improve efficiency by 30% is one thing. Telling the story of how it helped a company improve efficiency is another. Especially when its told in a compelling way in which your customer was the hero of their organization because they used the product.
Your Not Always the Hero
Have you ever talked to somebody who just can’t stop talking about themselves? It gets kind of annoying.
Your company or product doesn’t have to be the center of the story. As in the above example, make it about your customer. Tell the story of the struggle to overcome something, how they did it and the customer is the hero who saves the day.
The focus could be an employee who volunteers at the local hospital reading to children in the cancer ward. The employee’s work helps the children and family members get through a tough time. They are the hero and you win as well because you employ him or her. Who wouldn’t want to work with a company whose employees were of high character?
Stories provide fantastic entertainment but they can be more. They help us understand the world around us in a structure that we can easily understand.
They can help you tell stories that educate your customers and tell them something about your organization to build trust.
What stories does your organization have to tell?