Climbing Mountains & Slaying Dragons
Or, how telling better stories can make you a better businessperson.
By simply putting effort into telling a good story, and telling it well, your company can save money, work better together, get more things done, and win more customers. Oh, and you’ll end up looking like a hero too.
If a business is an engine, communication is the oil. At every level and in every interaction (email message, keynote speech, etc.), being able to clearly convey your ideas, and making those ideas interesting to your audience, can make the difference between engagement and indifference. Between organizational alignment and disarray. Between profit and loss. This article isn’t about storytelling per se, but rather why and how we should let go of trying to follow the rules of business communication and embrace telling beautiful stories instead.
From company-wide pep rallies to Slack conversations, to the briefest of emails, we are all in one way or another, for better or worse, telling stories. We’re humans—we just can’t help it.
But in chaotic and fast-paced environment of the office, we often forget to tell good stories. We sacrifice authenticity for wishful thinking and creativity for formality. And when we finally find a platform to speak, we often end up telling the wrong story to the people we’re addressing.
This article is about why stories matter, how to avoid three basic communication pitfalls, and how to tell your stories beautifully.
Why Stories Matter
Telling your story happens at several basic levels:
As a leader, telling it to yourself
Whether you’re a manager, a mayor, or a CEO, you absolutely must have a clear, consistent story for your team. A story about your vision, or mission, or purpose, or whatever you want to call that most central, important thing that is your reason for being. And to do that, you need to have a story that you can articulate to yourself. Almost every leader we’ve met believes they have a vision. But in many cases they are vague, cloudy and ever-shifting pictures. They tend to get redrawn reactively based on the latest financial, cultural, or business trends. You can’t expect your employees to act in concert if you can’t consistently tell them why they’re there in the first place.
People don’t follow leaders for their number crunching prowess or their bureaucratic finesse. They follow, and are energized, by leaders they believe in. By a mission they believe in. And they won’t follow you if you can’t clearly tell that story. Compare Steve Jobs to Tim Cook or Elon Musk to Muhtar Kent (the CEO of Coca-Cola, and famously bad orator). Great company stories start at the top and permeate the culture.
As a team, telling it to each other
One of the first things we do at Sequitur when we start a new project is ask our client’s employees what they think the mission or vision of their company is. When we can talk to ten people and walk away with a sense of common purpose, we know our job will be much easier. When we get blank stares or wild stabs in the dark, we know we’ve got our work cut out for us. More times that not, employees will say that they know what the company mission is, but can’t really put it into words. This is usually a sign that people aren’t on the same page, because when pressed they fall back to ironically quoting slogans from marketing or making up their own version of what the story should be. These same people usually say that everyone would say the same thing as them.
Teams with a shared purpose work better together. They don’t have to argue about the fundamental stuff. They understand the basic promise they are making to their customers. And maybe most importantly, at a fundamental level, they just know what to do. When employees know the story, they tell it to each other. They indoctrinate new hires. It becomes one with the culture. Once those stories get embedded like that, they’re very difficult to un-embed.
As a company, telling it to the world
Now here’s the part where measurable benefits start becoming obvious. Companies that don’t have a clear story pay dearly in this department because every time they want to do a marketing campaign (or an email, or a new website, etc.) they start from scratch. And every time, it comes out differently. Over time this starts to befuddle customers and erode trust. It’s like running into someone who tells you a different story every time you meet them. Wait!? I thought you had kids? I thought you were in med school? I thought you said you lived in France??
Having a story that you just know, and that is true pays huge dividends in marketing, audience engagement and customer loyalty. It’s a subtle thing, really. When you have a story that’s embedded into your culture (see above) it will naturally flow out through your marketing, maintaining a certain consistency. When you don’t, every marketing campaign has the potential to be a disconcerting reinvention of your brand.
As a customer, telling it to friends.
Remember way back when, when we were talking about the CEO having a vision? Imagine the beauty of a customer telling a friend that very same story, thus linking the chain together. A manifest strategy. If you think it’s impossible, it’s not. Steve Jobs got through to his customers. Elon Musk gets through to his. That mythical fount of earned media is the sort of thing brands lust after—customers introducing you to their friends, online and IRL. What will they say about you? How will they present you? It’s so much easier and better if you offer them a story worth telling. One that they feel a part of—that they see themselves in. And the better the story, the more likely they are to retell it.
Where we fail, and how to do it right
Businesses are never lacking in stories. But having a story isn’t enough. Here’s how our stories fail us and how we can fix them.
We tell bad stories
Just because you have a story doesn’t mean it’s good. Think about all the boring, overstuffed Powerpoint presos you’ve endured. Think about the lackluster keynote addresses you’ve watched or even just the boring meetings you’ve sat through, praying that your phone will ping with an interesting tweet, giving you a moment of sweet distraction.
Good stories are by definition, captivating.
A good story has a protagonist who is trying to achieve something bigger than herself. And of course she must overcome some scary obstacle to get there. Boom. That’s all your story needs to be. With that simple conceit your audience now has a focal point. They have someone to identify with and root for. They become invested in your story.
Now, every story doesn’t have to literally be about a girl and a mountain. Look at Tesla—Elon Musk’s big story is about the Earth! The obstacle is climate change. And the goal is clean air. At SpaceX the subject is mankind. The goal is Mars. And the challenge is our will. Those are the big narratives that every employee keeps in their pocket. Inside those big plot lines are subplots—the stories about how they’ll make good. About what beliefs they hold dear. All the little details that bring the big narrative to life. The dream becomes a plan. And when enough people believe in it, the plan becomes achievable.
Your stories don’t have to be epic to be good. You can tell your digital marketing plan story through the eyes of a single customer. You can tell your new UX standards story through your own autobiography. If you’ve got an important email to send out, try framing things up with a figurative hero, quest and mountain. I’m just saying—no matter what the context, you’ll grab their attention and stay in their minds much longer if you tell them a good story.
We tell untrue stories
The biggest problem we see, which I think is particularly acute in the marketing world but also happens quite a bit in the C-suite, is the fear of telling a true story. There are lots of reasons for this. True stories don’t sound sexy right out of the box. They usually contain some dirty laundry that feels awkward to expose. And maybe most of all, they usually run counter to our wishful thinking. We wish we were an innovative company, so we’ll just say that. We wish we were passionate about automated medical billing infrastructure, so we’ll just say that.
The problem with untrue stories is that they’re not interesting. There’s no struggle, nothing to care about. We’re all familiar with the Cinderella story, right? Here’s how it would go if corporate America wrote it: Cinderella was passionate about fashion and ballroom dancing. She worked hard, went to the ball and was selected by the Prince as the finest maiden in the Western sales territory. The End. Boring! In the real story, she had a goal, she showed pluck, she tried and failed. But she didn’t give up. I know, it’s a fairytale and not technically a true story. But it’s a good story because it rings true. We see ourselves in it. And we believe it because we want to believe it.
The point is: It’s okay to talk about your failures. It’s okay to talk about your goals, even if you haven’t achieved them. It’s okay to call out the bad guy. It’s okay to be earnest and even a bit vulnerable.
Those details make your story feel more honest, more authentic, and easier to engage with. They reveal your character as a company, your resolve, and your imperfect humanity. They align you with your audience. Just try it next time you give a presentation. Start with your big dream. Talk about how you tried and failed. Lay out what you learned and recruit the team to join you in your quest to finally succeed.
We tell the wrong stories
The more I do this work, the more I’m convinced that every story, at its core, needs to be about the audience. Even if it’s an autobiography, it needs to really be about them. It’s so easy in marketing to talk about ourselves and how great we are. We think by aggrandizing ourselves we’re making ourselves seem appealing to consumers. This is misguided on two levels. First, who wants to listen to an egomaniacal blowhard? Even Donald Trump, commonly accused of being clinically narcissistic, is not really talking about a wall. He’s talking about jobs. He’s talking about nationalism. He’s telling a story about his supporters and their fears and values and dreams. Whether he’s doing the right thing or the wrong thing, he’s doing it very well.
Businesses love to talk about themselves and how great their products are. Think about the myriad car commercials that go something like: Introducing the new world-class GMC Canyonero. Voted MotorTrend SUV of the year. The most headroom. The biggest storage area. Blah blah blah. And it’s zooming through a twisty mountain road or splashing through a rocky creek bed. Compare that to this one:
This Subaru ad brilliantly tells the story of the owners through the lens of the car. It’s connecting with us as people, not just consumers. Should we take the road less traveled, even though it’s filled with potential peril? Is that who we are? Are we adventurers? Or are we khaki-wearing cubicle dwellers? The subject is us. The goal is living up to our potential. And the obstacle that fork in the road. This Subaru went from being just another SUV to being the vehicle that will allow us to express our true selves!
Subaru is telling the right story because it’s telling a story about us, the viewer. We care a whole hell of a lot about ourselves. We LOVE stories about ourselves. Remember that when you’re crafting your story. You might be tempted to think that its about you or your product. But think again. Try to craft it in a way that shows your audience it’s really about them.
Practice makes perfect
What I really want you to walk away with here is that you can start telling stories today. Modern business is based on communication, so you’ve got amble opportunities. Give it a go and later on down the road, tell me about the raise you got, or the deal you made—I’d love to hear about it.
Just remember: Tell a good story. Tell a true story. And tell the right story to the people you’re talking to. Do it for yourself, but more importantly, do it for your audience. They’re dying to hear a great yarn. Whether it’s to rally your team, generate interest in an initiative you’re passionate about, or just get someone to read your (important!) email, you’ll find that using a story can be the magic ingredient to finding your own happy ending.