Commoner
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Commoner

Original drawing by Ruxandra Șerbănoiu

Success starts with challenge: how to reframe conversations about winning

In our private lives, when we are home on the couch, scrolling through our social media platform of choice (mine is Instagram by the way) we find ourselves quickly drawn to successful, famous and beautiful people (usually all three at once).

These people seem to exude an effortless significance, so that even their most minute daily tasks seem engaging. We tune in each day to hear the secret to their success, from working out to making fruit smoothies.

When it comes to service focused businesses, it’s easy to believe that clients and prospects will be similarly drawn into our stories of success. Whether it be a case study or company overview, we tend to slip into the habit of leading client conversations with winning.

Here’s the problem though, in business, our clients spend less time considering other’s success and more time ruminating on their own problems.

Unlocking the power of a success story or case study lies in presenting a narrative of challenge — insight — solution.

Success, in a business context, is assumed. Unless you are incredibly clever, clients will not hire you for guaranteed failure. Being such a common business resource, success isn’t much of an original protagonist, one of the first prerequisites for an engaging story.

A better way to look at it would be to say that success is best used as a catalyst for a richer narrative about the problems you solve and the unique insight that you take to those problems.

Businesses (and brands) engage your help because of problems currently on their table. Sometimes these problems are properly defined and have enough hard edges that it’s clear that they need help. Other times the problems are more like a nagging feeling that things could be better, if I could only articulate what was wrong.

Unlocking the power of a success story or case study lies in presenting a narrative of challenge — insight — solution. A narrative that frames your past client’s problem in your current or prospective clients wheelhouse and does so in a way that makes you seem the natural fit for working together. A narrative that places challenge as the key protagonist in your story of success.

Success stories that lead with challenge naturally contain a question; how do you solve problems? If you start with a question like this, tell the story effectively with believable characters, appropriate production values and interesting visuals (if you have them), then audiences will stick around for the answer (hint: the answer is you).

Stories that skip challenge and start with success rarely contain problems or questions. In fact, they rarely contain narrative at all, the prerequisite for tension and engagement. Tension creates a mixture of anticipation and doubt, which encourages an emotional commitment to find out what happens. Will they solve the problem? It may seem obvious that they will, but does Ethan Hunt ever not save the world in Mission Impossible?

Challenge provides us with a platform to show expertise and insight. Every agency and firm experiences success at some point, and past success is an assumed rite of passage before jumping into a client’s back pocket. That we succeed in business hints that we are good at something (surely). Showing our challenges elevates that unique skill and brings it into a sharper and clearer focus for the client.

Challenge contains a broader emotional spectrum than success. Picture an image depicting success. I bet you can only imagine something cheesy like a woman climbing a mountain or crossing a finish line. Maybe a fist pump.

Now picture challenge. Challenge conjures up images of teamwork, of innovation, of research and long nights of perspiration and inspiration. Challenge is common ground, where success is a small peak.

Lastly, challenge is a more motivated protagonist (when used correctly). You shouldn’t just mention a problem exists, you should use it to drive the story in every way. Challenge as protagonist means that every decision from that point on in the story should be mapped back to the original problem. It should drive who speaks, what characters appear, when they appear and what parts of the problem solving process you show. It is a helpful way to keep the broad range of services you offer in context, as only some of them are relevant to the problem at hand.

It’s best to remember the reason why you are doing all this; the emotional payoff for challenge is far greater than success alone. Whilst challenge keeps us up at night, sometimes for months on end, success is fleeting. The way to bring depth and longevity to your success is to reframe it in the present and future problems of your clients.

Putting storytelling to work

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Mark Welker

Mark Welker

Mark Welker is an award winning short fiction writer, filmmaker, day dreamer and company director at video agency Commoner.

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