Just as gray is the new black for fashionistas, so storytelling has become the new social media for corporate communicators. Book after book, from The Tipping Point to Made to Stick, insist that we tell stories. Microsoft has even created a new position senior director of storytelling.
As someone who has been telling corporate stories for many years, let me interrupt with an emergency news flash. Yes, storytelling is the best way to capture attention, hearts and memories and make your point. But it’s much more difficult than other forms of nonfiction writing.
Just like in a story, though, the higher the mountain, the more rewarding the quest.
After I watched the presentation of friend Donna Papacosta from the IABC world conference, I realized it was time to share what I’ve learned as a creator of corporate story moments. I know I should tell a story here, but it’s difficult to have a story-generating conflict with someone as nice and smart as Donna.
Until it became trendy, I did not consider myself a storyteller. If I were, I would have written hit novels and screen plays. I have tried, but I just can’t sustain the long and loopy story arcs.
Lucky for me, corporate storytellers don’t have 300 pages or two hours to spin the yarn. We have a few sentences, pages at the most, or a few seconds, minutes at best.
So although I have learned a lot about the craft from screen writers and novelists, especially Stephen King’s On Writing, I have spent more time reflecting on the short stories told in television commercials. Or at least that’s how I justify hours flopped out on the couch when my eyes and brain are too tired to read or write anymore.
The main difference between television commercials and corporate storytelling is truth. Commercials are about fictional characters who we can relate to because they are just like us or the people we want to see ourselves as. But the characters in corporate stories can’t be idealized. They have to be real.
Short, real stories can be employed in many ways, from anecdotes that introduce your presentation to detailed case studies to quick examples.
Heroes we love
My favorite is the regular-employee-as-hero tale. These almost always involve our hero coming through for customers and co-workers despite a Herculean challenge: the ravages of the tornado, tsunami, ice storm or other natural disaster… the bombing of the twin towers or other violent event… the project with the impossible deadline… the new mission-critical system that doesn’t work… the evil competitor stealing clients… the heartless bureaucrats destroying dreams … I could go on, but you get it.
That magic comes not only from recognizing typical employees as heroes, but also from showing examples of the behaviour the organization would love other people to emulate.
Notice that these story lines are all based on conflict and resolution. You cannot have a story without conflict. The more insurmountable the challenge seems, with setbacks thrown in to build tension, the more dramatic the story will be. The more dramatic the story, the more likely are people to pay attention, remember and think about how the narrative applies to them.
Conflict is vital
Unfortunately, some corporate folk like to pretend they don’t have problems. This makes it impossible to tell a story. Air brushing the facts also undermines their credibility.
Fortunately, you can often find inhuman forces that will spark the conflict, as in the natural disasters and violent events I just mentioned.
Better still, finger an outsider bad guy, as in the evil competitor or the heartless bureaucrat. The us-against-them mentality will kick the chronicle and unite your audience against the common enemy.
The better you develop the character of your villains and heroes, the better your story will be. Your audience has to care about the hero. If Val had to first make sure the home generator was powering her dad’s dialysis machine before rushing into work, we love her all the more. If Tony sacrificed fantasy sports camp to meet the deadline, our applause will ring louder.
But sometimes the conflict has to come from within, as with the flawed system your IT department developed or bought.
To deal with that, you can admit that life is messy and we learn best through our mistakes. Or you can imply that the conflict came from a situation and not an individual. Spend as little time as possible blaming and move on. This does, however, water down the drama.
Of course, anyone who works in corporate communication knows how compromises get you through the approval process. Write a Cadillac, but settle for a Volvo. The good news is that compelling stories can often grip micro-managing approvers so tightly that they’ll interfere much less than usual.
Because corporate stories are short, you don’t have much time to build character. So select only the most telling details. And remember the advice of my grade 9 English teacher: develop the character of your heroes and villains through what they say, what they do and what other people say about them.
Although you want to keep your corporate stories real, you can ignore or photoshop details that would bog down the story or embarrass your heroes. For example, I will often tighten dialogue or clean up glaring grammar mistakes, especially with people whose first laguage is not English. If I’m telling the story in print, I don’t need to mention that my hero has a wandering left eye or strange taste in jewellery.
Similarly, if you’re telling your own story, you don’t have to blow your life wide open, just reveal a few details that make your audience say, as they do so well in the television commercials, “He’s just like me.”
Don’t toot your own horn. It’s fine to write an effusive introduction that someone else will recite, but when you’re talking or writing a personal anecdote, be humble, even self-deprecating, if you want to be loved.
I read one blogger who tells too-perfect personal stories to introduce her advice-filled posts. However, I would take her more seriously if she occasionally mentioned bingeing on cookies or yelling at her husband.
Because posts are often more personal than corporate storytelling, it’s not surprising that some of the most moving storytellers live in the blogosphere. Naomi Dunford, who combines tales of personal tragedy and triumph with smart internet marketing advice, is one of my favorites.
Naomi cuts to the visceral feelings level that everyone shares. In one post, she told the story of being broke with a sick baby on the way, then suddenly achieving internet success. I remember the post because I can relate to worries about money and loved ones and stubborn optimism.
This need to communicate from a common ground is why leaders should avoid mentioning luxury vacations and talk more about precious moments with their children or lessons from working construction in college. And don’t forget that you can decide on that common ground only by clearly understanding who you are telling your story to.
Although classic storytelling advice may go on about the importance of setting, remember that corporate stories are short. If you want people to read your account, you need to grab them by opening with the conflict, then circling back, but only to the scene, context or back story bits that are absolutely vital. As with character development, select only very specific and colorful details that will best paint the picture or make your point.
Get to the point
Ever since Aesop’s fables, around 600 BC, there’s been a moral to the stories we tell. Corporate stories have to have a point too.
Most corporate storytellers clearly state their point, in the introduction and the conclusion.
Remember that if the point doesn’t quickly become obvious, your readers will feel like you do when you’re listening to a wind bag talk about her weekend, while drumming you fingers and saying to yourself: “Get to the point!”
To sum up, here’s what corporate storytellers need to remember
- Be concise
- Keep it real
- Base your stories on conflict and resolution
- Drive the conflict with heroes and villains
- Develop your characters by selecting specific, colorful, telling details
- Clearly state the point of your story
- Appeal to emotions your audience can relate to
- Relate to your audience from a common ground
Learn from the masters
Although much of my advice has focused on the constraints of corporate storytelling, please don’t limit yourself. You’ll find the best storytellers in books, movies, television and advertising.
Learn the techniques from the epic masters. Then distil them into magical corporate story moments.