Business Five Step Storytelling
Best intentions, higher callings, righteousness – all good stuff but without good communication, our efforts fail. Instinctively, we all know storytelling is a great communication tool, but the word itself is a problem. We associate it with bedtime stories and therefore the idea sounds a bit childish. In the modern era, Hollywood talks about the arc of the story or in politics, the media punishes the lack of narrative. Actually, this is storytelling just dressed up in more formal attire.
The other problem with storytelling is that we are not very good at it. It seems too simple, so we gravitate to more complex solutions – frameworks, theories, models, four box quadrants, pyramids, Venn diagrams – anything to appear more convoluted and pseudo-intelligent. If we present something complex, we must be smart. On the other hand, anyone can tell a story. Ah…but can they?
How many really good business stories have you heard lately? Have you been captured by the speaker, as they have taken you into a story that has you emotionally and logically involved? In my observation, businesspeople are usually poor communicators. To ensure they never improve, they are invariably uninterested in "childish solutions" like becoming a great business storyteller. They totally miss the point. We can tell stories that are credible, relevant and absorbing. We do this by adding in colour, action, personalities, locations, situations – all manner of rich fabric to the story. We paint a powerful word picture that the listener can visualise in their mind’s eye.
No matter what industry we are in, we have four main business communication objectives. It might be to increase credibility for our organisation or to inform an audience of some pertinent information. It might be to move people or it might just be for entertainment purposes. The Business Five Step Storytelling process focuses on moving people to action. We might tell this story from the point of view of our own experience in the first person or we may refer to the insights of someone else, told in the third person.
We begin by clarifying the "Why" it matters. The story draws out the immediacy and relevance for the audience of the problem or issue. This is a critical step, because everyone is surfing through hundreds of emails, Facebook and Twitter posts, LinkedIn updates, Instagram messages, etc. They are dealing with family, work, financial and health issues. There is a tremendous competition for the mind space of our audience. If we don’t have a powerful "Why" to grab attention, game over right there. This is where storytelling is so powerful. We move straight into the world of the story, to highlight the gap, the failing, the challenge. Replacing the usual bromide beginnings of talks (Thank you for inviting me; It is a pleasure to speak to you today; etc.), we move straight into emotion and action: "The Marunouchi Board Room mood was dark and grim. As Jim stood up, looking at the faces around the table, he knew this was an all or nothing moment…." If you hear a talk with a start like that, you definitely want to hear what is going to happen next.
We now move straight on to the "What" – the information they need to know. This is knowledge they don’t already have or have not sufficiently focused on as yet. This will bring forth data or perspectives, which are pertinent, immediate and grip our audience. Imparting key points, each linked with firm evidence, is essential today because we are all card carrying skeptics. There is so much false information floating around, we are permanently on guard against feeling cheated or foolish.
We must communicate to the audience what they need to do. This might be our own recommendation or we may relay that of the third person in the story. For example, "Bill told me the whole marketing team, Nakamura, Adam, Tanaka and Ohira had spent weeks working back late, almost missing the last train becoming a regular occurrence. Constantly refining the database, each time with a much sharper angle for the buyer’s perspective, they were getting closer and closer to the key insight. Ohira mentioned to me the reems of paper generated were piling up on every flat surface in the office, they could hardly move but finally the answer became clear. Over a twelve month period, constant split testing and independent validation upon validation registered the same pattern. To produce the follow up communication sequence that will consistently produce the best results we need to…."
Having isolated out the issue, imparted some evidence to provide more compelling reasons to take this issue seriously, we now tell the "How" to move forward. This will explain in some detail what needs to be done, so that the listener can take immediate action: "The vendor’s programmers needed to be involved with the marketing team, as they scope out the action steps. By the way, the flow chart map in our largest meeting room in the Otemachi office spanned across every wall, even the glass door, in some places three layers deep. It was complex but visually easy to follow. Mitsuo walked me through the paper covering the walls, tracking each iteration and step, emphasing the colour paths created by the red, green and blue marker pens. Step One was…."
To deal with any potential doubts or concerns, we head them off by exploring the "What Ifs". We join the listener in the conversation going on in their mind concerning the fears they might have, about what is being suggested. We address these in the story, so that there are no or few residual barriers to taking action: "There were doubts among the London Board members – plenty of them. What if the data was too old now, given the speed of change we were facing. In fact, we found that the constant split testing allowed us to keep updating our hypothesis, so we were always close to the buyer viewpoint".
Finally, we repeat the "Action Steps" we recommend, succinctly and clearly, so that these stay fresh in the mind. "After the wrap-up meeting was held over pizzas and beer back at the Toranomon Hill’s office, we isolated out the Five Steps we found which worked best. In this specific order: Step One…." Compressing the steps into numbers like three, five or seven work best, as they tend to be easily recalled. Few people can hold elaborate data points in their head. Keep it short, keep it memorable.
Embed the key messages in a series of stories that we can follow along with you. Unfold the point of the talk with plenty of real people and real situations stitched into the telling. The richer the detail and the more real the story, the easier it will be to take our audience with us. Being dull and boring like everyone else is an option, just not a very good one. With a simple storyline embedded into the explanation, we will be so much more memorable and persuasive.
1. 1. Explain Why it matters
2. 2. Tell the audience What they need to know
3. 3. Outline How to do it
4. 4. Vanquish the What If objections before they arise
5. 5. Detail the recommended Action Steps