Tao of the Zentropist

June 1, 2011

Storytelling and Commerce: When Art Meets Business

Fundamentally, humans seem hard-wired to appreciate and crave stories, and smart entrepreneurs and businesses instinctively understand this predisposition and will market themselves accordingly. In an age of 24/7 news cycles, the proliferation of media channels which didn’t exist a generation ago, and economic cycles which for many require constant reinvention and self-promotion to stand out from the competition, those who incorporate storytelling practices and techniques into their business are more apt to command the attention of both internal and external stakeholders, as well as customers.

THE ELEMENTS OF A SUCCESSFUL BUSINESS STORY

Well-told stories will always have certain traits in common, regardless of larger elements which are layered and woven in such as mythic structure, use of archetypal characters, genre conventions, cultural predispositions and the like. These traits ultimately come together to create a narrative that is:

  • Credible
  • Compelling
  • Consistent
  • Coherent
  • Character-Driven

So let’s dive deeper and define the above and provide some concrete, business-related examples to stir up some entrepreneurial juices.

CREDIBLE AND COMPELLING

Telling a story which is credible may on the surface seem odd from the point-of-view of the world of fiction, but actually, even fantasy and science-fiction must conform to rules established by the author through the conventions of the narrative. Unlike ancient Greek tragedy playwriting, the presence of deus ex machina plot devices is viewed by most as sloppy and/or lazy writing and is long out of fashion.

On the business front, maintaining credibility with customers, as well as employees and outside vendors, is critical for the fiscal health of the enterprise, and is vital whenever outside capital is being solicited. This credibility can not only pertain to the manner in which the business is presented and positioned in external facing collateral, but may extend to the behavior of key employees as well, including senior management. Once credibility is lost, whether due to incompetence, malfeasance, or simply failure to act in an appropriate and timely manner to a perceived problem, it can be extremely difficult to regain trust.

Determining what make a narrative compelling might seem like a tall order, but if one analyzes stories across various cultures and genres, it becomes very clear that at its heart, the answer is quite straightforward – the audience must be emotionally invested in the outcome of the story. If you fail to engage and hook the audience, you’ve lost them, their attention will wander, and your chance of regaining their interest will likely be compromised since they have already pre-judged your storytelling ability.

For a business to have a compelling story, it is essential that prospective customers understand the product and/or service offerings, and furthermore, that a Unique Selling Proposition (USP) exist. USP is fancy marketing speak for a succinct description of what differentiates your business from the competition, and potentially what benefits customers will derive from purchasing from you and not your competitors. It is essential that a business owner, as well as any staff who interacts with prospective customers (which if you get down to it, is actually everyone) clearly understand and be able to articulate your company’s USP.

CONSISTENT, COHERENT AND CHARACTER-DRIVEN

Consistency is another hallmark of a well-told story, and this is true in both the fiction and non-fiction realms. Most often, this is a reflection of the tone and style of the story, which in written form are conveyed in the use of language and point-of-view. In the fictional world, different genres over time have developed certain conventions, and while it is certainly possible to “break the rules” and even mix genres at times, the storyteller must be very careful in doing so, because when expectations are defied, a certain amount of risk is entailed. A similar restriction applies to non-fiction writing, such as reporting, memoirs, text books and the like. For example, fictional elements and personal opinion are never supposed to co-mingle with what is reported as “news” or represented as a “true life account.” To do so violates fundamental precepts of the form and undermines, if not outright destroys, credibility.

In business, it is just as important to remain consistent. This is true not only in the positioning of the company from a marketing and sales perspective, but also from an operational one as well. In order to develop efficient processes and economies of scale, companies need to create consistent means of performing tasks, with means to ensure quality, report results and address issues which arise during appropriate lifecycles. Successful national businesses with retail outlets, for example, spend considerable effort and capital ensuring that the customer experience at one location is replicated identically at another. If you’re a fan of the fast food burgers at a nationally known chain, you can rest assured that the meal you order at one location will more or less taste the same at another.  In the service world, it is important that methodologies and approaches which produce the best results are implemented consistently so that quality of the services delivered does not differ substantially depending on the resource(s) rendering the service.

Our final elements for inclusion are coherence and the importance of having memorable characters populate a story. Coherence might seem to some as a “no-brainer,” but poorly conceived, written and delivered stories can be found all around us without expending much effort to look. Sometimes coherence is sacrificed due to having too many people influencing the story, and in doing so, providing inconsistent guidance which creates a disjointed narrative. From the perspective of business, this is typically communicated through branding efforts and the development of vision, mission and positioning statements which communicate the company’s raison d’être. Businesses start to run into trouble when they cannot clearly define what it is they offer, what audience they serve, or why they are even in existence in the first place.

My final point regarding the creation (or featuring) of memorable characters highlights the fact that people tend to identify with or react emotionally to people (fictional or otherwise) who they aspire to be like, or someone they would like to befriend, or who represent a natural foe or adversary, or whose own story provides them with inspiration and meaning. As a business, talking about a corporate identity can seem rather cold and impersonal, and effective marketing often seeks to humanize the business by focusing on the personalities and achievements of management and staff, or at the very least, attractive spokespeople who will resonate with the target market. Some business leaders are naturally larger than life “characters” that the media quickly respond to, since writing stories about them is far easier than more bland or retiring personalities, while others will often invent or otherwise exaggerate certain qualities in order to draw attention and create publicity. There are certainly lessons to be learned from the colorful characters found throughout history as well as the present day, even if embellishments have invariably been added to those who really once existed, or walk the world today.

WHY STORIES MATTER

Stories, whether written down, acted out by performers, or delivered orally, form the backbone of any society. Stories communicate cultural values, important myths, and often convey history from the point of view of the story’s creator or communicator. They engage our interest on a visceral level and help us to make sense of not only what our senses tell us on an individual level, but to process the messages conveyed by our environment on a larger macro level as well.

Obviously, this article cannot possibly delve into the complexities of applying time-proven storytelling techniques within a business environment, but it hopefully does make the case that creative license, if not misapplied with the intent to deceive, should be part of every business toolbox.

Author’s Note: This posting originally ran on the blog Serial Startups on May 26, 2011…

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2 Comments »

  1. What a fascinating and educational post. I never thought to correlate story telling and marketting, but it’s a really interesting way to look at it, especially in the social media marketting world of today. USP is something I’ll consider for my novels. Labelling it helps me to define it. Thanks. I’m gald I found you.

    Comment by Tahlia Newland — September 11, 2011 @ 5:54 pm | Reply

  2. What’s up, just wanted to mention, I liked this blog post. It was inspiring. Keep on posting!

    Comment by best branding agencies sydney — September 22, 2012 @ 10:53 pm | Reply


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