The 3 phases of constructing a business story
Today we are going run through the three phases to repeatedly create (or find) the right story to solve some common business problems.
Then we’ll look at how to apply it in areas of business as diverse as marketing, finance, and HR.
But first… a story.
The children of the Banks family in Mary Poppins didn’t want to take their medicine. I mean, who would? Especially in 1930s London – cold medicine was foul! Thick, dark and sticky. A horrible experience. The magical nanny who could foresee every want and need of children under her care knew what the trick was. A spoonful of sugar. It helps the medicine go down, of course. Nowadays we are spoiled when it comes to cold medicine, most of it is prepared with sugar or sweeteners. The Banks children took their medicine, felt better and were also comforted that their new nanny was able to make even such a horrible experience lovely. That is, after all, Mary Poppin’s ‘thing.’
The analogy of this is as follows: storytelling is the sugar for the bitter pill of speeds and feeds.
An analogy is a compressed form of story designed to trigger your brain into rapidly filling the gaps.
Storytelling isn’t just about weaving beautiful tales. It’s about delivering information, effectively.
You can fit storytelling into the essential parts of any business.
The ground work
Before we dig into the various ways to apply it, let’s lay the foundation.
First and foremost, story is about people and their emotions, how they act and the results of the action.
This is convenient because your business is about people (customers) and how they act and are acted upon (your products plays a role.)
You can be mindful and intentional about this, or you can cross your fingers and hope for the best.
Do you make a habit of crossing fingers for business decisions?
I didn’t think so.
The magic of storytelling is that it is a brain hack that helps deliver information. Just like our Mary Poppin’s story and the bitter pill analogy.
Most people think if they need to make a point that they need to lead with the opinion or assertion. They think they need to be prepared to justify and “argue” their position. Most people are misguided – and you can see it everywhere from the polarization of politics to marketing materials that lead with all sorts of details before you are even ‘sold’ on why you should care. The process of consuming a story naturally delivers the opinion or assertion in a natural, human manner which helps people see why they should bother. It puts them at the center.
People make decisions based on emotion and justify based on data. And as CEO of The Camp Negotiation Institute, Jim Camp says:
“Their ultimate decision is based on self-interest. That’s emotional.”
You do need to have your rational points all buttoned up. But you are not going to lead with them. You are going to lead with story, win over people’s hearts and minds, and then provide them with the data to justify why going with you is the right thing to do.
The Three Phases
First, we are going to break down your opinion or assertion. Then we are going to use those pieces as a roadmap to find the perfect story.
Break down the elements of an opinion or assertion:
- The topic/thing (what, where, when)
- The known or potential impact (how, who)
- Point of view (why)
Secondly, we can now take those findings and use the following business story elements to start crafting the essential component of the story. Think of this as the magical “conversion phase” that bridges logical thinking, facts, and opinions to that of how our brains work.
- Provide the context (Who, When, Where)
- Describe the action (Who, What, How)
- Communicate the Results (How, Why)
Finally, now that we are close to the language, components and structure of story it’s time to start brainstorming what the story could be.
- Beginning – who is your hero, where and when are they? What is it they may want or need? What is at stake?
- Middle – how do they go about obtaining what they want? How do the world and the other characters react to this?
- End – what are the outcomes because of the action in the middle? Is there a moral, learning or a theme?
Write it down. At least a paragraph. Less than a page. This is business communication; you are not trying to out do George R. R. Martin with a Game of Thrones competitor.
Time to edit! As with filmmaking and photography, the magic of writing is in the edit.
Take the following into account and use them as your north star of the editing process: stakes and theme. Go back to your story and remove anything that doesn’t illustrate how significant the stakes are. Then go through and amplify and enhance everything that helps support the theme. Remove anything ambiguous that doesn’t help stakes or theme. You are looking for just the right amount of sugar to help the medicine go down.
Once you have your draft story, you are ready to tackle the big stuff.
Let’s look at some essential parts of the business world and consider how the story you crafted above can be used to benefit each area.
Storytelling Applied to Business
As a startup consider the pitch, what you would say to a potential investor. If you are in an established company, consider a business unit leader is proposing a new product line. You ask questions such as:
- Who is this product for, what problem does it solve?
- What is at stake for your customers and how can you help?
If you can’t change people’s lives for the better, why develop the product in the first place?
Where would it make sense to tell your story? In some places (such as a presentation) it may be all at once. In others (such as an email marketing campaign) it may manifest over multiple assets.
Product marketing and value creation
Zeroing in on a value proposition is about understanding who will benefit in what ways from your product. The “stakes” from earlier are back in full effect here.
Your positioning framework effort is the next click down into your target market and its specific challenges. The what, why and who are particularly important at this step. How you can help is also vital.
Consider the nuances of the challenges customers face, the rich detail your target market suffers through daily and how you can change their situation for the better.
The act of product marketing is about understanding their story, how to meet them in it and how to change it for the better.
You can’t encode the "customer journey" for your product or service without understanding the journey of real people in your target market.
Your story will help you understand and communicate:
- Where do they live, work, frequent?
- What their challenges are.
- What value can you add beyond your products, in content.
- Content that brings your journey to join theirs.
Consider what to put behind a gate and what to provide without:
- No-gate: context setting, high-level stories, and guides, emotionally fueled content
- Gated: detailed how-to guides, work resources, and worksheets
The content without a gate should be compelling and engaging content that leads them to want to trade their email for all the precious detailed goodness you have on offer.
Competitors. New markets. New facilities.
The Context here is the challenges your business faces (e.g., loss of profits) or opportunity it pursues (e.g., expansion).
You must know our competition intimately to understand them and how to out-maneuver them.
You must appreciate location, culture and the people of a place before you can move into that market.
Go beyond mere scenarios and consider the stories that exist in the market that you will be participating in.
Use the story building process to create and test the hypothesis for the market landscape you are tackling.
Do these sound like common questions for your business?
- Why are specific divisions spending or investing in particular areas?
- Why are costs running up or margins suffering?
Behind every number is a story. To effectively steer the ship, we must understand these things.
Slashing headcount or cutting back on R&D investment without understanding the context, the story, of the market and the employees is a game of Russian Roulette.
By building stories using our process above you will be able to bridge the reality with the numbers and set yourself us to use the numbers in the most effective way possible.
Without a story, we might as well just scream “42” and walk out of the room. I’m referring to the novel Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, where it is stated that “the answer is 42”, the question is, however, unknown. The entire novel is the pursuit of the question. Numbers + Story = goodness.
How do you individualize your product or service for this buyer?
What is it about your customer's experience, their story, that you can make better? How do you uncover these things?
Great salespeople get their customer talking. Telling. Storytelling.
A friend once told me how in the early days of Microsoft a sexist manager came to her and said: “We can’t figure out why you are successful.” He was comparing her behavior to the rest of the sales team; all men who used hard selling bravado. Unlike her contemporaries, my friend was able to empathize and individualize with her customers. She understood their story and how to position the Microsoft products as supporting case to this story. Because of this people bought from her and it confused management.
“A great story does not just live inside best-selling novels or Hollywood blockbusters. Every brand carries a story hidden inside of it. All you need to do is draw it out and retell it to your audience to let them make your brand their own.” – Fast Company, Why A Good Story Is The Most Important Thing You’ll Ever Sell.
Consider some of the questions that arise in operations roles.
- Why do things happen as they do? In this building, that site or that country?
- How are materials getting gathered, processed and built into products?
- Where are the missed opportunities? Why would that happen?
- What friction exists in your teams, between your people?
By understanding the ebb and flow of the story in the organization, we can understand the questions, the answers and ultimately tune how the team operates.
As with Finance and Business Strategy you can also use storytelling to model out hypothetic scenarios. And use the story as the baseline to test their validity in the real world.
It’s one reason why Agile Project Methodology uses the concepts of ‘stories’ in product development.
Staffing and HR
Here are some concerns for the HR team and leadership in general. Consider how having a documented story can help you explore and pursue answering these.
- What do we stand for?
- Why are we here?
- What sort of people are a good fit? Bad fit?
- Whom do we need to hire, or manage out and why?
- What do we tell prospective employees to entice them?
By developing stories using the above outline you can flush out your desired organizational state. Then you can build employee satisfaction surveys informed by that legwork. And coach managers and create training all based on these stories.
As you can see story structures are useful across the board in business.
Most people think that storytelling is confined to marketing. It’s not. Embrace storytelling, story-making, and story-doing for sustained, long-term success as a business leader.
I’d love to hear what business challenges you are tackling and help you apply storytelling to solve them.