The 60/40 Split: Leveraging Stories in Informative Business Content
Think of the last great keynote presentation or political speech you listened to; one that resonated and stuck with you for days or weeks after you first heard it. I'm willing to bet that presentation or speech had an incredibly powerful story woven throughout it.
In her book Resonate, Nancy Duarte explores the role of story and emotion in public speaking, from Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech to Steve Jobs' iPhone launch presentation. Every great presentation, she says, is structured in such a way that drives an audience to conviction and action. That structure is a "sparkline" that strikes a healthy balance between facts and emotion – between what is and what could be.
"People rarely act by reason alone," writes Duarte. "You need to tap into other deeply seated desires and beliefs to be persuasive… It's not that difficult to evoke a visceral reaction in an audience if you use stories."
In the context of a presentation, stories, whether based on historical figures, real customers or hypothetical scenarios, are designed to draw an audience in and put them at the center of the presentation's themes. True anecdotes can serve as proof positive that the speaker's ideas and concepts work in the real world. Fictional stories can illustrate the speaker's points exactly the way they want to convey them and push all the right buttons in the audience's minds. Both have their place in presentations, and both can be incredibly effective at eliciting the desired reaction.
So, it's obvious that an emotionally-driven story is the secret to a great speech or presentation. The bigger secret? All of your business content can have the same type of impact as the greatest speech you've ever heard. It can be just as compelling and engaging and drive your stakeholders and customers to action. You just need to know when to weave in a story.
The curse of knowledge: How business content becomes inaccessible to those on the 'outside'
I've noticed that many people who focus on storytelling in business care about it a lot when they have to get up on stage and are less concerned about it in their broader communications and marketing efforts, let alone day-to-day business. There's an interesting nuance here with those day-to-day business communications: They often fall victim to the curse of knowledge.
If you're unfamiliar with the concept, the "curse of knowledge" (described in Chip and Dan Heath's book, Made to Stick) is a phenomenon in which our over-familiarity with something – be it a product, service, technology or business process – causes us to rely on buzzwords and jargon when we talk about it.
It does make sense: In any organization, you have to understand the ins and outs of the product and the company just to survive. However, once you know a lot about a subject, you can (and do) talk about, and access that subject much deeper and more rapidly than most of your audience is going to get. This becomes a challenge when you want to engage externally with prospects and customers about your industry and products.
For tech companies, the curse of knowledge is compounded further by the fact that their products are often fairly complicated. The experts within these companies feel like they have to communicate everything all at once and "infect" their audience with the details (to paraphrase the Heath brothers). In doing this, you've lost your audience before you've even had a chance to share the information that matters most to them. Moreover, once the audience is lost, your chances of winning their attention back are pretty slim.
To illustrate how the curse of knowledge spreads within an organization, let's consider a marketer named Margaret, who's new on the job at a tech company. Margaret has just been hired to head up the marketing department at ACME Technology, a managed solutions provider that's about to launch their first-ever product. She's been following ACME's rise in the industry and is excited to bring her extensive product marketing experience to impact the market in ways the company hasn't been able to do yet.
At first, Margaret is brimming with fresh, new ideas that she's been able to adapt from her previous work. As weeks and months go by, though, she finds herself sucked deeper and deeper into the product features and specs. She gets caught up in the internal politics and "noise" of her organization, putting the requests and feedback of leaders, product owners, and department heads ahead of all other considerations. Before she knows it, she can no longer see the forest for the trees. She's so lost in the details that she's forgotten about the people on the outside: ACME's customers. Continuing on this path will only cause these external audiences to become lost, too – no one wins.
At Go Narrative, we work with many startup founders who always have big ideas about what they can do and what their technology can achieve – not unlike Margaret. They often follow the beachhead strategy of zeroing in on the specific type of help that they can give to a specific segment of the market. While it's good to get crystal clear on your ideal buyer persona and deeply understand their pain points and needs, your messaging will be inaccessible to the vast majority of your customer base if it's all about the product details, or the facts, to Nancy Duarte's point.
What's the solution to the curse of knowledge? How do marketers like Margaret find their way to the edge of the forest and regain that all-important "outside-in" perspective on their company's product or service? The answer is to simplify it all with a great story.
The art of weaving stories into informative business content
In all of your corporate communications, whether it's a keynote presentation, a customer-facing marketing campaign or an internal project briefing, you can harness the power of storytelling to draw your audience in and help them feel a personal, relatable connection to your content.
A good rule of thumb to follow is a 60/40 split, where 60% of your content is informative and instructive, and 40% is a story – whether it's about a real customer or a fictional representation of one – that illustrates the larger point you're trying to make.
Within this 40% of "story" content, you can include things like customer quotes and short anecdotes that support your main content themes. The main, 60% chunk of your instructive content should still be structured like a story, using a framework like the 3Ds (desire, difficulty, denouement) to help it land and resonate with your audience. When you combine this with actual stories, that's where the magic happens.
Why is it so important to have this ratio – or to use story at all? When you force yourself to think about an actual character/protagonist (or "hero," as we often see in business storytelling), it's a forcing function for simplicity and clarity. It's the act of thinking about a specific person and what they're trying to do, as we've done with Margaret above. Crafting a story around your business is like leaving yourself a breadcrumb trail to lead you back out of the forest when you get too deep into it (think Hansel and Gretel).
We've explored the role and power of story many times in our past articles, but it all boils down to this: Storytelling presses the right buttons in the brain to trigger an emotional response. By its nature, it has an outside-in ability. The common story frameworks we use – such as the 3Ds or CAR (context, action, results)) – force us to think objectively from an outside perspective. They provide filters to help us remove the extraneous information when building your story, and focus on content that gets you heard and makes your prospects pay attention to you.
What's the right level of detail in your business stories?
There's an inherent challenge in filtering out "extraneous information" through story: How do you know what's truly extraneous and what's essential to the point of the story?
This question highlights one of the biggest problems in business storytelling. You need to make sure you're getting the right level of detail across for your intended audience. It would help if you considered the overlap between the market you're serving and the stories they want to hear.
Failing to strike this balance is a big fear for Margaret as she's building ACME's product marketing content. She needs to craft a message that resonates with customers, but she also has to satisfy the company's need to drive the business forward by communicating the value of the product’s new features. Margaret does not only hear this from the VP of engineering and the CEO but from the entire organization because they're all excited about these new features. The politics is real.
While Margaret is mulling this problem over during her lunch break, she suddenly has a "lightbulb moment." She is currently using one of the office cafeteria's new compostable forks to eat her lunch. Margaret looks at the fork and asks herself, "What matters about this fork from a feature perspective? How would I talk about it if I were marketing it to an eco-conscious consumer?"
To bill the fork as "eco-friendly" is not nearly enough detail to compel anyone to buy it. So Margaret goes one click down and thinks about how the fork is better for the environment, and what information might trigger an emotional response in a consumer.
Putting her "outside-in" hat on, Margaret thinks about why she would choose to use this particular product as an eco-conscious consumer. She could carry her own silverware around the office all day to save on plastic utensils, but that's not always convenient or practical. With a compostable fork, she can feel good about using and throwing it away, knowing that it will be broken down and repurposed instead of harming the environment in a landfill. The specific raw materials the fork is made from and the actual composting process don't interest Margaret; all she needs to know to make a decision is that it's compostable.
Suddenly, Margaret understands how she needs to look at ACME's new product to devise an effective marketing message. She meets with the VP, the CEO and other key stakeholders on the team and shares her own story as a consumer of this compostable fork. In doing so, she explains the importance of hooking their audience by touching on their desire (help the environment by reducing the use of plastic utensils), difficulty (inconvenient to carry around silverware) and denouement (choose the compostable fork to minimize the environmental impact of a disposable fork).
By sharing her story – and thus, illustrating the importance of storytelling in business communications – Margaret was able to take her team on a journey and produced a stellar campaign with great results. Shortly after the launch, ACME's product became No. 1 in the market.
Striking the 'detail balance' with fictional stories
The two extremes I often see in business storytelling are too much detail ("this fork is made from materials X, Y, and Z, which are then processed like so…") or not enough ("this fork is eco-friendly"). Stories can help you land squarely in the middle by parsing out which details your intended audience truly cares about.
Real customer stories and case studies can be effective in figuring out what your broader customer base cares about. However, sharing those stories in your content may or may not provide the level of detail you need to tap into your audience's emotion.
Think of it this way: A good, compelling story includes obstacles and failures, and how the protagonist overcomes them. The problem with real stories involving real people – especially in a vendor/client situation – is that they may not be so keen to reveal their "dirty laundry."
Sometimes you'll get someone brave enough to talk about their bad decisions and how they adjusted. Virgin's Richard Branson, for example, has had several highly publicized business failures, including his 1994 attempt to take on the world's leading soft drink makers with Virgin Cola ("I'll never again make the mistake of thinking that all large, dominant companies are sleepy!" Branson famously said). However, you'll rarely find a customer who's willing to walk through their decision-making secrets for a case study.
If you want a story to press the right buttons and get people to care, you need a story that explores the good, the bad, and the ugly. This is where fiction can help you drive your point home.
If you know about a customer's challenges and missteps but can't discuss them as a real-life example, you can "protect the innocent" by changing names and details to create aggregate or a fictionalized version of your real customer(s). You can take the basic idea of your customer and what they've gone through, and pivot your story around that theme. We've just shown you how to do that.
You see, the challenges we've described at ACME Technology are based on the experiences of real Go Narrative clients. There are "Margarets" at many of the organizations we work with, who are struggling to overcome the curse of knowledge and talk about their products with the right level of detail to strike a chord with their target audience. We're using the story of Margaret to help you understand the value of storytelling and prove the power of fiction in an instructional piece of content.
The key here is creating a relatable, emotional experience for your audience. In a world where we're drowning in information, we retain 10% of what we read, 20% of what we hear, and a whopping 70% of what we experience (source: CCL). As I shared in a recent BrightTalk webinar, and like Jonothan Gottschall says in The Storytelling Animal when we consume a story, we experience it – and this is what you'll do by telling your audience a compelling story.
When you have a clearly defined protagonist, it gives your audience context. It's like a suit they can slip on; they can get inside the mind of your protagonist and experience the world through their eyes. The hope is that the person reading or listening to your story is a potential prospect, who can then visualize their future with you by experiencing the story of your fictional protagonist.
Embracing the 60/40 split
Fictional stories certainly have their place in long-form content like this 2,000-word article or a presentation. However, you can also leverage fiction in shorter-form content like infographics and videos, by leveraging distilled stories and metaphors (which we'll be discussing in next month's piece on short-form storytelling).
Keep in mind that you don't always need to tell a fictional story in every piece of content you write. However, creating a fictional story around your customer's challenges and experiences is a powerful exercise and can help you uncover deeper truths that will resonate with them, the way your favorite CEO or politician's speeches resonate with you.
If you don't feel comfortable using fiction just yet, make sure the real stories you do tell are following the 3D format, because that will help you shape your narrative based on proven storytelling structures. Set the protagonist's desired goal or end state early on. As Lisa Cron says in her book, Wired for Story, this goal will serve as a yardstick by which to measure your entire story or piece. Then, discuss the protagonist's difficulty or challenge in all its gory details. Most importantly, wrap up your story with a powerful denouement that untangles the knot to show how the protagonist reached their desired state.
As you're creating content, keep this 60/40 split of information/instruction versus stories in mind. Bring the story in early to hook your audience, and pepper it throughout to tie it all back to the main theme. Keep this balance at the forefront and embrace it. Even if it's not a perfect 60/40 split, make sure everything you include in your content relies on a solid story structure for maximum impact and deliverability. By doing these things, you'll be well on your way to integrating stories with your business messaging.
We love having conversations about storytelling in business with our clients, and we'd love to help you uncover more about how the power of story can help you craft the right messages. Book a complimentary 30-minute call with us and let's chat about the stories we can tell together about your business.
Go Narrative is a marketing consultancy that assists business leaders in technology firms to build and implement advanced marketing strategies. Get attention. Be heard. Sell more.
More about what we do, download the PDF.