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Business Storytelling - the art and science

Updated: Jun 3, 2022

Storytelling is like ‘customer experience’ in business – it’s fashionable, everyone thinks it’s important, but very few know exactly how to do it effectively. In this blog post, I want to share what I’ve learned about effective ‘business storytelling’. Storytelling is an art, but there's also a science and a formula to it. If you are not a 'natural' storyteller don't fret, you can learn the patterns to make it effective and leverage storytelling in your business to transform your sales and marketing.

Why is storytelling important?

So why is storytelling so important? Easy – people relate to and remember stories, but they forget facts, data points, and even case studies. This is why storytelling has been so important across history and independent of culture. It’s been an important way of passing down information through generations.

  • Jewish Passover Seder

  • Irish seanchaí

  • Native American Choctaw

  • Native Hawaiian mo’olelo

  • West African griots and troubadours

  • African American mythology and Anansi the spider and God of knowledge and stories

And when you think about conversations with clients, prospects, partners or staff in your business – you’re trying to ‘pass down information’ in a way that will be remembered. So obviously storytelling should be a great tool to do that.

Because of the power of storytelling, storytellers have always been viewed as critical members of the community – and more recently they are critical members of a business. SAP has a Chief Storyteller.

So how do you make storytelling an effective tool in your business? There are 4 simple steps:

  1. Understand the science of storytelling and why it works (so it’s not just another ‘fad’ that you focus on today and forget about tomorrow);

  2. Recognize the difference between large and small audience storytelling;

  3. Learn how to structure an effective story;

  4. Rewrite your ‘case studies’ as ‘stories’.

Each of these points is explained below.

The Science of Storytelling

The fact that storytelling is effective is not some inexplicable human trait – it’s science. It’s basically a chemical reaction in the brain to information being delivered through story.

Let’s face it - facts and features and data and case studies are BORING! So the audience retention of this information is pretty ineffective (even the leaders of the UK and US sometimes find it difficult to stay awake during important meetings). So how do we make the delivery of information more effective?

Well, scientists have studied information retention during events such as presentations and found that there is a direct correlation between understanding and retention of information when the neurochemical Oxytocin is released in the brain during the presentation.

Excellent! So how do we ensure oxytocin is released in the brain during a presentation?

Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted. And stories are an effective way of creating trust – your describing events involving other people where there was a positive outcome! ‘Well, if you did that for others, surely you can do that for me? I can be the hero of your next story! I trust you!’ (and here comes the oxytocin and the desired information retention).

To create this effect we need to formulate stories with emotional content that are human-centered. It’s hard to get emotional about a faceless corporation. It’s much easier to connect with the story of Leslie the Chief Marketing Officer. Or Andy, the Head of Business Banking Transformation. Or Eric, Head of Digital Strategy. And their story needs to have some tension in the narrative to capture and keep the audience’s attention. In fact, Harvard Business Review states that you should ‘begin every presentation with a compelling, human-scale story’ and I agree 100%.

This science of Storytelling is real and proven. If you think about the most compelling presentations you’ve heard – you’ll probably relate. There are some great examples in the link to Nancy Duarte’s TED Talk in the section of this blog post entitled 'How to structure a story'.

Large and small audience Storytelling

When you think about great storytelling – you probably think of the theatre or cinema. And there’s no doubt that to generate millions at the box office, you need to tell a great story well. But these are what I call ‘large audience’ stories. Think about Jaws, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, Hamilton. But even in business – we have a need for large audience storytelling. For example, conference presentations or webinars. It’s typically 10 – 40 minutes of a monologue from you to an audience of over 100 people. I will talk about delivering effective conference presentations in a later blog post.

But for this post – let’s focus on ‘small audience’ storytelling. That’s what you do with friends at a restaurant and what you do in business meetings or presentations with less than 20 people. These are intimate situations – where you can watch the individuals in the audience for visual cues. Are they listening or are you losing them? Read the room and react! Speed up…slow down…put more intonation in your voice. Deliver a story you’d want to hear yourself if you were in their shoes. Know your audience and tailor the message…don’t tell a CMO story to a CFO. It’s unlikely to resonate. Make it about the person – not the corporation. Discuss the challenges – don’t make the project you’re describing such ‘smooth sailing’ that its unbelievable - otherwise your 'story' will be seen as a 'tall tale'. Don’t’ skip those little details that make it real and credible.

And when you have your story – determine how to structure it according to the rise and fall that’s known to great storytellers from the Greeks 2000 years ago to Spielberg today.

How to structure a story (yes, there’s a formula!)

The best description of storytelling structure that I’ve found is in this TED Talk by Nancy Duarte. Nancy has studied effective storytelling over the centuries and found a common pattern and she describes it in her TED talk. But here’s a quick summary.

Storytelling has a distinct ‘Rise & Fall’ pattern leading to a ‘New Bliss’…what ‘could be’. The story should begin with ‘what is’ or the current situation – a missed opportunity, a frustration (the ‘fall’ in the rise and fall). And this should be followed with ‘what could be’ or the promised land (the ‘rise’). But if it was that easy, we’d already have it! So we explain a challenge to getting to the promised land (another ‘fall’). But then, there appears to be hope! There’s a solution, a new way (another ‘rise’). But there are challenges…and so on. Until finally we reach it – the ‘New bliss’.

Nancy uses a fantastic example of one of the greatest product launch presentations of all time to articulate this point – Steve Jobs launch of the original iPhone. She maps Steve’s Oscar-worthy presentation to the rise and fall pattern. What could be…the power of the mobile phone. What is…the state of the devices offered by Nokia and Blackberry. What could be…he teases features. Etc. If you’ve never seen the presentation or have forgotten it (from 2007!) then I’d recommend watching it here.

But we don’t all have a life-changing device to launch 😊 but hopefully you do have a product or service that you believe in and want to articulate the value of it.

If you make your story a human level one and follow the ‘rise and fall’ pattern of Nancy Duarte – you can use the power of storytelling to make your business meeting or presentation more compelling. Let me give you an example.

Rewriting case studies as stories

I firmly believe, ‘case studies’ are where the great deeds of businesses go to die. We strangle the life out of our best success STORIES with a formula that looks something like:

  • Current Situation / Client Description

  • Problem / Opportunity Statement

  • Solution We Delivered

  • Outcome

(BORING! Remember the pictures of Boris and Joe earlier in this post?)

What we’ve forgotten was that a person bought our product or service. That person was facing a challenge. That person took a chance on us and we delivered what they had hoped for.

Here’s a typical case study slide from a project I worked on:

Digital Business Banking

  • Current Situation

    • $500BN bank launched multi-product business banking solution

    • Small Businesses could apply for 5 products at once

    • Application experience for the small business owner was 40+ page PDF

    • The average number of products per Small Business was only 1.5 products.

  • Solution

    • Digital application experience for multi-product business banking

  • Results

    • Application process reduced from 65 minutes to 15 minutes

    • Average products per Small Business increased to 4.5

OK – so it’s not a horrible case study. But it’s hardly memorable.

Here’s the human-centered (true) story behind this case study. When told like this – we had people say ‘That’s exactly what we’re going through’, ‘That’s what we’re trying to achieve’, ‘Can you deliver a similar result for us and how’.

We were approached by Andy who was responsible for rolling out a new business banking product. It was a bundle – like a TV, Phone, Internet bundle…but it was business banking. Andy had looked at all the banking products that the average business needed and bundled them into a single lower-cost offering – it was exactly what a small business owner needed.

The problem was, each product required its own application form to be completed. So 5 products meant 5 forms. So the business owner had to complete their name, address, business registration number, etc. 5 times. Small business owners are the busiest people in the world and didn’t have time for this – so they’d complete one or two application forms and then stop - literally saying 'I don't have time for this'. So Andy was averaging 1.5 products per customer. Not good enough.

Andy realized this was a Customer Experience problem that he needed to fix. So he approached the bank’s technology team for help. They said YES! They could fix that problem – but they were busy with a core banking system migration and digital banking system replacement that had them fully booked for the next 3 years. So Andy’s project would have to get-in-line. Also ‘not good enough’.

Our company had completed a similar project for the bank’s insurance group and Andy heard about it and approached us. We explained how we could fix the customer experience problem quickly and with no impact to the bank’s IT team or projects and Andy jumped on the proposal immediately. Because of the approach we took, this was an 8-week project – start to finish.

The result was a 15-minute application for the small business customer (not 65 minutes as it was before) and the outcome was 4.5 products per customer (remember, before it was 1.5) – realizing Andy’s goal with the bundled business banking product. The solution was so successful, the bank’s CEO highlighted it in the quarterly earnings call with the industry analysts and an example of how the bank was innovating. Andy was soon promoted to a new role.

‘People buy people first’ – that’s something an executive coach said to me many years ago that stuck with me. The same goes for your case studies…if you talk about a faceless corporation, it’s hard to ‘buy into it’. But if you can talk about an individual (even if the story is anonymized) you will find that your audience can relate much better. And your story will be far more memorable after you’ve left the room. I guarantee it.

Here's another (real) example based on a new product feature launch. The first approach lists the capabilities of the new feature. The second tells a story from a beta client using the new capabilities in practice. Which one do you think is more compelling?

Version 1 – Real-time behavioral analytics and A/B testing

  • Real-time analytics that captures field-level events

  • Metrics to capture completion and abandonment rates

  • Filters for device, operating system, time, and location data

  • A WYSIWYG design environment with widgets for data collection

  • An agile capability to design, test and deploy new experience designs

  • A/B testing of designs within the platform

Version 2 – Increasing completion rates with real-time analytics

  • One of our clients built a Personal Loan application experience on our platform. One day the head of consumer lending noticed that Completion Rates for the loan application had dropped dramatically – but nothing had changed.

  • Using the new analytics capability we analyzed the data with the bank and realized that the issue was isolated to Apple iOS devices. So we quickly tested the Loan application experience on an iOS device and found that Apple had pushed an update to iOS that had broken the Date Picker used on the loan application form. So nobody could enter their date of birth. And they weren’t contacting the bank to let them know about the problem – they were just going to another lender.

  • We quickly replaced the date picker with a new version, tested it on the update and previous iOS versions, and found it solved the problem. We deployed the fix into production immediately. The problem was identified, triaged, and resolved in under 2 hours.

Hopefully, you’re inspired to rewrite your case studies as stories. Then (and this is critical) – your sales, pre-sales, and marketing teams need to learn to tell these stories as if they were their own. They need to ‘own’ the story, not just retell it.

Thanks for reading!
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