Written by Nicolas Boillot
Jack Welch, longtime Chairman and CEO of GE, is often heard crediting part of his success to the fact that he’s good at telling stories. Why should this matter to you?
Then you need good stories. As Hollywood producer Peter Guber writes, "Stories have a unique power to move people’s hearts, minds, feet and wallets in the story teller’s intended direction."
But many business people find it agonizing to create compelling and memorable stories. Instead they build mountains of content focusing on their products’ and services’ features and benefits. But features and benefits are hard to compare and easy to forget. In addition, they continuously change: your competitive advantage today often becomes someone else’s advantage tomorrow.
Good stories mirror the legends and tales that humans have passed on from generation to generation, and that we continue to consume in one form or another: books, movies, live performances and most importantly, word of mouth.
In my book “I Killed a Rabid Fox with a Croquet Mallet – Making Your Business Stories Compelling and Memorable” I go into detail about how good stories are created and I provide a tutorial for creating your own. For the purposes of this article, let’s just look at two concepts.
Concept 1: Make sure there are gaps between expectation and result.
Suppose you run into an old friend at a business meeting and you say, “Hey, have I got a story for you!” She perks up, and you start off:
“I went to work late yesterday evening to finish up a project, and my business partner was already in his office. I could tell by the light under the door. Wow, I thought, he’s not usually in that late. I knocked on the door, he told me to come in, and then he had this situation going on which made me want to help him right away...”
Very quickly, you notice that your old friend has the same look a two-year-old gets when her mother reads Goodnight Moon. Try again:
“I went to work late last night and found my business partner lying on the floor naked with scratch marks all over his body. I heard a noise and looked up to see an orangutan in the corner, glaring at me while chewing one of its fingernails…”
Your colleague interrupts you. “Whoooa…” she says, “slow down. I want to hear it from the beginning… so you’re walking into the office and… did you even notice anything on your way in?”
The immediate and wide gap between expectation and result absorbs the listener into the story. Consider any story that compels you in fiction: you get interested when things don’t go as planned.
You might be thinking: Makes sense. But my company doesn’t have stories about naked business partners mauled by orangutans.
But you do. You have sales people who get surprised by angry customers. You have angry customers who get even more surprised by helpful and resourceful employees. You have employees solving technical challenges, financial challenges, and doing unexpected deeds every day. And you have customers letting you know about great things that happened. We often shy away from such scenarios in the content we put out about our companies, because we’re afraid to reveal certain details. But stories where there’s an initial gap between expectation and result are invariably more compelling than any amount of content about features and benefits.
Concept 2: Don’t shy away from conflict.
Business is rife with conflict, and not only between people. For instance >>>
When human beings join forces to create an enterprise – especially a business where livelihoods depend on success – conflicts will surface in every shape and size. And where there’s conflict, audiences will pay attention and remember. The same is true in your own life: while you will vaguely remember things that went really well, you will remember many more details about times when you experienced inner, personal or extra-personal conflict.
If you can create stories where there are gaps between expectation and result and the outcome is brought about through conflict, your audiences will find them compelling, remember them, and most likely repeat them. After all, we don’t get home and tell our spouse how everyone on the train behaved during our commute. We tell the story about the guy who tried to steal a purse, or the bus driver who yelled at us because we didn’t have the right change, or the commuter with road rage who nearly killed us.
Please don’t read this article and think that covers the whole topic of building stories. But try these two concepts, perhaps even in stories you tell around the water cooler. And if you are interested in learning more, the book is short and specific in guiding you through building your own stories.
About the Author
Nicolas Boillot is author of the new book I Killed a Rabid Fox with a Croquet Mallet: Making Your Business Stories Compelling and Memorable. He is also the CEO of HB Agency, an integrated marketing firm building brands for such clients as HP, ING, EMC, and many other companies. Nicolas is a co-founder of Middlebury College's MiddCORE, an intensive series of courses and programs focused on Creativity, Opportunity, Risk and Entrepreneurship. He is involved with several non-profits focused on business leadership and the environment. Nicolas regularly speaks on branding and public relations. Appearances include the Boston Association of IT Professionals (AITP), GSAS Harvard Biotechnology Club, Yankee IABC Senior Corporate Communicators Group, the Swedish American Chamber of Commerce, CASE (Council for Advancement and Support of Education), and CFO Roundtable. Website: www.HBAgency.com