Why marketers need to tell better stories

Swim's Janet Kestin provides a formula for much-needed storytelling.

This story appears in the April issue of strategy.

By Janet Kestin

When I was 19 years old, I worked in a whorehouse and didn’t know it.*

Have I got your attention? Do you want to know more? That’s what a good story can do, but “storytelling” has been getting a bad rap lately. Last year, the great designer Stefan Sagmeister led a parade of people who hate how the term is being used for anyone who isn’t a “real” storyteller, like a novelist or a moviemaker. I hate that this fundamentally human behaviour has become a buzzword. Narrative connects people. There’s scientific evidence that it links the minds of listener and speaker; it creates empathy and understanding. Knowing how to tell a good story is tied to decision-making and, in business, the bottom line.

I worked with a company whose innovation group was looking for more success in selling ideas to gatekeepers and decision-makers. The group had found that its data-based, fact-filled, PowerPoint-presented business cases often failed to convince – which meant a stupid amount of time and money lost.

The team realized they had to learn to tell stories that could give the facts context, save the cost of prototyping every last idea and reveal the potential of less obvious ones – stories that would enable decision-makers to see more clearly.

They were nervous. Spinning a yarn over a beer is one thing. But the boardroom? What if you’re rotten at it? Or someone says, “Get to the point.”

“Getting to the point” is price of entry in an age of procurement and brief attention spans, but not being able to bring an idea to life has a steep, invisible price. If your audience can’t feel the value of what you’re offering, ideas with pots of potential wind up in the trash because nobody cares. Projects need champions. Customers need convincing. So, how do you inspire passion in others? Take a lesson from this insightful R&D guy, who needed support and buy-in for a packaging innovation.

“Orange plastic melts at 120 degrees,” he began, and went on to weave a riveting tale of temperatures and molecules. “I was on the edge of my seat every second,” said one of the assembled groups. “How often does a layperson feel like they can’t wait to hear the details of getting to a new plastic container?”

Mr. R&D hooked them from the get-go, breathed life into the problem, included the critical facts and figures and left them breathless and committed. You can do it too. Here are a few things to think about when you’re aiming to build an irresistible case.

1) The story arc, boiled down by AOL’s David Shing:

Once Upon a Time –> Oh Sh*# –> The End

Once Upon a Time: Start with a gripper, like the R&D guy did. The words “Let me tell you a story,” or a surprising opener, lights up the part of the brain that says “reward.” It captivates your audience.

Oh Sh*#: Bring vivid life to the problem. In The Heart of Change, Harvard prof John Kotter tells the story of a company with an inefficient purchasing process and a mid-level manager who believed it was because each factory was doing its own purchasing. The manager made the case for changing this practice, but management wasn’t sold. So he gathered 400 similar varieties of work gloves used in the company, along with their individual costs and suppliers, and put the mile high pile on the boardroom table in front of his bosses. Then he retold the story. Dramatic? Yes. Successful? You bet. Everything changed when the dry info came alive.

The End: Will the last thing you said stay with them? Leaving an indelible final thought may be the difference between thumbs up and thumbs down.

2) Fill the spaces between “Once Upon a Time,” “Oh Sh*#” and “The End” with the information you need to convey.

3) Let someone else’s objective eyes help identify what’s missing or unnecessary. You’ll take a tighter, stronger, more human and motivating tale into the room.

4) Do it your way. If you’re funny, let it show. If you’re passionate, be that. Your authentic voice is an asset.

5) Steep yourself in brilliant storytelling. Listen to businesspeople, firefighters, waiters and others like you at the momma of all story podcasts, themoth.org.

Some storytellers are born; others are made. It’s worth the effort to become one because the best story wins in the boardroom, with the customer and ultimately, the consumer.

The end.

*True story. If you want to know the ending, janet@swimprogram.ca

Janet Kestin is co-founder of the consultancy Swim and former CCO at Ogilvy, where she helped come up with award-winning campaigns like Dove’s “Campaign for Real Beauty.”