Truth Six - From Fact Telling to Storytelling

Facts don’t persuade, feelings do. And stories are the best way to get at those feelings.

I attended another networking event last week. As I mingled my way through the crowd balancing miniature food on a tiny plate, I was frequently asked the standard conversational icebreaker: "So, what do you do, Tom?"  After a while, I began to tire of giving my elevator pitch. So eventually, I simply answered generically, "I’m a branding guy." "Oh, branding," one executive responded. "Tell me. What type of ads work best today?" I smiled. That type of formula-seeking question always amuses me. "The same as always," I replied. "A good story. We’re up to our eyeballs in information and sick and tired of 'Buy . . . Buy . . . Buy!' Give us an engaging and meaningful story. Something we can connect with and - heaven forbid - believe in."

Storytelling was the original form of influence, and all through the ages great communicators have stirred people’s emotions and influenced their behavior through story. I know you know this. So why haven’t more business people embraced this powerful, persuasive form of communication? Think back to your last encounter with a salesperson. What was it like? Can you recall a recent advertisement? Describe it. Or how about your last meeting at work? My guess is that they were all fact-filled and uninspiring. What my friend Dick Orkin describes as "announcements." Which means that, by and large, they were ineffective means of influence. No engagement, no visualization. No visualization, no personal, emotional impact. No emotional significance, no change in behavior. Simple. We believe what we internalize, what we decide for ourselves, not what we’re told. A story allows us to experience the knowledge in our minds eye and make the meaning for ourselves.

Storytelling is especially effective in today’s multimedia world, where information overload forces us to simplify. Stories are the quickest way to communicate. They instantly transmit complex ideas; they’re a kind of cognitive shorthand. Stories are the most memorable, because they are laced with emotion. Want to be remembered? Tell a good story. Stories also put people at ease and help build relationships. And believe it or not, stories are the most believable form of communication. We are more deeply influenced by one person’s story, than we are by mounds of data. And by the way, don’t we love stories? Of course we do! Stories are embedded in our livesbusiness and personal. We love stories in song, in books, on TV, in film, and around the proverbial campfire and water cooler. We love to hear them, we love to tell them, and we love to participate in them. Stories are how we make sense of the world. We are storytelling creatures by nature. It’s in our DNA.

"So, tell me a story. Tell me a true story of someone you’ve recently helped with your products or services." That’s the first request I typically make to an executive team, prior to working with them to develop their brand. It may sound like a simple request, but I rarely hear a story. Instead, I hear all about the facts - when they started, the number of employees, their products and services, etc. But a brand is not about facts. A brand is a story. An engaging, authentic story that everyone in a company lives and tells. So, stop and ask yourself: What story does my audience conjure up in its imagination about itself when purchasing or experiencing my company or products? Do we complement and enhance that story in every single thing that we say and do? Do we even know what that story is?

Great influencers are obsessed with understanding that story, and with managing all of the details. The guttural roar of a Harley engine enhances their rugged and independent brand story. When Hurricane Andrew ripped through South Florida, State Farm Insurance not only paid the claims, but "like a good neighbor," also paid its customers additional monies to bring the houses up to code. Guinness could easily speed up the 119.5 seconds it takes to "pull" a perfect pint of their luscious black brew. But they know it would weaken the spirit and soul of their brand story. All of those details help augment the stories that demonstrate who these companies are, instead of them telling us who they are. Announcing that they’re special, trustworthy, or "the best" is more likely to make us suspicious than make us believers. Belief is something we subjectively make for ourselves. Stories are the compelling evidence.

So instead of obsessing over data-laden presentations and strategic plans, start perfecting your brand story. Have a dream! Create a drama; write a detailed and compelling script; design the set; direct the action. Then use that persuasive story as your distinct, unifying strategy. Use it to engage your customers’ and employees’ minds, and to build credibility by touching their hearts. Use the excitement and drama of your brand to bring life to all of those boring numbers and pie charts. Tell brand stories so people can live the experience in their own minds. So it becomes real to them, stimulates their emotions and helps them understand the ideas and behavior required to live the brand. Stop trying to change people’s minds with information or coercion. It doesn’t work. They feel manipulated. Instead, capture their imaginations with heartfelt stories so they can make their own meaning. And never - never! - stop telling those stories with conviction and passion.