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Storytelling Superpower — How to connect strategies and create value.

February 21, 2023
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11 min read
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko on Unsplash
“We are the storytelling animal.”
— Salman Rushdie

Here’s a sentence you might not like:

You sell stuff; we all sell stuff. 

This is the two-word cornerstone of capitalism "sell stuff." The brief “sell stuff” gives you a basic understanding of every company’s business strategy. 

Still not buying it? Let's continue.

Every client we have sells stuff. Mastercard sells the convenient transfer of money between buyer and merchant. Mastercard’s convenient transfer is sold to you through a bank. Verizon sells connection, along with phones and devices, through retail stores and direct to business. Allstate sells peace of mind in the form of a policy through its agents. Chick-fil-A sells chicken sandwiches through its franchises.

We all sell stuff. It is the “what”—the stuff—and the “how”—the sell— differ.

 “Sell stuff” describes the basics of your business strategy too. Always has, always will. 

"But," you say, “I don’t sell stuff. I work in engineering.” You build the stuff other people sell. 

“I don’t sell stuff. I work in HR.” You hire people to build and sell stuff. 

“I work in finance; that’s not selling stuff.” It is. It’s making sure the stuff is sold efficiently and profitably. 

“What about IT? I just keep the systems running.” Yes, the systems that sell stuff.

Buying it now?

Selling stuff creates value.

Value for ourselves, our customers, and our stakeholders. 

The best way to understand the value game is to visualize a line.  At one end of the line are you and your business, creating value by selling to customers. At the other end of the line are all the inputs you need to make the stuff, market the stuff and sell the stuff.

This line is a value stick.

This “value stick” is the brainchild of Harvard Professor Felix Oberholzer-Gee. He is the author of Better Simpler Strategy. To play the value game is to extend the length of the line. The greater the length of the stick, Oberholzer-Gee argues, the greater the value created. 

This is a profound idea.

The value stick connects all the strategies in your organization—product strategy, financial strategy, HR strategy, sales strategy, and others. Strategies, left unattended, exist in silos. Connecting these strategies and having them reinforce each other creates additive value.

And all along the length of the stick are people.

Those people are talking to each other, emailing, and PowerPointing. They exchange information and influence each other. Collectively, they make big and little decisions. And the quality of information and influence exchange either creates or destroys value. 

The value of any business is the sum of the decisions it makes.

Now we get to story.

If we can create more value by getting better at exchanging information and influencing each other, and therefore making better decisions, then how do we improve?

American writer Jonathan Gotschall points to an answer. “A story is a trick for sneaking information into the fortified citadel of the human mind.”

The information and influence exchange is improved through storytelling. As communication improves, decisions improve. Value increases.

Storytelling is not the province of marketing. It’s on all of us. We all sell stuff. We all influence decisions. We can all improve our storytelling skills.

But first, we have to understand four genres of business story.

The first is the one you naturally think of with business storytelling.

Brand Stories.

Brand stories create a relationship between the consumer and the brand. They build worlds. Done well, they reinforce the qualities of the brand, put the brand in the buyer’s consideration set, and create a world the buyer wants to live in.

Think about the brands you admire, and you can see this world-building at work.

IKEA does this literally. Its stores and commercials are little worlds filled with Swenglish Billy’s, Poängs, and Stockholm rugs. You can touch and sit in these worlds, and afterward, as you aspire to Scandi living, enjoy some meatballs. 

Apple  leads a masterclass of world-building, Putting a dent in the universe with cult-like fanboys convinced their stuff is “iBetter.” 

Patagonia’s values are at every touchpoint, showing it’s in business to save our home planet.

Brand stories and the worlds they offer create enormous value.

They lengthen the value stick with the brand's intangible asset. A cushion of goodwill covering poor decisions and wobbly execution.

 Just look at the recent ride of Tesla, with its story of a battery-powered future. At its peak, the Tesla story created a market cap of over $1.2 Trillion. With that, you could buy IBM, Mastercard, Coca-Cola, CVS, and FedEx and still have $241 Billion in change for a fleet of private yachts and a social media platform.

Stories equally damaged the Tesla brand, with a recent market drop bigger than the legacy car market Tesla competes with.

The brand story creates a world where our hero wants to live. A world where the hero/ buyer covets your product. A world full of...

Product stories.

Products sell because of stories. 

And a product story is far more than a list of features and benefits. If you get the story right, people repeat it. The user hears the product story and imagines a better version of themselves.

A product story is, by necessity, a science fiction.

The product story places objects and services in a future world, one better than today. The product story has the buyer and end-user as the hero/ protagonist. The product is a magic bean, dispelling the troubles and fears of our hero.

And the product story has a second function.

In the product’s journey from whiteboard to code or napkin to manufacture, there are many people and decisions. Product stories make believers of investors and engineers. They clarify fit for purpose and ultimately allow teams to build products people love.

Those product stories are adapted into...

Sales stories.

Great salespeople tell great stories.

They’re also consummate listeners. They have the gift of getting others to tell their story. Like a character from Rumplestiltskin, they can spin this straw into gold. The cues from the prospective buyer’s story are woven into what they’re selling.

Within the genre of sales story are love stories and horror stories.

The love story is told of a similar customer with a similar problem who used the magic beans the salesperson is selling. The horror story is told of another who made the error of not buying your product.

One of our clients, Commvault, sells data backups to IT organizations. What could be a very dry story of speeds and feeds is a story of providing protection in a scary world. 

The horror story. When a May ransomware attack brought a major gas pipeline to a standstill over the summer, desperate drivers resorted to hoarding fuel in plastic bags. The pipeline failed to protect its systems and flailed in bringing them back online. 

The love story. A month later, a meat-packing company suffered a similar attack. You didn’t hear about it and ate burgers on the 4th of July because of Commvault’s “magic beans.” Their customer was back online in hours. 

Sales storytelling is personal.

Hand-to-hand and face-to-face, good salespeople adapt and weave stories together to explain, connect dots, and move their customers over the line.

In the process, they frustrate marketers.

Those marketers have carefully crafted a forty-slide “narrative.” They might even have trained people to tell the narrative, one slide at a time. Then those same marketers howl in anguish as each salesperson selects their three favorite slides to tell their customers some sales stories.

This brings us to the last of the genres of business story.

Leadership stories.

Leadership and storytelling are two sides of the same coin.

On one side are choices. Decisions. Life happens, and leadership follows. The flip side of the coin executes those decisions through people. Storytelling clarifies those decisions. It amplifies them and creates followership.

Both are vital.

While a decision or choice rests on a leader or group of leaders; bringing people along, inspiring them toward a future, and allowing them to see themselves in the picture requires storytelling.

Leadership stories are the foundational genre of business stories. 

They bring together disparate pieces of the puzzle. They are the stuff of influence and information. These stories align and motivate people. They fuel and connect brand stories, product stories, and sales stories. 

It’s about shared context.

Ronan Dunne is the former CEO of Verizon Wireless and the Chairman of Six Nations Rugby. The gregarious Irishman is a master storyteller. A believer in and practitioner of leadership stories. For Dunne, storytelling is about context. “When people have common context, our shared opportunities are markedly better... Leaders, by virtue of the fact they are managing towards outcomes—create a common context. Not just their context, but a common context.”

And common context is part of the leadership conversation.

This is a topic central to Rose Fass’s new book, The Leadership Conversation. She warns of chocolate conversations: the malaise of information sharing without context, which causes mixed messages, confusion, and swirl. 

These conversations destroy value.

According to Rose, “Chocolate Conversations are everywhere in an organization. And, Chocolate Conversations can cost a company its relevance—people inside and outside the company lose track of the story.” 

The signs are everywhere. 

Shuttling information back and forth without adding value. Meeting overload, dense PowerPoint, fire-fighting, poor prioritization, and distracted thinking.

Leadership stories paint a picture—one people see themselves in. 

Look up the word “inspire.” It's about giving people the urge to want to do something. These are the twin leadership conversations of framing the world and moving people to action. 

We are in the game of creating value, which comes from people, which means storytelling.

Gavin McMahon is a founder and Chief Content Officer for fassforward consulting group. He leads Learning Design and Product development across fassforward’s range of services. This crosses diverse topics, including Leadership, Culture, Decision-making, Information design, Storytelling, and Customer Experience. He is also a contributor to Forbes Business Council.

Eugene Yoon is a graphic designer and illustrator at fassforward. She is a crafter of Visual Logic. Eugene is multifaceted and works on various types of projects, including but not limited to product design, UX and web design, data visualization, print design, advertising, and presentation design.

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