Ilove to browse Medium – a great source of inspiration, insight and plain entertainment. Last week I came across an article by Charles Chu of The Polymath Project. It was called The Drama of Rules: What Storytelling Teaches Us About Human Natureand it summarised two themes fundamental to storytelling around the world: the need for conflict, and the importance of rule-breaking. It’s a fascinating article and I’d urge anyone interested in the power of stories to give it a read.
It also got me thinking: how can these fundamentals help shape corporate communications? As communicators we want and need to gain and retain the attention of our audiences, and we should want to create an emotional connection to them. Building brands and reputations is, after all, about creating a connection with our stakeholders that goes beyond the simple business transaction. But we are seldom clustered around the camp fire, we need to operate in a corporate world with multiple audiences, contested communications spaces, lawyers and investors. Conflict and rule-breaking are not usually something we want to promote (even if we are a high-velocity business shaking up the established order, more on this later).
What makes a good corporate story?
So, how can we tell a ‘good story’ in the corporate context? I always advise to focus on three aspects when creating a corporate story: Identify the tension, create narrative momentum, and show a resolution.
In corporate narratives, conflict is usually seen as the tension between an existing situation where things are falling short and customers are underserved in one way or another, and the company’s solution to that situation. However, it is often tempting to jump straight to the products and describe the solution before exploring the tension. I often use the example of children’s fairy stories when I coach spokespeople. You need to spend time detailing the castle or villages threatened by the dragon before the knight in shining armour (usually your product or service) kills him. Understanding the concerns of the villagers, and the real and actual threat of the dragon creates the tension the draws people into the story. Introducing the knight in shining armour too soon makes the story dull.
It’s all about the village!
The key thing to grasp is that the story is about the village NOT the knight.
Understanding this point unlocks the path to clearly defining a mission or purpose. These are perhaps the two most over-used words in corporate communications, but they are important. Effective missions are about the village and not the knight. Asking; why is this village worth protecting, why do its rules, culture, people have value and are they different from other villages, will help build a mission that really means something.
This mirror’s Mr Chu’s point about the drama of rules. Your mission and purpose must reference rules that the audience believes are just and worth defending. You need to establish a collective emotional, if not moral, connection to your beliefs for your mission to be seen as worthwhile.
NB: Even if you are an iconoclastic, industry shattering, challenger, you still need to establish your purpose and the rules by which you judge yourself. Your dragon may be the establishment, and your village a band of plucky outcasts – but you still need to be able to describe their value in ways in which the audience can identify.
Making it a ‘page-turner’
The second thing that corporate narratives must learn from storytelling is pace and momentum. We talk about films or books being ‘pacey’, ‘a page-turner’ or sometimes ‘meandering’ or ‘slow’, but frankly most corporate stories are essentially static!
I’m not talking about the company history or timeline on the website here, but external communications that are really just statements. They exist in the moment and for a moment. A good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. This may seem obvious, but most communications are simple statements of fact. Introducing yourself and saying, “Today I am here to tell you about…” does not count as a beginning. More importantly, “Thank you and please get in touch with any questions,” does not constitute an effective ending. Popular box-sets on Netflix, or podcasts on iTunes work because there is a clear transition from beginning, though the middle to the end, in every episode AND through the series.
Establishing the tension, as described above, will help establish an effective beginning. Contextualise the story, show why it matters and help the audience to orientate themselves and identify the key characters. The interplay of these characters and the resolution of the issue/situation forms the substantive middle of the story – and is usually the bit with which corporate spokespeople are most comfortable.
…And it was all a dream!
Finding a good ending is the hardest part. People like definite conclusions. They like loose ends tied up, and they like to see that the world is a better place because of the narrative action in the story. We need to provide all of this. To go back to the fairy tale analogy, it is important to show that the villagers live happily ever after – i.e. how your product has overcome the shortcomings of previous solutions and now completely fulfils the needs of the customers.
But, to create reputation and build brands rather than just promote products we need to keep an audience coming back for more. Cliff-hangers, last minute introduction of new characters and dream sequences don’t really work in corporate communications, so how do we build a regular audience?
When in a product communications mindset it is hard to resist the temptation to tell everyone about everything you have all at once. Certainly, for marketing and lead-generation it is important for customers to know about the full range of products relevant to them. But highlighting a few at a time can be powerful in creating engagement with the company and building a brand. Just as a good TV series sets up some themes for the next episode, or a thriller leaves clues for exploration in later chapters, we can create narrative arcs that satisfy immediate corporate and customer needs for resolution, as well as sow seeds for future stories.
For example, when creating media campaigns for a leading telephony company I created a narrative arc that explored the current difficulties faced by customers using help-lines, showed how new products were solving these issues by offering new ways to interact, and then suggested emerging trends that would deliver still greater choice and quality of service in the future, plus a few pointers to ongoing research in these areas.
The car’s NOT the star
There used to be a programme on the BBC called the Car’s the Star and like most automotive TV programmes it purported to make cars the focus of the show. Most B2B and tech communications campaigns operate on the same principle. The product leads. However, in reality what makes these shows popular are the people and the anecdotes/situations that discussion about the car stimulates. The same is true for effective PR around products. The product should not lead – it should be the resolution. Once the tension and the narrative momentum have been established, then the product can be introduced as the answer.
Reversing the order in this way not only creates better, more memorable and more engaging stories, but also shows audiences WHY the product matters. Once they get this, they are far more likely to be interested in WHAT it does and HOW.
This is hard to do, mainly because spokespeople tend to know, or can learn, a lot about products quite easily. There are spec sheets, customer feedback groups, design decisions etc., all of which can be packaged into detail about the product. We are all good at describing the knight in shining armour, his horse, his lance and sword etc. We are less good at describing the village and its issues – so we start with, and spend most time on, the knight.
So, to overcome this we need to spend time to imagining, articulating and recording the details of the context, the village and the values of the people there. This becomes the essentially soil in which our corporate story will grow. It not only supports our story but nourishes it and connects it to all our audiences. Take the time to set the context, establish who the story is really about, and then build tension before introducing your solution. And, think about the seeds you want to plant for the next instalment as you provide the conclusion of each chapter.
Charles Chu’s is right, conflict and drama of rules drive great stories. I believe this can and should apply to corporate storytelling as well, and that with the right guidance, thinking and preparation it can do. The results will be better stories, enhanced engagement with audiences and therefore stronger brand reputation.
Photo credit: London Theatre Direct