Once Upon a Time, It Was a Dark and Stormy Night

(Cross-posted, originally published in Wearables Magazine, March 2013). Masses of B2B marketers are trying to move the proverbial needle in sales today by resorting to a centuries old tradition: storytelling. Once an exclusive domain reserved for artisans, it is now the purview of the average businessperson; you must create. To be precise, you must learn how to tell a good story.

Why story?

Measure your own digital consumption habits: you are more likely to read an article, view a video, or listen to an audio clip about a particular service or product before you decide to purchase. In short, you would rather hear a narrative (experience a story) than suffer through a sales pitch (same as it ever was if you ask any sales raconteur who knows his way successfully toward a close).

The good news is you neither have to wax elegiac like a french poet nor portray sweeping narratives with paint like Van Gogh, you simply have to abide by a few guiding principles of sound storytelling plus learn how to leverage the right tools for you. (For the moment, we're going to shelve the words "marketing" and "content" because these words might impede progress, we will return to renovate them). In our business, we've learned a few vital keys that have unlocked the magic of storytelling but before I share with you the critical principles we've learned ("are learning" is more apropos), we have to remove one seriously stubborn obstacle: you.

If there is a villain (and there is always a villain in the arc of any good story), it's you. Suffer this fool for a moment and pretend we both believe the most important person in the room is the customer. (The most important person is not the customer, as sales pundit Jeffrey Gitomer once wryly noted: "Two people in a room, you and the customer, who is the most important person? The customer. Let me ask it another way, one of you has to drop dead, who will it be? That's right: the customer. Now we've established who is the most important person in the room). The villain I refer to is not you per se, it is your antiquated sales mentality.

For starters, the features and benefits side of your Jekyl and Hyde sales demeanor must die. The modern mindset can scarcely stomach a sales pitch and can sniff a set-up a mile away. "If you talked to people the way advertising talked to people, they'd punch you in the face," Hugh MacLeod observed. Our days are inundated with advertising messages, the deluge deadens us. The only way to break through the barricades of mental defenses is to attempt to enchant our audience, we must learn to captivate, and our audience won't be captivated by terminology lifted from your technical manuals or the charming prose pilfered from your bill of lading. You are getting in the way of your own story because you incorrectly believe that your product and your product details are more important than your product's purpose when, in the eyes of your customers, purpose trumps product (which is ironic because both you and the customer spend an inordinate amount of time discussing details about the product). Watch the fashion industry spin sartorial stories with beautiful people in commercials and on runways and you begin to believe  "if I wear that garment, I could be beautiful too". The material specifications about textiles are left backstage. "Polyester tricot with mesh insets" emits yawns. Glitz on the runway and glamour on the magazine cover yields sales.

Watch a video of master storyteller Steve Jobs unveil a product at one of his infamous keynotes, (appropriately dubbed "Stevenotes"), Steve discusses technical details lightly. Those details are minor characters in the story. What is crucial, (and what becomes memorable), is Steve's descriptive narrative about what we can do with his wonderful products. His interjections (beautiful! awesome!) are practically primary but he knows how to captivate an audience. His palpable enthusiasm is spellbinding because, as his willing participants, we want to believe. Steve's congregation of consumers (your audience, too) is no different than theatre audiences, sports spectators, or even restaurant patrons (where the author Gay Talese calls the art of plating, "theatre in the round"): we all want to believe!

Another subtlety that is almost sleight of hand is regarding perspective. In addition to Stevenotes, analyze most Apple commercials and you'll discover that the hero of the story is not the product. As an audience member, you undergo a metamorphosis, you transform from mere observer to the protagonist in the drama. What you, the user can accomplish with the product is paramount. You've become the central character!

 

The product is not unimportant, without it there would be no story, but the star of the show (the hero), is you (and if facebook as didactic has proven anything, it has proven we love to be the principle players in our own drama). Hearing that there is an accelerometer in the iPad or "three-axis gyro plus fingerprint-resistant oleophobic coating" seduces no one, observing what I can do with an iPad makes me want to rush to buy one (ergo, multi-millions in iPad sales). Apple has figured out a few key components in the fairy tale formula not the least of which is, move the product backstage (or at least transmute it to a backdrop) but portray the customer as hero. It's an almost imperceptible shift in perspective. When Annie Leibovitz started working for Rolling Stone, she became "very interested in journalism and thought maybe that’s what I was doing, but it wasn’t true. What became important was to have a point of view.”  Your point of view  and the point of view in your stories must alter, from product-centric stories to customer-centric stories.

I hear the objector whine that we, as an industry, are not Apple, "we don't have a product worth getting excited about, what we sell is not story-worthy". You're dead wrong. If you believe that, it's time to move to another industry (our ranks are rife with too many faux believers as it is). I have friends in other industries who sell boring products. Screwdriver-to-the-eye-socket boring (that's excruciatingly boring in case you can't feel it). Far from banal, we as an industry wield powerful products. Every product we sell has a purpose. Every. Single. Product. Sometimes the customers themselves are unaware of the real purpose but there is always a purpose with our products. This should ignite your storyteller's heart (it does mine), it opens up vistas of storytelling and unlocks the crucial component: find the purpose, you'll find the story.

In addition to finding the purpose, you'll have to brush off a few key elements you left behind at school, namely, those interrogative pronouns that comprise the basics of effective journalism: who, what, when, where, why and how. Why did the customer buy your product? Who was the intended recipient? What emotion did the experience attempt to evoke? (Surprise? Delight?) What action was the product intended to trigger? (Move a suspect to a prospect? Close a sale?) Where was the product distributed? Where was it Worn? How was it used? You get the idea, the more questions you ask (open-ended preferred) the more of the story you'll discover. Think of yourself less a journalist and more an archaeologist at a site dig: the questions help excavate the details of the story, ask enough questions and the entire story reveals itself to you.

Finally, what are your tools for telling your story? What is your canvas for creating your art? Video? Audio? Email? I can't prescribe to you your output, you'll have to define how you craft your stories based on your capabilities, budget, and time, but I can tell you that your first attempts will be ugly. When I teach a class on creating content, I like to show weblebrity Gary Vaynerchuk's first wine video. Production value is poor, content is weak, and if you viewed it when it debuted in 2006, you would have grossly underestimated its impact by assuming it was merely a liquor store salesperson innocuously schlepping his wares (particularly compared to episode 1,000). What Gary did by simply sitting down in front of a video camera to broadcast a few wine tastings was to stoke his superb salesmanship skills from a small flame to a roaring fire by using the medium he excelled at: speaking. In addition to using the medium that most suited him, Gary moved the needle for wine sales by helping transform an average Joe like me into a wine connoisseur. Gary's audience became wine heroes by dint of Gary's rudimentary and risky sales gambit and it paid in droves: 90,000 people were estimated to have watched his show daily. Gary's secret? Embrace "permanent beta" (a principle I first read via Michael Hyatt). Begin to  create your art and tell your story no matter how pathetic your first performance. Just do it. Creating good art requires failure but this just means you do it poorly until you learn to do it well. Your community will surprise you, they will applaud your efforts. Why? Because, remember, as audiences and fans, we want businesses to win. No one wants Apple to manufacture an inferior iPhone. Your market wants you to win, they want to cheer your efforts with pluses and thumbs and rave reviews that should culminate in sales but first, you have to get in the race. You must start telling your stories.

By now, you will have surely expressed the one critical objection to effective storytelling that every business (that isn't awash with cash like Apple) faces, and that is: time. You'll have to remove the enemy again (your outmoded mindset) or you'll preclude any progress in storytelling, and this time the old nemesis is how you allocate your sales and marketing resources (I'll speak to the solopreneur in a moment). I'm not speaking strictly of money here but of all resources: budget, your allocation of time, and foremostly, priority.

For some of you this is no minor decision. This decision to embrace storytelling is a teutonic shift in how you view your sales process. You must allocate more sales energy (usually payroll or resources) to the marketing department, the "transmedia storytelling department" as I have learned to call it. Crafting a good story is a part of the sales cycle, not a mere component of marketing or communications. This moves beyond simple social media tactics and it's not something easily pawned off on an intern. But the dilemma for most of us is one of scale: how does a small business or solo entrepreneur scale himself? How do you craft a story with so little time? In our office, we are constantly on the lookout for a good story. It took us a few years but we finally permeated the practices of our employees to flag us when they are working on a story-worthy project. The size of the order is immaterial, we look for one story per week that either proves the power of branded products or highlights members of our community who are doing unique, notable work. Source one story per week (or every two weeks if you are a solopreneur) and craft that story. Once you create the story using your preferred medium (video, writing, or even presentation slides via SlideShare) don't forget to duplicate its content on your website/blog. Blast that story out on the social networks but make sure you house it on your own domain so that you gain all the benefits from organic search online.

If we as an industry would ever seize upon revelatory storytelling practices, and fall in love again with fairy tale, it will be a heuristic, monumental moment for our market. We will decommoditize our product by educating the corporate citizenry to the higher calling of our products' purpose. Storytelling will result in higher profitability, more community engagement with your brand and more referrals resulting in new business. Storytelling bridges your business and your audience, it builds a pipeline of opportunity and heralds a new renaissance in advertising by tapping into one of man's most profound and fundamental desires: the desire to share stories.