Sunday, May 1, 2011

Is Storytelling Influence-in-Disguise? (Part 1)

"These days you can't own your own market; but you CAN own your story."

(Michael Margolis, Author of ‘Believe Me’).

You can think about story (in a business context) in a number of ways, for example:

  • Your basic elevator pitch (the response to “Hi, what do you do?”).
  • Anecdotes with a message or moral.
  • The wider meaning of your brand, vision or cause.

In this piece I’m going to explore the power of story and storytelling in these and other senses. My aim is to demonstrate how, far from being a fluffy topic with no place in the boardroom, stories lie at the heart of our ability to influence others.

First Impressions – making an impact

I once went to 3 networking events in a single day – and that’s too many! Two friends of mine who were similarly ‘over-networked’ joined me at the third event and agreed to play a game – we would pretend to be something we were not! We adopted false business identities: one was a dolphin trainer, the other ran a funeral parlour and I was a paranormal investigator. We kept up the pretence for about half an hour before retiring to the bar, but I do recall my first encounter with someone (using my new identity). He asked what I did, I explained I was a paranormal investigator and he replied, “Oh right, where are you based?”

Now to my mind, that kind of response indicated that he really wasn’t listening! And it reminded me how de-sensitized people get in the networking arena because they listen day-in day-out to bland, vanilla-style elevator pitches. But you can hardly blame them for not listening properly to, “Hi, I’m Geoff and I’m the owner of XYZ web design company and we’ve been in business for”…zzzzzzzzz

So I encourage clients to develop more of a Marmite pitch, something that will trigger a reaction (“no thanks, not for me”….or “Wow, that’s amazing!”). It’s refreshing to find someone who knows their own story and puts it across compellingly, someone on a mission, someone who sees their business as a cause. So as a simple exercise, ask yourself TWO questions:

  1. What’s the wrong you’ve set out to right?
  2. WHY do you do what you do?

Get these 2 points across when you deliver a 60 second summary and you’re less likely to the get the vanilla response!

The power of the anecdote
We're always told we need a Unique Selling Point, but what people normally communicate is a CSP - Common Selling Point! "We're No.1 for Customer Service...We're a client-focused organisation...We believe our People are our best asset." Oh yeah? Join the queue!

But explain how you delivered a kitchen to a client who lived in an inaccessible location (hemmed in by trees and water) on a BARGE, by lowering the units one by one from a bridge and sailing it THAT's what I call customer service! (true John Lewis story).

The benefits of a great customer service anecdote like this are:

The listener can make their own mind up about your attitudes towards service (the story PROVES it - you're not asking people to take your word for it – it’s ‘values-in-a-packet’).

It's memorable and will get passed on.

It’s more enjoyable to listen to, so you’re a more engaging networking partner!

It’s truly UNIQUE (U-sp) because YOU’RE in the story!

The art of persuasion – getting emotional buy-in

When you’re conversing with co-workers, customers or investors, the richness and meaning of your story is what people really buy. Everybody thinks it’s the return on investment that you’re selling…but it’s really the story about ROI that an investor takes away.

(Tom Durel - Former CEO, Oceania: from ‘Believe Me’ by M.Margolis)

If you’re seeking to influence others with your message, you have 2 options:

Present a logical argument, using detailed PowerPoint slides and conventional business-language. “Here’s the problem, this is what we need to do to fix it…buy now!”

But as Robert McKee points out (Harvard Business Review, June 2003), there are two PROBLEMS with rhetoric. “First, the people you're talking to have their own set of authorities, statistics, and experiences. While you're trying to persuade them, they are arguing with you in their heads. Second, if you do succeed in persuading them, you've done so only on an intellectual basis. That's not good enough, because people are not inspired to act by reason alone.”

“The other way to persuade people—and ultimately a much more powerful way—is by uniting an idea with an emotion. The best way to do that is by telling a compelling story.”

Stories engage people on an emotional level. According to Peter Gruber, CEO of the Mandalay Entertainment Group, ALL of us who seek to influence others (and we're doing that all the time) are in the emotional transportation business. In other words, we've got to transfer the passion and belief WE have in our message to our audience.

Stories are the way we make sense of the world. A well told story that we can identify with stirs emotions and, when married with the statistical/logical argument, leads to the kinds of BEHAVIOURS we’re looking to stimulate.

Selling Possibility – the Big Picture Story

Stories are also a terrific way to motivate people because they convey a sense of possibility, that, “there might be a bigger and better story for me.” We like watching Paul Potts sing Nessun Dorma on Britain’s Got Talent because it reminds us that, “maybe, just maybe I could do something extraordinary.”

The same applies to a CEO who sells a terrific vision for the company. It’s a classic piece of storytelling/leadership – this is the direction we’re going in…are you ready to help us get there? Australian speaker Daniel Priestley describes this is your ‘big picture’ story. For Bill Gates it was to put a personal computer in every office and bedroom in the world. For Martin Luther King it was his “I have a dream” speech.

But on a more down to earth level, smaller companies can have a big picture story too. There’s no reason you can’t dominate your own niche and set out to change the way people think about it (although the narrower the niche the better). I love Simon Sinek’s concept of the Golden Circle – the way great leaders and companies communicate their WHY first (then their how and what). It’s their mission, their purpose or cause that gets centre stage. It attracts the right people to you – people who “believe what you believe.”

(Part 2 to follow)

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