Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Why so little success with corporate storytelling? Here’s what to do instead.

Executive Summary:

Marketers interested in experimenting with storytelling can start with a low-risk, low-cost piece of collateral: the customer case study. Use narrative structure to engage prospective customers. Add resonance to your value proposition.

Key Points:
  1. Social media is inviting marketing executives to take a second look at narrative structure, which is standard in top-tier business press but missing from most marketing collateral.
  2. A customer case study can be repackaged to show a hero (your customer) overcoming obstacles (with your products and services) and achieving market success (your customer's aspiration).
Sound Bite:

"Your social media guru and PR team usually are not equipped to write in narrative form. Senior PR people -- in the VP, SVP and EVP levels -- may have the skills, but they don't write case studies. An ex-journalist on your team is your best bet."

Read the whole article:

With little success, I’ve been trying for 10 years to teach storytelling principles to PR practitioners. Workshop and class attendees understand it and enjoy it, but the few who try to apply a narrative structure to their work get bogged down in the approval process.

I rarely recommend it these days as a workshop component or class. My own PPTs and handouts are dusty.

The only time I teach it now is within the context of a class on writing award submissions. This seems to be the one type of document where the marketing department is willing to let go.

I wonder if this will change.

Scary for old-school marketers: audience that "talks back"

If you read trade press for the advertising industry, you’ll recall that the sudden rise of social media and the audience’s new ability to “talk back” in public prompted substantial fear. This was about five years ago.

Generation gap

Since then, I’ve noticed a generation gap in marketing approaches. In my own mind, I’ve come to divide marketing executives into two groups – new school and old school. For a while, the old-school guys were in positions of authority and making decisions that struck me as anachronistic. Meanwhile, the new-school guys were too low-ranking to exert influence and lacked necessary business insight.

Humpty Dumpty

In 2010, it appears to me that a balance is being struck within some companies. I picture the old-school guys as Humpty Dumpty, fallen and cracked but alive and powerful. Their strength: They understand business. But they’ve lost their creative mojo and know it, so they yield to new-school concepts and hire people whose skills are unfamiliar to them.

Twitter, FB, etc.

But will storytelling become part of the new mix? Will videos, websites, blog posts and short-form posts (Twitter, Facebook) adopt the narrative structure that turns novelists and movie-makers into millionaires?

Sam Whitmore of Sam Whitmore Mediasurvey, who gives media advice to the tech PR industry, last week sent his clients a report raising a similar question. He pointed out significant obstacles. The details are proprietary, so I can’t share, but I can say that I concur, for reasons of my own.

Start with case studies: affordable way to break the mold

Nonetheless, if companies are interested in a small, affordable way to begin breaking the mold, I can offer one highly do-able suggestion: Start with case studies.

This is the easiest ground to give and likely to produce immediate results.

Here are my contrarian teachings:

(1) Give away the punchline in the opening paragraph. Tell the end of the story at the very beginning. In other words, take a sentence or two from what would have been the results section at the end, and move it into the lead.

(2) Don’t keep the “situation,” “problem” and “solution” in separate sections. Mix them. Instead use this framework: a heroic figure whom we care about overcomes obstacles and gets what he wants, learning lessons along the way.

In a case study, the heroic figure is your customer. The obstacles he overcomes are common to prospective customers, some of whom didn’t recognize the problem as clearly you have articulated it or didn’t know it could be solved.

In the course of overcoming obstacles, the customer uses your company’s tools. But picture the customer as MacGyver, the resourceful TV show character who could engineer his way out of any jam with scotch tape and a tin can. This means the emphasis is on the customer (MacGyver), not particularly on your tools – although the story cannot be told without your tools. Go light. Don’t sell. Just tell.

Your subheads could like like this:

Executive summary – Here you mix the “problem” (beginning) and “results” (end) in one or two sentences – briefly -- just enough to tell “a story of transformation.”

  • Show change, not the “situation analysis” or “background.” Customer X had a problem common to your prospective customers; now he has business success. Ignore the middle of the story for now. That comes in the next section.
  • Use your best stats in the executive summary. Don’t save them for the “conclusion” at the end, especially since most readers won’t get that far, anyway. Even if all they do is skim the first graf, the readers will walk away with the most important idea.

Problem/solution – Here you tell the middle part of the story. This is your customer overcoming obstacles they have in common with your prospective customers, with your tools in hand.

By juxtaposing problem and solution, you gain tension. When you separate them, you have static facts. Tension keeps readers reading.

Ideally, the customer is learning along the way. What lessons can he share? What would he have done differently from the start, knowing what he now knows? What can other businesses learn from his experience? What’s replicable about his success?

When you mix the problem and solution, you are telling a story. When you separate them, you are writing a conventional case study. Which do you think will get higher readership?

Results Here you amplify the phrase or sentence you pulled out for use in the executive summary. You list business results, if possible, that were outgrowths of the problem’s being solved. You give more stats, while reminding the reader of that super-great one stat you included in the executive summary.

Why adopt this storytelling framework for case studies?

  1. An image of business success will now be associated with your company's products or services, even if the reader was a skimmer who quit reading after the first graf.
  2. A skimmer is less likely to stop after the first graf because you’ve added an element of suspense (the missing middle), and rewarded him from the start. It’s silly to think that a reader will patiently wade through static facts in hope of a possible reward at the end. Give him confidence from the start that you aren’t wasting his time.
  3. People remember stories more readily than they remember facts.
  4. Your reason for writing isn’t to tell the world about your customer; it’s to draw in prospective customers who will recognize themselves and their problems in the story. Your customer is a stand-in for your prospective customer, who can now visualize himself succeeding, thanks to the concrete specifics of your story.
Breaking the mold takes courage. You might consider trying it a couple of times and watching the response. If it works, keep it. If it doesn't, toss it. It's a just a case study, right? A tiny piece of your marketing collateral. No big deal. Case studies are not costly in time or money. They aren't high-profile. There's little to lose and readership to gain.

Caveat: Your social media guru and PR team usually are not equipped to write in narrative form. Senior PR people -- in the VP, SVP and EVP levels -- may have the skills, but they don't write case studies.

An ex-journalist on your team is your best bet. Or, if you've got a member of junior staff who successfully pitches top-tier business press, give them a crash course (30 mins) and let them learn from experience. Top-tier business press often write in narrative form.

The advent of social media and questions about the rise of business storytelling give you soft ground for experimentation. The conventional powers that be as well as the audience are now in a forgiving mood. Risk for this type of experiment has never been lower.

For more how-to posts, check out: