Sweating Sales? Storytelling Isn’t the Answer.

The mistake people make is thinking the story is just about marketing. No, the story is the strategy. If you make your story better, you make the strategy better.

-       Ben Horowitz

There’s a pretty good chance that if you and I are on the phone, you think your marketing sucks.

Virtually every conversation I have begins with that self-diagnosis, and evolves from there. Maybe your brand’s social engagement isn’t doing what it ought to, content marketing is not attracting the right prospects, or nurture sequences aren’t advancing people through your pipeline. You keep hearing about the importance of “storytelling” in marketing, and know Woden’s excellent at it – so we have a conversation.

The value of story in marketing or sales is fairly intuitive. You don’t need me to tell you that Oracle uses storytelling to power its sales team, or that Dove has moved 180 million people to tears with the same approach.

Of course, it’s also become a buzzword that is cringe worthy, even for me. It’s too often synonymous with public relations, advertising, design, or other marketing services that are constantly rebranded to match new technologies. But if your objective in leveraging storytelling is purely to grow sales or amplify your marketing, here’s some counterintuitive advice: don’t do it.

There are easier, faster, and cheaper ways to grow revenue than storytelling.

Leveraging narrative is an all-in approach for an organization. You either need to commit to defining a brand story and embracing it in all facets of your business, or dispense with it altogether. Disciplines like product, people, marketing, and finance are the bricks of your business’s house: story is the mortar that holds them together.

This approach works because: Storytelling isn’t actually about telling stories.

The art of narrative was not invented to entertain, but to inform. In The Irresistible Fairy Tale, Jack Zipes outlines the origins of storytelling: “We know that humans began telling tales as soon as they developed the capacity of speech … to communicate vital information for adapting to their environment. Units of this information gradually formed the basis of narratives that enabled humans to learn about themselves and the worlds that they inhabited. Informative tales were not given titles. They were simply told to mark an occasion, set an example, warn about danger, procure food, or explain what seemed inexplicable. People told stories to communicate knowledge and experience in social contexts.”

At the core of each story is the concept a person is looking to communicate: the story’s moral. Morals are universal truths that audiences are able to apply to their own lives, allowing them to intuit difficult to understand concepts.

Your organization also has a moral. The 31 million people who have watched Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” TED Talk would recognize it as that, but “why” and “moral” are essentially interchangeable. Your organization’s purpose for being is the moral of its story.

Translating a complex offering or product into an easily understood moral provides a single guiding principle for the organization. Once you build the rest of time’s most tested storytelling structure around it, it delivers an immediate return on your most valuable asset: people.

I participate in a monthly CEO forum in Philadelphia. There is one topic that inevitably arises each month: the millennial workforce, and how to engage them. Millennials are the most talented workforce ever, but for those in Generation X or earlier, they can be quite mercurial. Their ways often leave managers asking: What do they really want?

Unlike their managers, millennials are largely unmotivated by profit, advancement or the other clear-cut corporate motivators of the past. Deloitte completed a study that illustrates how millennials are primarily driven by a belief in the purpose they’re working toward. It’s not about Google-style perks, or even the vaunted work-life balance. It’s about building an organization that has real impact the team can believe in.

In this case, story becomes not only a retainer of great employees, but an attractor of quality talent. When your organization becomes defined by purpose instead of a specific product, the brightest young people will be determined to make it a reality.

That leads to a second non-marketing impact of narrative: customer experience. Social media has created an informality that exists between brands and individuals. It blurs the lines of marketing and customer service and the difference between brands and people themselves. This has transformed customer experience: brands need to build friendships and connections the same way people do.

Researcher Tobias Langer has observed: "The emotionality evoked by loved brands is just as intense as that evoked by a close friend. Moreover, consumers experience emotions in a brand love relation that are even more positive than those evoked in close, interpersonal liking relationships."

Story provides a framework for the experience customers have with an organization. It creates a more relatable, personal and human interaction that’s less transactional than it is supportive. That makes it easier for audiences to see brands in this intimate manner. It creates clear guidelines for how the team interacts with customers. And it makes it easier for people to share their experiences.

When customer experience is defined by listening, relationship, and shared purpose, it informs product development in a unique way. A mercenary company might attack product development in a purely financial way by asking: will our customers buy this new offering? Will this allow us to win more market share? How does this drive the bottom line?

Story-driven product design looks at it from a different angle. Instead, it asks: are there additional ways that we can help our brand’s hero (customer) achieve their purpose?

The global economy is moving toward increased specialization for people and firms. A clear, codified story for an organization reduces mission creep, and keeps things on-task. For every new feature or product, it forces the team to ask: is this helping our hero on their journey?

Product development and user experience design firm Thrive cuts to the core of this on their blog: “As we said before, things change, but the brilliant thing about story is it’s a low budget way to course-correct a brand.” Meaning: stories do not just make product development cycles clearer; they reduce time spent on solutions your customers don’t need.

There’s something deeply human about storytelling: it’s part of how we learn language as babies, and it’s part of how we come to understand our world as adults.

-       Nicolas Thompson

Story does sell, of course. Our brains are hard-wired to accept information this way, and story-driven brands are almost always going to be more successful at engaging audiences and creating evangelism. But better marketing and higher close rates are a bonus of putting story to work in your business. Its most transformational impact is internal – for your team, your customers, and the strategy that propels your organization forward.