By Patrick McGee
Ever wonder why some business storytelling is compelling, memorable and impactful and some is eminently forgettable? In my experience, it’s the emotional temperature of the story that makes the difference.
In a session I was recently conducting on using story to impact audiences, we spent time on theory and aggregated audiences – defined as customers, clients, investors, users, and so on. Temperature-wise, it was businesslike cool - typical of these discussions. But when I invented a specific person to represent the customers we wanted to talk to, the temperature started to change. As I described “her” – a young executive with a fast-track career who had taken a maternity leave and started feeling depressed because of fear she had somehow begun to lose her professional edge – one of the participants said, “I’m about to cry. You’re talking about my sister. That’s her exactly.”
Aggregated, generic descriptions of people are cold, but this is the comfort zone for most businesses, especially large corporates. Making the movie run in the audience’s heads with a person in a situation that they can relate to, empathize or sympathize with, turns the emotional heat up to memorable and motivating.
Here are 3 tips to create a memorable, motivating business story:
1. Commitment. If you are not fully committed, you are likely to get pressure to roll up to a generic category rather than a real person. The justification that drives this poor choice is the desire to target “everybody”. Unfortunately, the result usually is that nobody pays attention. It’s not cool to be that cool in storytelling.
2. Archetype. Sometimes we have real people in mind and are allowed to use their story. That’s easy. What about when we don’t? Our approach is to build a person to represent the class or category of customers that we want to motivate. We call this the “archetype” of the class. We try to make them fully-formed characters, with all of the attributes, worries and foibles that real people have. The advantage is that we can give them elements that help us tell a story with purpose – to help us be the solution to their need, for instance. And if the media or anyone else asks if the archetype is a real person, we recommend being honest and explain that they are a composite of real customers and that there are good reasons for that – privacy being just one of them.
3. Solution. If we put the sympathetic, likeable archetype of our story out on a “problem” limb/edge of the cliff, the listener wants them to be saved. So yes, we get to provide the solution. My feeling is that we need to restrain ourselves a bit and first introduce a middle ground – the soft solution. Good thing about this is it’s not satisfying enough to the listener. They want the specific solution. Here is an example of this solution structure.
Help! I’m a sympathetic, likeable archetype hanging off a cliff. (problem statement)
Would a super hero help? (generic solution)
Yes, but where would I get one?
Ta dahhhh. (specific solution)
Marvelous. I’ll take it. (behavior)
To put the executive described earlier into this structure, we defined a generic solution that said she needed something in her field to challenge her while at home. The specific solution was an on-line forum that provided interaction with like-minded participants and had an action component beyond that, all of which she could access on her schedule. The client was the service provider. All the details in this story were driven off the executive’s need so that the some warmth was retained in the solution details – usually cooler than the problem.
Story is not just an example to prove a point. It’s a compelling device to increase engagement, to build the heat of emotion and trigger motivation to behavior.