Storytelling For Business Leaders

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

“You’re never going to kill storytelling because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.”
— Margaret Atwood: Literary Critic, Environmental Activist, Novelist and Author of ‘The Handmaid’s Tale

The way Business is done has changed:

That fact is expensive websites and pretty brochures don’t sell things. Words sell things. Nobody will listen if your message isn’t clear — it doesn’t matter how much you paid for your marketing materials. Visionaries, game changers and challengers striving to design tomorrow’s enterprises must simply explain what their company does. Is your message simple, relevant and repeatable?

Factory ‘Women’s Circle’ Networking Brunch, 21 August 2018, ©Tricia Levasseur.

I recently gave a talk to a full-house at Factory Berlin, a business club fostering innovation from the heart of Europe, where I shared some essential business storytelling tips at the club’s ‘Women’s Circle’ networking brunch for startup founders, scale-up leaders, executives and investors. Since businesses face common challenges, here’s a brief recap so you too can benefit from what was shared.

Table of Contents:
Act One:
* Introduction to business storytelling.
Act Two
* Typical storytelling framework — ready for implementation.
* Storytelling is a superb tool for all kinds of business leaders.
Act Three
* Winning with Words — Storytelling by your favorite female leaders.

Introduction to Business Storytelling:

Marketing can be confusing and wasteful. The problem usually isn’t a company’s product, service or idea but the way we talk about it.

Think about this: how many times have you collaborated with a design agency to create a website or brochure and asked if your graphic artist has experience copywriting? Can they also clarify your message so customers will listen?

Storytelling works because the human brain is drawn towards clarity and not confusion. Story is a sense-making device. It’s also a powerful tool for organizing information. It’s the ultimate competitive advantage because storytelling helps customers understand the benefits of using your products, ideas or services.

Storytelling also isn’t new! Nike had a Chief Storyteller in the 1990s!! Big companies like Microsoft and IBM also employ Chief Storytellers.

Typical Storytelling Framework:

People often don’t buy the best products, they buy the best products they understand. Without a story foundation, it is hard to clarify your message. Storytellers for centuries have known how to keep an audience’s attention — you can too.

Most stories happen in three acts: a beginning, a middle and an end. Characters are introduced and the scene is set in the beginning — sometimes referred to as Act One. Think of it as ‘the status quo’. A typical story starts with the hero wanting something and the question becomes: will the hero get what they want? This is similar to your customer with a problem they need solved!

Next in the middle, or during Act Two, the main character faces a conflict that must be overcome. This is where the main character’s world is turned upside down and they must overcome a series of obstacles to achieve their goal. Replace ‘character’ with ‘my customer’. It’s important to define something here that your customer wants or needs, because as soon as we define this, we place an age old story question in their minds: Can this brand really help me get what I want?

In the end or Act Three, the story resolves. In a traditional story the hero conquers the villain and makes the world a better place. In your story this translates to your customer conquering their ‘problem’ and their life is made better because of your product, service or idea!

Questions good storytelling answers include:

1. What does the hero want?

2. Who or what is opposing the hero getting what s/he wants?

3. What will the hero’s life look like if s/he does (or doesn’t) get what s/he wants?

Fun Fact: Hollywood movies usually answer these three questions within the first 15–20 minutes of any blockbuster film!

Achieve Growth with Objectives:

Don’t forget that business stories should have a clear outcome from your target audience. Story that is used as part of a marketing campaign should always be crafted with the target customer in mind.

Berlin HQ’d Ada Health billboard in the U-Bahn at Hermanplatz. Ada’s co-founders are German and English.

Quick Storytelling Hack:

Learn what’s interesting about you or your business, validate it, and then lead with it. Validation methods include talking to people to hear what they think is right, surveys, A/B testing and so on.

Warning: a common storytelling mistake startups make is bypassing the problem and diving straight into the solution.

Storytelling is a Superb Tool for Business Leaders:

Business leaders have a million jobs to do but fundamentally, telling the story of their business or product is the most important. Founders and CEOs are also Chief Storytellers. Leaders need to engage with many audiences; potential board members or employees, customers and partners, investors, advisers and collaborators.

Storytelling is a critical part of building a business. Founders and Chief Executives often try hard by focusing heavily on small details when they explain features or technologies. This information can be valid, however, it isn’t easy or engaging to follow.

Without a clear sense of purpose, pitches can quickly become boring, uninspiring and easy to forget. If leaders can deliver a clear brand narrative, it has the power to increase the value of a business’s product or service.

Executives looking to scale should implement a strategic storytelling practice throughout their business. Here are three reasons why:

  1. The backbone of a strong marketing strategy is always a clearly communicated story.
  2. Heartfelt storytelling is both human and profitable.
  3. Stories emotionally connect people and create brand loyalty.

Winning with Words — Storytelling by your Favorite Female Leaders:

As my talk on ‘Business Storytelling’ took place at a ‘Womens Business Leaders’ brunch in Berlin, its important to note here that Google for Entrepreneurs has just published research that shows the future of the German economy is female.

It’s a hot topic around Europe and a summary of GfE’s ‘Female Founders Monitor’ report has also been published in this month’s Berlin Valley magazine along with other interesting articles on kick-ass female businesswomen. Now let’s take a closer look at some fabulous female leaders who are also excellent storytellers in Berlin and beyond.

Ida Tin

Co-founder and CEO of Berlin Headquartered Clue app, Ida’s also credited with the coining the term ‘FemTech. Clue, is a popular period tracking and female health application with millions of users worldwide. Before launching Clue, Ida ran a motorcycle tour company with her father. She’s also a best-selling author in her home country of Denmark where she wrote a book about how she went from quote “motorcycles to menstrual cycles.”

As for storytelling, Ida has a comfortable style. She let’s people know who she is with remarkable stories about her unconventional (super cool!) childhood and entrepreneurial spirit.

Earlier this year Ida gave an ‘Open Lecture at the German Technology Entrepreneurship Center (GTEC), a startup campus headquartered in Berlin that’s on a mission to inspire people, guide entrepreneurs and grow sustainable companies. GTEC’s shared her talk online for everyone to benefit. I highly recommend watching this talk to experience her storytelling style — and perhaps pickup a few tricks from her too. (Republished with permission from GTEC of course.)

GTEC ‘Open Lecture’ with Clue co-founder Ida Tin — 2 May 2018 in Berlin — Copyright GTEC.

Indra Nooyi

Chairperson and CEO of Pepsico. Indra joined the company in 1994 and worked her way up the corporate ladder. She’s been the company’s CEO for 12 years, a promotion she secured after having been the Pepsico’s Chief Financial Officer.

The Indian-American businesswoman has topped many ‘best lists’ for powerful women in business including those published by Fortune, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal.

Her great business storytelling shows how you can take a personal experience and make a business point. For example, she divided Pepsicos products into three categories that are easy to attach stories to: ‘fun for you’, ‘better for you’ and ‘good for you’. ‘Fun for you’ products are things like Pepsi and Doritos. ‘Good for you’ includes items from the diet range. And ‘better for you’ comprises of healthier foods including Quaker Oatmeal, Naked Juice and various bottled water brands. Her storytelling works — during her tenure, Indra grew the company’s sales by 80%!

Indra announced two weeks ago that she would step down from her duties as CEO in October. She’ll remain Chairwoman until early 2019. However, in the news this week; she’s made perhaps one last parting purchase for Pepsico — paying $3.2 billion (USD) for Israel’s SodaStream. A product that not only fits the ‘better for you’ story but perhaps also moves Pepsico into the Direct to Consumer (D2C) market.

Melinda Gates

Ranked as the third most powerful woman in the world, and the top American on the 2017 Forbes “most powerful women in the world list”, Melinda is the co-founder of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and a former senior executive at Microsoft. She’s also holds an MBA from Duke University obtained before she began working for Microsoft. Melinda currently shares a $90 billion (USD) fortune with her husband Bill.

Melinda is mentioned here because she has a natural talent for explaining complex topics using simple and relatable words. Indeed working in the technology industry at Microsoft she managed and communicated successful innovations including Publisher, Encarta and Expedia. At the Foundation, her natural storytelling abilities help organize support for various high impact initiatives worldwide.

And finally, other amazing businesswomen who are also superb storytellers include Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer (COO) and author of ‘Lean InSheryl Sandberg, Greek-American businesswoman Arianna Huffington the co-founder and former Editor in Chief of the Huffington Post, and Oprah Winfrey who has at times been ranked the most powerful woman in the world — she’s self made having earned her four billion dollars (USD) from building a media empire.

Medium lists me as a ‘Top Writer’: Entrepreneurship, Startup & Technology.
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Cambridge MBA | Marketing Consultant | Speaker | Author | Ghostwriter

Marketing Executive combining Storytelling & Digitial Technology. Techstars Mentor. Former Bloomberg Journalist. Cambridge MBA.

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