If strategy is the left brain, then story-telling is the right brain

Being able to tell a great story is as important as a sound business strategy. If strategy is about appealing to logic, then story-telling is about appealing to emotion.

In fact, a good story can act like a tailwind that adds momentum to your business even when there isn’t much differentiation from your competition. And a poor story can be a headwind even when your offering may be superior.

A story is a lot more than the product or service message. It is the broader narrative that connects a number of dots (including the message) that gives others a reason to listen to what you have to say.

Storytelling is something that has consistently been part of what I’ve done in my professional career regardless of the title of my job. You rarely see “storyteller” as part of a job description – even in marketing – because its perceived as being soft and fuzzy and hard to measure. So I thought I’d count all the different ways a good story can impact a range of business metrics both directly and indirectly:

First, let’s assess the external impact –

  • Revenue: Before you can get market share, you have to first get mind share – and when great stories go viral it creates pull (and let’s face it, “pushing” a message is less and less effective in today’s digital era that offers the audience an opt-out.)
  • Margin: A good story succinctly captures your difference in way that customers “get it” right away. It can clearly articulate why an offering commands a premium and/or it can prevent margin erosion in complex sales cycles where cost of sales can easily get out of control.
  • Thought leadership: Most people think thought leadership requires you to say something smart. But a good story can also be about simplifying the complex. In fact, demystifying an old complex idea is far more valuable than a brilliant new idea that most people cannot understand. And the tech world is full of complex innovations that never realized its full potential because nobody really understood it well enough to get excited about it.
  • Share price: It always helps when investors like your story and can tell it to others as to why they should buy your stock.
  • Recruiting talent: We spend at least a third of our lifetime working and a good part of our adult identity is tied to our workplace. If a good company story adds to our life’s story, then attracting talent just got easier.

Now let’s look at internal impact – A good story becomes the narrative that employees rally around. We all know the stories of the Googles and Facebooks. Their employees know they are transforming the world and we all know it too. Those are the easy ones…

  • Shared vision/synergy: On the other hand, think about the companies struggling to turnaround. At these companies, the CEO is like “Moses” whose job is to lead his/her people through the wilderness and to the “promised land.” That CEO has to energize an often beleaguered and demoralized workforce with a new sense of identity and purpose. And well before the marketplace acknowledges their comeback, the story has to win the hearts and minds of the employees (and quell the cynics.) People want to be part of something bigger than themselves and the story has to find that “something” – it does not have to be as compelling as a Google or Facebook – but it will need to move people emotionally (and even spiritually) to overcome the headwinds and succeed in the turnaround.
  • Retaining talent: If we’ve bought into the story, then we are committed to staying in the relationship – through good times and bad.

Pulling together the story is a bi-directional process – you’ve got to look at it both from the inside-out and outside-in and try to bridge the gap. Its also an iterative process that involves discovery and discussion on how to best converge the two views.

  • The outside-in view is about listening to your customers (current and future) so you can make the right brand promise that resonates with them. (If you are lagging in the marketplace, then your competitors have already set the bar that you need to clear. If you are the market leader, then you are looking to further up the ante on your brand promise.)
  • The inside-out view is about assessing your product/service (and supply chain) capabilities so you can actually keep that brand promise and do it in a way that is profitable. (If you are lagging in the marketplace, then you are fighting a lot of inertia – which makes the story even more important to the turnaround.)

Pulling it off requires both the right-brain and left-brain – business storytelling is a creative exercise (but your typical creative agency falls short because they lack the business acumen to grapple with the strategy part) that needs to shape the strategy and vice versa.