Branding as Storytelling
The application of storytelling to business understands we are reliant on organizing our lives with narrative.
For decades, managers built the case for their products with facts, statistics, and testimonials. The reason to buy was because the company’s service or manufactured article was better than the competitor’s. This means of persuasion relied heavily on traditional tools of rhetoric, an art of persuasive speaking and writing arising out of specific compositional techniques laid about by Aristotle in 4th century B.C.E. Today, some executives employ another tool. They motivate their target audience by borrowing from literature’s use of narrative: they tell stories. To build compelling business stories requires knowledge of the specific ways the tools of literary narrative can be put to commercial use in a systematic way—to communicate complexity, and motivate customers, investors, and employees to act.
The narrative form
Storytelling proves to be a superior form of communication because we humans make sense of the world through our cognitive and affective understanding of stories. Narrative differs from facts, statistics, and testimonials because it describes a series of events, typically given in order, but in any case in a way that establishes the connections between the events. Where facts are static and cloistered, stories are fluid and friendly and interconnected. Going further, a story is a narrative account of events in the past that are accepted as true by virtue of the telling. It largely doesn’t matter if the story is about the good or the bad. And although the story that is a work of fiction isn’t technically true, it embodies truth and therefore feels real as if it could have happened. Aristotle wrote that a convincing impossibility is always preferable to an unconvincing possibility. In novels or business, it is the storyteller’s task to convince us.
How stories work
But what is a convincing story? A potent story moves its audience—not merely persuades a point of view—which means it appeals to the heart as well as the mind. The convincing story will make logical sense—be believable or plausible and feel true—but also evoke an affective response. It is the latter that proves to be the manager’s challenge for managers are adept at organizing facts, making decisions, and dispersing concrete resources, but no where was it traditionally the manager’s responsibility to elicit customers’ feelings or dispel their fears or guide their emotions. Ten years ago, a customer may have loved a company’s product but this was seen as peripheral to the marketing plan’s pragmatic goal of more sales. Thanks to Zappos, customer love became a respected marketing metric.
There are a number of structural reasons why stories worked their way onto the marketer’s dashboard. Storytelling gained legitimacy as a management tool because the quantity of data that flows through a company and out to customers exceeds the cognitive capacity of individual brains. In addition, much of the information relating to today’s products is sufficiently complex and diffusive that customers are too busy and siloed to comprehend it. It would be a rare consumer who understands how the newest iPhone operates and an exceptional physician who grasps how the latest diagnostic testing works. The recourse to storytelling solves a real problem; it is a response to the hypercomplexity of late capitalist society. At the same time, behavioral economists pointed out that the rationality traditionally taken for granted in economic theory was less pervasive in practice. Customers really would choose what felt good when making a purchase decision even if logic went the other direction.
How to Use Stories
Recognizing narrative as a highly accessible form of communication well-suited to our information economy, how does a manager use the tools of storytelling to market her products, her services, her company? First: Tell a story that draws people in. This is done by relating a heartfelt matter, the establishment of which forges a connection with the listener’s emotions. Such stories recount a decisive situation such as a crisis or a crossroads or an intractable problem in need of solving. Or, they reveal the origins of a person or product. A common motivational speaker plot is of overcoming obstacles or persevering in the face of difficult circumstances. Any of these might employ the parable form with its evocation of a moral lesson or principle (which may draw on a traditional fable). All these approaches have in common that they are about people, not objects or numbers or processes, because humans are drawn to stories about other humans. And in some way these rely on a suspension of disbelief which is a literary term for the magic of storytelling, how good stories beguile us purely because they are a story with a beginning, middle, and end.
Make it simple
Fundamental to stories is their capacity to overcome complexity. The story that a business tells is, like the elevator pitch, sufficiently distilled to its essence so that a child could understand it. Make it simple. Strip away unnecessary detail. This is not an invitation to be facile—and it does not mean the story must be short—but recognition that if the manager is unable to compose a simple story perhaps she does not know what she wants her customer to feel. As the physicist Richard Feynman wrote, “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t really understand it.” Of course, it is a truism that the magnitude of the effort required to craft a story is positively correlated with the amount of complexity to be encapsulated. “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” wrote Cicero.
Business storytelling and literary narrative have shared origins, but the former must be persuasive not merely artistically entertaining. Sometimes this entails the building of illusion to open the audience’s imagination to the possibilities because the value of any product or company is not based solely on difference or physical attributes. The symbolism of an unveiling has the power to create value that would be otherwise hard to explain (think of Apple’s highly choreographed product announcements).
Even though business storytelling is committed to communication and persuasion it can exploit poetic devices from literature. This is why corporations telling compelling stories have tended to turn to novelists, screenwriters, and playwrites. This transfer of literary form to the economic realm is lamented by English departments as neoliberalism at its worst, but the competition is notional. Business storytelling is goal oriented; the effect of the story supplants the story. A manager uses story as a tool not an object.
Anderson, Chris. “The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method Obsolete.” Wired, 23 June 2008.
Aristotle. The Art of Rhetoric. Oxford University Press, 2018.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Storyteller, ” in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections. ed. Hannah Arendt. HBJ, 2007.
Hsieh, Tony. Delivering Happiness. Grand Central, 2013
Schonthaler, Philipp, Portrait of the Manager as a Young Author. MIT, 2018.
Smith, Lynn. “Not the Same Old Story. ” Los Angles Times. 11 November 2011.
Junot got out of bed as soon as his alarm sounded. He had allowed plenty of time to catch the train which allowed him plenty of time to reach the client before the appointed time of the presentation. He needed time to stop into his office to pick up a printed copy of the presentation which he planned to take as an extra precaution. Now that everyone worked from home, he could not be assured of the quality of internet service and since the firm wanted employees around the globe to work as if they all sat under one roof, each of them accessed all files, including those of client presentations, from the cloud, which Junot had found when meeting with an M.D. at his home office, is not always available. Junot had attempted cloudy sky humor to gloss over his apparent failure to be prepared but the M.D. was cheerless and Junot left that day believing in the distinct possibility he would be fired.
But Junot had learned from his mistake. Although the office was closed for the long holiday weekend he’d had the graphics department prepare a print version of the slide deck. As he prepared to leave his flat, it occurred to him that he ought have something in which to transport the slide decks. For a fleeting second he imagined himself climbing out of the taxi at the client’s home and a wind sending the papers sailing into the sky, scattering into the distance. He did not have a briefcase. Perhaps his mother or father might have carried one, but it was not something Junot owned. He had a messenger bag he used to transport his gym clothes and laptop but it was ratty and although it conveyed a not-trying-too-hard sense of the consultant’s road warrior life, it was in no way suitable for turning up at a client’s office. Usually he arrived with his laptop in its sleek black case and nothing else. For a minute he opened closets and cupboards in the chance a briefcase might appear and then unexpectedly remembered boxes he was storing in the basement of his building, ones that he had helped remove from his grandparents’ home.
Careful not to soil his freshly pressed white shirt, in the dim light of the basement storage room, he easily found the box he was thinking off and right on top was a slim leather briefcase, hard-sided, probably from the 1950s. It bore two locks marked with an “G” and “O” which were his grandfather’s initials and along the top metal strip under the handles was a faded piece of Dymo tape on which his full name had been punched. Junot glanced at his watch and seeing it was five minutes past the hour he’d planned to leave, he rushed upstairs with the briefcase, which in the light of day was dusty but in surprisingly good shape, rather au courant in a retro way. He made sure the clasps weren’t locked then stowed his phone and keys in his coat pocket and set off for the office.
The night guard was still at reception and handed Junot a thick packet. Junot set the briefcase on the guard’s counter then pulled out the papers and flipped through them checking that the first and last pages were present then lay them into the briefcase under the watchful eye of the guard. He flagged down a taxi and reached the train station with twenty minutes to spare. Proud now of the briefcase, he felt relaxed and confident and stopped into the coffee shop and ordered a cappuccino and as he stood waiting for his coffee imagined the other patrons admiring the vision of him in his dark suit, carefully combed hair, shiny black shoes and a well-worn but clearly expensive briefcase held loosely by his side. On the train, he stowed the briefcase on the open metal rails above his seat, feeling some satisfaction that he finally had some use for this amenity as he usually kept his laptop on the table and worked during the train ride. With the presentation made final by being printed on paper, he had no need to make last minute tweaks. He spent the ride watching the scenery go past.
The client was a long-standing one, an entrepreneur with more ventures under his belt than anyone could count. Because he was now in his 70s and not as active as he’d once been, Junot guessed he had been entrusted with giving this presentation which was the culmination of a project the firm had been working on for six months. Although he was well-experienced in leading projects of this sort, he’d never been solo with a client of this caliber and so ran through the kinds of chit chat he’d observed his M.D. engaging in because he wanted to do the same. He was still making a mental list of these comments when his stop came up. It had arrived more quickly than he had anticipated so he wasn’t standing when the train came to a halt and as he heard the conductor call the town name, he jumped from his seat and walked briskly to the door at the back of the car. On the platform he looked around for the driver who was to meet him. Not many passengers had disembarked but the platform was busy with commuters waiting. As the train drew out of the station, he glimpsed a man holding a sign with his surname and made his way over to identify himself. The driver asked if Junot had any luggage and it was then an icy dart sliced through Junot’s chest. The briefcase. It was not in his hand. He’d left it on the train. Junot swung around and looked back. The train was gone.
The driver assisted him in making a claim at the ticket desk and the representative assured Junot they would check the train at its final destination. This did no good now and although he felt a pang that he might forever lose his grandfather’s briefcase, he quashed those feelings as he slipped into the back seat. As they bumped along the long track from the main road, Junot saw it was a large farm. The driver identified the main house but turned off toward an immense barn as this was where the client kept his offices. The client greeted Junot warmly and expressed enthusiasm for the project conclusions. Feeling a creeping sense of dread, Junot frantically considered how he might recover. His laptop was in the briefcase, so all he had was his phone; his quickly hatched plan was to access the cloud over wifi and hopefully the client had a screen he could cast to, and although it would be clunky, he could click through the slides in this way.
It was with great relief Junot saw as they entered the barn that inside it had been converted to state of the art offices, including a glassed in conference room in the center with a large screen and various cords and projectors on the table. He asked if he might have a few minutes to set up and the client settled into a chair at the conference table and watched with bemused interest as Junot established the bluetooth connection and accessed the pdf of the slide deck. He made a few introductory remarks of appreciation for the client’s trust in their work which the client waved away. The slide deck began with a recap of the previous presentation’s conclusions which he moved through rapidly. As he clicked to display the first slide of the new work’s results, the screen went blank, a spinning ball in the corner taunting Junot. The file wasn’t loading. Sometimes our internet is spotty, the client offered. Cloudy days. Odd-numbered days. He chuckled and shrugged. We take it as a sign to go for a walk. Junot felt panic build in his chest. I’m not sure a walk will give you the results you want to see, he responded, with an attempt at humor he did not feel. Feeling frantic but trying to disguise the mounting sense of dread, Junot reloaded the presentation and reconnected to the screen on the wall, hoping a restart would solve the problem. When it didn’t, he gave the client what he feared was an expression of defeat. Just when he was preparing to offer to reschedule for another day, the client said, No doubt you have this presentation memorized. I know how you guys work. Just tell it to me. I don’t need the fancy slides. Just sit here and tell me.
Junot was nonplussed. He looked at the client with incredulity. Memorized? He did not think so. The client looked elegant in a houndstooth jacket and a jaunty pocket square and sat across the table completely relaxed. His lined face was not exactly cordial but his eyes betrayed an affable sense of good humor and it was the client’s steady gaze that gave Junot confidence he did not know he had. Beginning with the research results, he summarized what their team had discovered and related the recommendations. Trying to visualize the sequence of slides in his mind, Junot found he did not have it memorized, but discovered something more compelling—he knew it. In his mind, he knew what the client needed to do and, as he recounted this knowledge by heart, found himself distilling it to its essence, emphasizing the points that were the most important ones, and in this way a presentation that would have lasted 60 minutes was concluded in ten.
When Junot finished, the client nodded with pursed lips, then stared at something in the distance over Junot’s shoulder. When he brought his gaze back to Junot he said, Perfect. Shall we go for a walk?