The art of storytelling

What are the stories your customers tell about their experience with you and your business? What do they think you really stand for? What are the most memorable aspects of their experience? What surprises them? What frustrates them? How do you make them feel? The nature and quality of these stories has a profound impact on the success of your business.

This blog of Capek tells all about it.

We make sense of the world around us through the stories we tell… the stories we tell ourselves and the stories we hear from and tell to others. If you think about the defining moments in your life, you’ll see that the stories you tell yourself about those moments have a powerful influence on your identity and the way you see the world. Aside from these personal stories, across human history, we’ve shared meaning and knowledge with each other in the form of stories. This includes the legends and parables shared within and across generations, as well as, the stories we share about more immediate events.

Stories are our Primary Means of Sharing Knowledge and Transmitting Culture

Humans have evolved as storytelling animals. The story form is one of the core knowledge structures use to encode and recall our experiences. When we recall past experiences we actually reconstruct the experience from a limited amount of information encoded in memory. Understanding how this happens provides powerful insight into how to design experiences that are both more memorable and more influential.

In business, the nature and quality of your relationships with customers is reflected in the nature and the quality of the stories your customers tell. Your ability to retain customers is directly related to the nature and quality of the stories they tell themselves about their experience. Your ability to cost-effectively acquire new customers is increasingly dependent on the nature and the quality of the stories your customers tell to other prospective customers.

The Experience Must Tell Customers the Story You Want Them to Retell

If you don’t effectively tell the story… how can ever expect that your customers will either get the message… or have the material to be able to pass the story effectively on to others. In a previous post, I drew a parallel between experience and music. (See: Great Experiences are Music to My Ears). The experience that customers have with most organizations is a lot like the Billy Preston song that goes, “I’ve got a song that ain’t got no melody.” The experience doesn’t communicate anything effectively… it just defaults from the bunch of the things that organization does… and that bunch of things is generally all over the map. Similarly, most organizations have a story that’s “got no message… and got no script.”

Earlier this week, I led several dozen executives from a wide range of companies through a full-day customer experience immersion event at Disneyland in Anaheim, CA. Disney is an organization built on powerful storytelling. There are stories of Walt; stories surrounding some of the worlds’ best loved fictional characters; the stories that unfold in movies, rides, and many of our personal memories of visits to one of the Disney theme parks.

As part of that event, we took a close look at one particularly well-crafted story; the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride. If you’re one of the more than half a billion people that have had the pleasure of experiencing this ride… take a moment… close your eyes and recall the experience. What stands out as most memorable? How do you remember feeling? Over the course of about 13 minutes, a complete and highly immersive story unfolds.

Although it might seem like a stretch, there’s a lot that most businesses can learn about customer experience by considering how they can make the experience more like “Pirates of the Caribbean.” For example, if you work for a bank, how can you make the experience customers have opening an account, applying for a loan, developing a financial plan, etc… a “Pirates of the Caribbean” experience? If you’re a professional or business services provider, how can you make the experience that your clients have as engaging and meaningful as “Pirates of the Caribbean?” In order to answer that question, we must start with three common characteristics of the most engaging, memorable, and retellable stories:

1. A Simple, Purposeful Message

A simple, purposeful message is at the core of many of the experiences that people find intuitively understandable and compelling.

By “simple” I mean a message that people can understand immediately; because it’s concrete rather than abstract and doesn’t require a lot of additional explanation. In their book, Made to Stick , Chip and Dan Heath do a great job of describing how the “Curse of Knowledge” often gets in the way of communicating in ways that people can easily understand. The more knowledge you have of the strategy and inner workings of your industry and business, the more difficult it becomes to put yourself in the shoes of customers who don’t have that knowledge. What seems intuitively obvious, concrete, and simple to you… may be confusing, abstract, and complex for your customers.

The Heaths illustrate the “Curse of Knowledge” using an experiment conducted in 1990 by Elizabeth Newton. In that experiment, people were assigned to be either “tappers” or “listeners.” Tappers were asked to select from a list of 25 well-known melodies and to tap out the selection’s rhythm on the table. The listeners would then have to guess the song the tapper was tapping. Tappers predicted that the listeners would guess correctly one out of two times (50%). It turns out that the listeners were only able to guess one out of about forty times (2.5%). The tappers thought it would be easy to communicate their “message” to the listener because, as they were tapping, they were hearing the song in their head. However, the listener wasn’t hearing that song; they were just trying to decipher the message from what sounded like Morse code. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen people try desperately to get their customers to understand when the underlying issue is that the customer just doesn’t have the same background music playing in their heads.

Beyond being simple, the message must also be “purposeful.” It must not only clearly articulate what you stand for BUT ALSO contrast that to what you stand against. People will find it easier to understand who you are, when it’s clear who you’re not. Heroes are boring without villains. Triumphs don’t make sense without understanding the challenges that made those triumphs meaningful. Stories without tension, uncertainty, or risk aren’t worth listening to. The conflict built into the message clarifies the things that make the experience differentiated and worth engaging in.

It’s important to choose your enemies wisely. For example, just about every insurance company out there portrays the enemy in their story to be the uncertain outcomes they protect you against. As a result, the message from those companies pretty much boils down to the same thing… with only minor variations on how effectively they communicate that same old story. Compare that to Progressive that has gotten a lot of mileage out of telling a different story; a story with a message that they provide competitive quotes that enable customers to feel they’ve made a more educated decision. Allstate is also getting traction by telling a story around the message that they recognize and reward people for safe driving. In both of these cases, the enemies are prevailing industry practices.

One of the best examples of a simple and purposeful message is Salesforce.com’s “Success, Not Software.” Salesforce.com’s “software as a service (Saas)” platform allows you to focus on your sales processes rather than having to implement complex and risky CRM software. We’ve also worked with many companies that provide further examples of strong messages:

* Jewelry Store Message: “The Perfect Gift Guaranteed.” It’s not about selling you jewelry. It’s about helping you give the perfect gift, in the perfect way that contributes to your relationship with the recipient.
* Mortgage Bank Message: “A Better Way Home.” It’s not about just giving you a mortgage. It’s about a well designed and flawlessly executed home buying experience.
* Automotive Financial Products Firm Message: “Driving Dealer Performance.” Rather than just providing financing and pre-paid maintenance (to their automotive dealer customers), we work with you to measurably improve the performance of your finance and insurance operation.

In each of these cases, the message is crisp and clearly articulated. As you may guess, this is actually quite rare. Most organizations become enamored with a message that doesn’t really communicate anything specific or concrete.

If we take a step back and look at “Pirates,” beneath the relatively light entertainment value, the story ends up hanging together brilliantly around the message: “Despite the adventure, there is a price to be paid for a greedy and vile life.”

2. Characters that Make Sense

The most effective stories have characters that are authentic and intuitively understandable. These characters make the experience more concrete. This is particularly important if the product or service you provide is complex and abstract. For example, if you’re in the insurance business, what you sell is abstract; a policy that represents the transfer of risk in exchange for a premium. This raises the stakes on identifying both the characters in your story, as well as, the role they play. If you’re in the banking business, who are the characters?

The strongest brand stories have great characters. The book “Storytelling: Branding in Practice” by Klaus Fog, Christian Budtz, and Baris Yakaboylu describe the typical characters as follows:

* The Hero. Who is fighting for the goal described in the central premise?
* The Adversary. Who or what must the hero overcome to achieve that goal?
* The Supporter(s). Who (or what) assists the hero in their quest?
* The Benefactor(s). What superior character or force(s) provides aid in the quest?
* The Beneficiaries. Who benefits in the end?

In many situations, the company and/or its representatives are the heroes; the customers’ situation or the alternatives provided by competitors are the adversary; and customers are the beneficiaries.