Tell Me A Story

The success of every type of communication we create in business comes down to our ability to tell a good story.
Are You Sitting Comfortably?

When you think about it, the success of pretty much every type of communication we create in business comes down to our ability to tell a good story. A good story draws the listener in (often despite himself) and keeps him engaged for at least as long as the story is told. A great one sustains the listener’s interest for a good deal longer than that.

As I have written before in The Blend, if we are to enjoy success in our business relationships, it is vital that we become storytellers. Last time, I described how we are all in the people business and how the sector we’re in simply provides us with the means to look after people in a particular way. As the people of Starbucks have put it: ‘We’re not in the coffee business serving people, we’re in the people business serving coffee’.

Happily, the hotel and restaurant sector lends itself especially well to the business of taking care of people (although some hoteliers and restaurateurs persist in the belief that they are in the business of selling beds or food and miss out on the opportunity to deliver powerfully to their people). This time out, I will outline how we can use story to best describe how our business is really a people business.

Let’s Pretend

For communication purposes, our business audience can be usefully divided into two types: those who are in a relationship with us, and those who are not. For each of these, our communications offer an opportunity for rehearsal. Each piece of communication must help to answer the question: what is it like or what would it be like to be in a relationship with this business? In answering that question, we enable our audience to rehearse the relationship.

Professionals in two apparently very different types of business, filmmakers and car salesmen, have always known this. Rehearsal in these businesses is the film-trailer and test-drive respectively (although the terms could be used almost interchangeably).

The filmmaker presents us with two minutes worth of some of the more dramatic elements of his movie in order to help us answer the question: what would it be like to see this film? In the trailer, we get to briefly inhabit the experience of how it would be to see this film. If we enjoy this rehearsal, we are much more likely to make plans to see the film itself.

The car salesman, meanwhile, offers you the test-drive. This brief spin around the block allows you to inhale the smell of the new leather seats, feel the response of the engine to your foot on the pedal, enjoy the (real or imagined) admiring glances of other road-users and rehearse how it might be to actually own and drive this car. If it feels good, we are much more likely to make the purchase. At the very least, it answers the question for us of how it would feel to own a car like this.

In many instances and in other sectors, this immediate and real rehearsal is not possible. It is simply not practical for a hotelier or restaurateur to offer prospective guests a test-drive: “Lie down on the bed there for a moment and let me draw the curtains. That will give you some idea of what a good night’s sleep in our hotel feels like.”

In a hotel or restaurant, we are much more likely to offer a rehearsal by proxy. Typically, we will invite another person, such as a journalist, to test-drive our hospitality and trust him to relate to our audience the story of his experience of what it is to enjoy a night at our hotel or a meal in our restaurant.

This can be a very useful means of communication. But we cannot afford to trust our business entirely to this prompted story-for-hire approach to communications. Instead, we must find other ways to enable our customers to rehearse their relationship or potential relationship with us.

What Are You Like?

By far the most powerful way to set up this rehearsal for our customers is by use of analogy or metaphor. If we are unable to offer an actual test-drive or trailer to the experience of being in a relationship with us, a strong analogy can enable the customer to rehearse some aspect of the relationship with us.

In certain businesses, this analogy is readily available. For Michael O’Leary and the team at Ryanair, the David & Goliath analogy was an obvious choice as it enabled the airline to present the main flag-carriers as bullies harassing the then-fledgling airline. The audience was invited to consider their choice of Ryanair as a blow for the little guy against the bigger one. Almost all of Ryanair’s ongoing communications, whether they are railing against competitors or regulators, seek to continue the analogy and enable their audience to rehearse over and over again this particular relationship.

The David & Goliath story is a popular choice for new market entries and for businesses seeking to outflank a competitor many times their size. Esat, under Denis O’Brien’s stewardship, enjoyed presenting their main competitor as a lumbering, oversized heavy whilst both Virgin Airlines and Apple Computers have drawn on the same analogy to considerable effect. The Irish soccer team, under Jack Charlton in particular, enjoyed invoking the little guy image, often prompting their larger, better-resourced opposition to fatally underestimate them.

For businesses operating in the hotel and restaurant sectors, other analogies may be available. The hotel operating out of a listed building draws on the obvious analogy of the Georgian household of the period to invoke a particular hospitality and comfort. Restaurants such as pizzerias choose names and imagery, Vesuvius and straw-covered bottles, for example, which evoke an analogy that suggests that a meal with them is like enjoying a meal in Italy.

For others, such analogies may be overused and say nothing useful to their audience and they need to take things a step further. As I have written before, people buy people, and if we are able to use analogy to suggest that choosing a relationship with a certain restaurant or hotel is like relating with a certain type of person, then we have the basis for a very powerful relationship.

Chief O’Neill’s in Dublin’s Smithfield tapped into the story of an extraordinary police officer and music collector in order to breathe life into their smart and contemporary hotel offering. McEniff Hotels have drawn on the popular Mary Poppins story to convey to their audience what makes their successful go!kids! family holiday offer different from others in the market.

In each instance, whether the analogy is overt or implied, it is used to enable the audience to begin to rehearse how a relationship with the business would be. When the analogy is powerful enough, it may also be used to hint at the rich array of benefits available through the relationship.

Let’s Pretend But…

However, what the analogy must not do is mislead as to the nature of the relationship. Whether it is overt or implied, it must be rooted in real values and benefits for the customer. I absolutely want to avoid the suggestion that we can simply pluck a good story out of the air and spin to our heart’s content. Nor am I proposing that we choose an analogy that is not based on real functional elements. If we do so, we set up a rehearsal for our audience that bears no relation to the performance that will follow.

I wrote in a previous piece how the search for differentiation in business begins with an examination of what values motivate the organisation. Even when the business story has its origins in make-believe, the analogy that we choose must truly describe the relationship that follows on from those values. We see this in restaurants such as Luigi Malone’s, where the menu card includes a preamble describing the legendary founder of the business. The personality itself is fictional but the values it represents are real for both the business and its customers. There is no intention to mislead. Instead, the diner is invited to enter into a playful space where the rehearsal offers a true reflection of the experience that follows.

A Never-ending Story

This play between the truthful and fictional elements of a business story is what underpins some of the most enduring and successful relationships in the hospitality and restaurant business.

Next time out in The Blend, I will describe how a powerful analogy can impact on every aspect of the business and enable you to unlock some powerful drivers for your relationship with both customers and staff.