When we tell our own business story, we have the opportunity to draw our customer audience in on our side.
What’s The Story?
Friendly, well appointed, traditional and stylish? Too often, when our customers listen to what we have to say about our business offering, they hear only so much more ‘blah, blah, blah’. Last time out in The Blend, we considered what a former colleague of mine had called ‘the fat words issue’, a difficulty that faces us in business when we are asked to describe what makes us different from our competitors and relevant to our customers. When we resort to words alone, we struggle to communicate effectively, as the words themselves have become tired and bloated thanks to their over use by both ourselves and almost everybody else in our sector.
We concluded that the most effective way to slim down these fat words is to use narrative or story to communicate the unique values and qualities that underpin our business proposition. This can seem a real challenge to the business owner who is used to a more literal approach to communications. Many of us are uncomfortable with what we see as spin and artifice and are reluctant to go down the route of storytelling.
However, both research and experience have shown that the most successful businesses are those that weave a compelling narrative for their customers. Our challenge then is to describe how we can effectively use story to establish real competitive advantage and develop a unique and lasting relationship with our customers.
A Treasury Of Tales
First of all, it is important to say what we mean by narrative or story. The dictionary on my laptop describes narrative as ‘a factual or fictional account of a sequence of events’ and that will do for our purposes. Narrative can range from a ‘once upon a time’ type of story to a newspaper account of a sports game and aims to tell us about what has happened, or is happening or might happen sometime in the future.
The beauty of narrative is that in offering our account of a sequence of events we are allowing our audience to deduce for themselves values and attributes that we would otherwise have to spell out. When we hear for example the story of a particular game of football, we infer certain things through the narrative such as the courage, persistence, abilities and attitude of the players. As we listen to the account of a tribunal, the things we gather from the story that is told might include dishonesty, greed, deception and intimidation.
Our challenge then as business owners is to tell a story for our business that enables our audience to infer certain things about our business that will encourage them to choose us over our competitors. In short, if we are to be successful, we must have a better story to tell.
Which Side Are You On?
Another feature of narrative that is useful to us in our communications is its ability to nudge us, gently or otherwise, towards taking sides. Few of us can remain neutral in listening to an account of a sequence of events. Sooner or later, we begin to identify more closely with one or other of the protagonists in the story. Business owners such as Richard Branson have used this to very telling effect. From the very beginning, Branson has told a story of the little guy taking on the bully, the classic David & Goliath scenario. We are drawn into the narrative (which, by the way, is one of the most compelling of all the timeless narratives) and, almost from the very beginning, we are compelled to take one side or the other.
When we tell our own business story, we have the opportunity to draw our customer audience in on our side. If we wish our customers to care a little or a lot more about us than our competitors, it is vital that we create a common enemy. Otherwise, our narrative may be greeted with a resounding ‘so what!’. Far too many communications leave the audience in neutral or indifferent territory. We are in the business of creating partisan support and advocacy for what we do and who we are so we need to give our supporters something to shout about.
This is not as impossible as it seems. Renvyle House, for example, offers itself as an antidote to the stress and complication of modern, city life. If we feel under pressure from the madness of our daily lives, a business like Renvyle offers a compelling alternative and gives us cause to care about what it stands for. Ryanair, on the other hand, has built an entire business out of the hostility of its audience towards fat cat airlines that charge us an arm and a leg to get us from one place to another. When Michael O’Leary senses that we are beginning to care a little less about this than before (particularly with the advent of many other low cost airlines), he returns to his core narrative in which Ryanair stands up for the little guy (hurray!) against the injustice of the EU, Aer Lingus, Aer Rianta (boo! hiss!) or whichever enemy conveniently presents itself.
For every business owner then, the real task in telling their story is to identify a reason or reasons for their audience to care. This is the very basis of compelling narrative. Far too many business owners are unable to tell us why what they do matters. If we leave our audience unmoved, they will simply go somewhere else where there is a more engaging battle being fought.
Please Believe Me When I Tell You
Experience has also shown us that as listeners we are much more easily convinced by story than by argument. Whilst there are circumstances when the approach of plain speaking and direct appeal is appropriate, there is something in human nature that makes us resistant to being told what to do or what to think.
We are much more likely to be won over by the values that we infer from a narrative than from those that are baldly asserted. When someone invokes their honesty as a reason to believe what they have to say, our suspicions are aroused. Cartoonists use this to advantage when they include a sign over a second-hand car lot that asserts ‘Honest Jim’s Quality Used Cars. We do not easily believe in the honesty of second-hand car salesmen and the claim simply makes us even more cynical.
We hear it ourselves when a bank or a lending institution tells us that it cares (the very recent banking advertisement which translates both bank-speak and student-speak in the often less than honest business of a student loan plays with this very skilfully). But perhaps Shakespeare said it best of all when he has a character respond to Lady Macbeth’s protestations of innocence following the murder of the king: ‘Methinks the lady doth protest too much’.
A story on the other hand makes us far more inclined to believe what we hear. Lucozade has taken the narrative of the inspirational sports coach and brought in Damien Duff, Ronan O’Gara and Peter Stringer to weave a compelling reason to believe in the magical properties of the energy drink.
The customer testimonial works in a similar way. Nobody is likely to take us too seriously if we claim to be the ‘friendliest hotel in the south-east’, but if this is woven into a customer or independent narrative, it can immediately become much more credible. (The advertorial in the local newspaper or trade magazine represents a cynical use of this approach).
Are You Sitting Comfortably?
Earlier, I briefly referred to the fact that the notion of telling stories can make many of us a little uncomfortable. It can seem contrived and unnatural, a little like being invited to play a game of charades in a business meeting.
Yet storytelling is one of the most common ways in which we exchange information with one another. In our everyday conversations with family and friends, we use narrative all of the time to say what we mean. We offer an account of a night out on the town to give some sense of the fun that we had, we don’t simply assert over and over that it was ‘great craic’. Similarly, we tell of how our one year-old baby sat up and did or said something remarkable in order to demonstrate how precocious he is and how proud we are.
Top business leaders use storytelling all of the time, many of them consciously, others unconsciously. Brody Sweeney of O’Brien’s Sandwich Bars tells us in a self-deprecating way of the difficult early days of the business. The stories that Tony O’Reilly tells of wheeling and dealing are legendary. When new graduates arrive at Goldman Sachs for their induction, they spend the first two weeks learning the stories of what makes the institution great. In hearing these stories we begin to gain some understanding of what the businesses stand for and what that means for us.
In my view, we have little choice. If we wish to build a great brand and business, we must become great storytellers. Next time out in The Blend, I will consider the various ways in which we can tell great stories through the different activities of the hospitality business.