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Telling Better Business Stories

Photography: Vicki’s Pics

Create a professional website and inevitably, you’ll have to do it. You’ll have to write an About Us page that tells a lead who you are, what you do and how you got there. It’s the story of your company and while that account might not be as important as your product or your services, your business’s narrative is an important part of your image and your branding – especially when you find that it plays the role of the bad guy. Google, after all, would still have a world-beating search engine and advertising system even if it didn’t come with a story of two noble geeks who promise to do no evil. Microsoft, on the other hand, has produced a standard-setting games console but its competition-squashing has made it the computer world’s Lee van Cleef, a characterization that only inspires young virus-writers to call the company out.

It’s up to PR firms to create – and change — the stories that the public believes about large companies. Small firms just setting out start with a clean sheet have a much easier time. They can produce a tale that explains where their idea came from, how they’re trying to make life better for customers and why they’re the best qualified firm to do it.

Wear a White Hat

Whether they hold on to that story though will depend on the quality of the products and the services they provide, and their behavior too. Poor customer service is always one good way to send a white-hatted business character over to the dark side.

But stories about companies aren’t just held by potential buyers. The attitudes of employees towards their place of work can also be dictated by what they believe about the behavior of its management and the company’s attitude in general. Tales told around the watercooler might be a way of shooting the breeze, but when those stories are about managers who don’t care and products shipped with known bugs, the effect on motivation could be lethal. In fact, an entire academic discipline called “organizational storytelling” has grown up to capture those tales and help managers use them to train staff, share ideas, transmit values and battle negative rumors.

Controlling the stories told within businesses is always going to be difficult, especially once the company has grown to a size that separates top management from entry-level staff. Moving close enough to hear the stories – and demonstrate that the characterization owes more to someone’s imagination than the CEO’s actions – might help. Much easier to control are the sorts of tales that are told directly by company officials as they promote their businesses.

What Makes a Good Tale?

Shawn Callahan of Anecdote, an Australian firm that specializes in “business narrative services” has described some of the features a good anecdote should contain: a clear date, he suggests, makes the story sound credible; a conversational tone is important too; and if it’s possible to include a main character on a transformative journey so much the better. “It’s how we learn without having to experience something first-hand,” he writes.

For sales staff making pitches, that’s all useful information. Experienced marketing executives understand the importance of selling benefits, not features, but those benefits become even clearer when they’re placed in contexts that show their effects. A sales script that included a narrative describing how an executive was able to help a business overcome a number of challenges would be much more interesting — and far more persuasive – than reading a checklist of program features.

The listener should be able to identify with the company in the anecdote in the same way that a salesman tries to create identification between the lead’s problems and the solution the product offers. By the time the story has reached its happy ending, the listener should understand that his company too could be enjoying that success.

With conference speeches now an important part of many companies’ promotional programs, being able to weave anecdotes into presentations is also much more likely to leave audience members with a positive impression – or at least a narrative they can remember in a weekend of similar speakers.

And perhaps that’s the most important feature of business stories: their ability to stick in the mind and in the process, to leave important messages in the listener’s memory. “Who Moved My Cheese,” for example, contained a very simple narrative but it’s one whose details most readers would struggle to remember. What they don’t forget though is the book’s underlying message of the importance of adjustment to change.

When you’re struggling to produce an About Us page that portrays your company in a good light, you don’t have to create a tale about a hesitant mouse and his go-getting friend. But if you can create a story with a beginning, a middle and an end — one that talks directly to readers – your company should stay in their thoughts and lay the foundation for a profitable future.

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