Direct Marketing Article
Story Works. Why Don't Business Leaders Use
By Robert McKee
The Boldt Company builds mammoth construction projects: power plants,
hospitals, educational and industrial complexes. But before Boldt can build,
it must win bids. In the past, its bid team, working in the time-honored
way, would pit Bolt's numbers against its competitor's numbers. Their win rate was
one in ten.
With some coaching, the bid team soon mastered the craft of turning data
into drama creating a story-driven bid entitled "Boldt Builds". This new
pitch stars Boldt on a heroic quest for engineering excellence, fail-proof
scheduling, transparent costings, sustainability, and worker safety. The
Boldt quest climaxes with an on-time, on-budget, owner-ready facility that's
lawsuit-free and aesthetically inspiring. Thanks to Boldt's new
bid-with-a-story strategy, the company's win rate jumped from 10% to 50%. In
this year's ranking of America's top 100 construction companies, Boldt
vaulted over 20 places.
What's true for Boldt is true for every corporation in the world today.
Beyond sales and bids, business leaders must master the purpose-told story
for all strategic tasks, not the least of which is branding. Brand equals
reputation. As goes your reputation, so goes your fate. If you don't control
your story and tell it powerfully, others will tell it for you with less
than flattering results. Fair or unfair, stories shape corporate futures.
Leading with story is not a new tactic. Study after study documents how
well-told stories fuse bonds of interest and empathy between teller and
listener that trigger money-making results. Today's customer-centric firms
use the heat of story to weld themselves to their clients. Instead of
wasting money on lavish marketing campaigns, media-savvy innovators lead
with a story, make their client's experience a pleasure-filled story in
itself, then let word-of-mouth do their marketing for them as satisfied
customers take to social media to tell and retell their tale. This is
priceless marketing...literally. As a result, story-in-business is all the
rage...in the media.
But not in reality. The vast majority of corporate leaders working in this
super-competitive world do not tell a story. They strategize with numbers,
not narrative. Pinioned by excruciating demands on executive time and
attention, few trust story, and almost no one uses it to make critical
decisions. Why? Why is story strategy still more theory than practice?
Here are several reasons:
1. The Tyranny of Time. Data is quick. A flick of an eye to the
bottom line--point made. But a powerfully persuasive, purpose-told story
needs time. Purpose-told stories do far more than entertain. They trigger an
action in the listener: a purchase, an investment, a job well done. A
purpose-told story needs talent, imagination and time to conceive, create
and hone to its audience. Time is a luxury few executives can afford.
2. The Impersonality of Data. We've all seen public speakers stumble
over a story written for them by a speechwriter. They mumble because the
tale is so foreign to their heart, their mouth won't let it out. To tell a
story effectively, you must own it, feel it, spill your guts into it. Few
executives have stories they care to spill.
3. Storytelling Naiveté. Because people consume thousands of films,
TV, plays and novels, they think they know how to storytell. Because they've
got a clip or two on YouTude, they think they've actually done it. But
that's like thinking that because you sing along to your CDs, you can
compose music. Fact: most people cannot tell story worth a damn. More often
than not, the "...and then and then and then..." of the self-proclaimed
raconteur is not a story at all but just a boring recitation of how he
repainted his boat.
4. The Rhetoric Habit. From junior high through grad school and on
into our careers, we have been trained to think and write from the specific
to universal. We habitually compose business presentations and reports
following the principles of inductive logic. We build data, statistics,
quotes and evidence point-by-point to a proof. But, as philosopher David
Hume pointed out, inductive logic simply reflects the human penchant for
taking relatively limited experiences to unreliable conclusions. This,
nonetheless, is how we were trained; induction is our habit.
5. Business envies science. Science turns inductive logic into the
Laws of Nature; business longs for an equally rigorous method to create the
Laws of Commerce. Because storytelling behaves like art and not science, it
seems too wobbly to trust.
6. Fear of Embarrassment. Ever tell a joke and nobody laughed?
Telling story always risks embarrassment and who wants that?
7. The Prudence/Passion Debate. Prudence conserves money; passion
risks it. Have you ever noticed that when companies start losing market
share they suddenly fixate on prudence and obsess over competition and
compliance, whereas companies on the rise embrace passion and focus on
complexity and change?
On the other hand, undisciplined passion greases the track to bankruptcy.
For that reason, the money-conscious personality distrusts emotions for fear
they warp decision-making. The prudent executive might use an anecdote to
open a meeting with a laugh, but calm must be restored before taking a vote.
Inversely, detachment also distorts decision-making. Avoidance of emotion
equals avoidance of humanity, and is therefore ruinous to leadership.
When the business minds steps back to take an all-inclusive view, it
realizes that to make sense of this chaotic world, it needs a balance of
both factuality and narrative. Data recites robotic recordings; only story
speaks in a human voice. Data is meaningless until interpreted in story
form. Stories radiate the deeply felt meanings that equip entrepreneurs to
sell ideas, manufactures to sell product, providers to sell service. Despite
all the reasons listed above, the executive must overcome resistance to
story and learn how to use it. Because if you can't tell, you can't sell.
About the Author:
Robert McKee has given TRUE TALK: STORY-IN-BUSINESS lectures to organization
as diverse as Microsoft, Nike, Hewlett-Packard, Time Warner, BOLDT, Law
firms, Incoming MBAs, Think Digital Festival, Wells Fargo Bank, in other
marketing and advertising festivals and agencies to develop their evolving
narrative game plans. He is the only screenwriting guru whose teachings have
spread beyond the screen and stage to influence all story forms from
corporate publishing to journalism. For more information, please visit
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