Context + Perception = Value
Too often, people try to make the case for business storytelling, by pointing to examples of “who’s doing it”. That type of reductionist answer has always kind of bugged me. Since that only reflects what is, as opposed to what can be. I think we all need bigger frameworks for appreciating the business implications of storytelling. Especially in today’s evolving times. So here goes a simple formula to stir up the discussion: Context + Perception = Value. Three fundamental reasons why storytelling holds value to institutions.
It’s the job of all leaders to paint the picture and frame the bigger conversation.We’re all feeling a little (or a lot) disoriented these days. The point of telling or shaping the larger story is to help people locate themselves. Especially in the midst of change. Obama did it well during his campaign, not so much during his first year in office. Context is king. It sets the stage and defines the parameters. What are we talking about here? People need to see and understand the landscape, before they can even fathom how to navigate. So context building starts with things like – Time, Space, Culture, Identity, and Motivation. Each of these dimensions are hard to describe unless you explore them through a narrative lens. Considering the following prompts:
- Where are we now? (present/reality)
- Where are we coming from? (past/history)
- Where are we going? (future/aspirations)
- What are the implications of our context? (meaning)
- Who are we and what defines us? (identity)
- What do we care about most? (motivations/values)
- What do we choose to believe? (beliefs/perceptions)
- Who do we consider part of our tribe/members/customers? (culture)
The best way to answer these questions and to communicate those answers in through storytelling-based process and techniques. If you want to know and understand your world – start telling stories about it. Watching today’s iPad announcement by Steve Jobs is a masterful example of context setting, setting the stage for why we need a third device beyond a phone and a laptop, and the implications of this technology on our lives.
So while you might be convinced that you’re the Cat’s Meow, if others don’t believe that same story, there’s going to be a huge disconnect. Sadly, there’s always some disconnect. That’s the reality of life, and anything that’s in flux. Especially in today’s age of reinvention. How you see yourself (usually an aspirational picture) is different than how others see you (a historical precedent). Just ask General Motors, Domino’s Pizza, or Amazon’s Kindle (since today’s iPad announcement). Things change, and they change fast. The only way to become more self-aware as a business or organization is through a narrative lens.
- What’s the story people are telling about us?
- How do we listen, gather, and learn from these stories?
- Why would they have formed that impression?
- What do we want to do about it?
- How do we shift the stories people tell about us?
For the last two decades, just about every business school teaches Michael Porter’s framework for “value chains”. It’s a useful model for thinking about all the inputs and outputs of a business through the product development and sales cycle. Except more organizations today, are in the business of “intangibles” – what you’re selling is a service, an experience, or an idea. Whether they are your customer, donor, or member – your audience is buying into the story of what your work means to them. If you want to keep them, you better understand their perception of your value.
How many businesses understand their true value proposition? Most airlines don’t. Neither do most publishers, carmakers, or financial institutions. When it comes to smaller businesses, consultants, coaches, etc…the disconnect is often really huge. I recently ended two working relationships for this unfortunate reason. After deep reflection, it wasn’t clear to me what the “value” proposition actually was. In each case, they were smart talented people. We were involved in all sorts of process and activities, and there was plenty of “progress” being made. Yet at the end of the day, I couldn’t articulate the exact value provided by these vendors. So I couldn’t rationalize my return on investment into a story that made sense to me. What was unique or special to them? When I asked each vendor this same question, guess what happened. They didn’t know how to convincingly answer the question themselves. So how do you compare?
- What is your unique value proposition?
- What do you offer that no one else does?
- How are you different from other alternatives?
- What distinguishes the experience of working with you?
- What makes you indispensable?
Regardless of how confident you might be about your “value proposition”, your success depends on how you tell that story — and whether others believe in that story.
In all fairness, I’m not perfect at this either. I’ve forever struggled with defining and shaping the story of my own work, and making it accessible and relatable to others. That’s why Get Storied evolved so rapidly over the past year, and why I’m creating more educational curriculum and programs. And trying to learn more directly from you. Is this formula (C+P=V) helpful? What about the framing questions? I welcome your feedback and comments.