The Business Case for Storytelling

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.

1. Context

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.

2. Perception

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?

3. Value

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.


Join us for StoryU Online: Undeniable Story — an 8-week program where you learn our six-step storytelling framework. Begins Oct 6!

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  • Dianne Harris

    I am so excited about storytelling and how I can establish my personal brand as an individual and the potential for organizational use. I am training as a leadership coach within a psychology specialization and want to use this resource. I am looking for others to connect with and talk to about storytelling and how it can be used in organizational design and coaching.

    Dianne O. Harris

    Thank you,

  • Dianne Harris

    I am so excited about storytelling and how I can establish my personal brand as an individual and the potential for organizational use. I am training as a leadership coach within a psychology specialization and want to use this resource. I am looking for others to connect with and talk to about storytelling and how it can be used in organizational design and coaching.

    Dianne O. Harris

    Thank you,

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  • http://g-a-i-a.org jazzmann91

    My dream answers:
    * What is your unique value proposition?
    Together we can have Peace
    * What do you offer that no one else does?
    Be a global citizen in a whole new game.
    * How are you different from other alternatives?
    We all like freedom and democracy, but we need a set of choices that are more than evil and lesser evil. I want to add more choice to our parties. The game is on, soon.
    * What distinguishes the experience of working with you?
    I'm a big crazy cheerleader with a side of mountain guru.
    * What makes you indispensable?
    I am the wizard. Protector of the spell that brings peace to the kingdom, but even I am not indispensable. The story will tell itself, with or without me.

    Thanks for writing! I really appreciate your point of view. Having found myself wrapped up in a fairy tale I'm now trying to translate that into my business, but I'm having issues with my fellow characters that keep distracting me. Have you ever written yourself into a role that you can't handle?

    What do you think of prophetic adaptation? Adapt to the story that is already there and ride it to a new end. Is it dangerous for businesses to get into dream land or is that where success is hidden?

  • http://g-a-i-a.org jazzmann91

    My dream answers:
    * What is your unique value proposition?
    Together we can have Peace
    * What do you offer that no one else does?
    Be a global citizen in a whole new game.
    * How are you different from other alternatives?
    We all like freedom and democracy, but we need a set of choices that are more than evil and lesser evil. I want to add more choice to our parties. The game is on, soon.
    * What distinguishes the experience of working with you?
    I'm a big crazy cheerleader with a side of mountain guru.
    * What makes you indispensable?
    I am the wizard. Protector of the spell that brings peace to the kingdom, but even I am not indispensable. The story will tell itself, with or without me.

    Thanks for writing! I really appreciate your point of view. Having found myself wrapped up in a fairy tale I'm now trying to translate that into my business, but I'm having issues with my fellow characters that keep distracting me. Have you ever written yourself into a role that you can't handle?

    What do you think of prophetic adaptation? Adapt to the story that is already there and ride it to a new end. Is it dangerous for businesses to get into dream land or is that where success is hidden?

  • http://www.getstoried.com/ Michael Margolis

    Diane – thanks for sharing your interests on here. I'm working on building more community sharing platforms in the months ahead. In the meantime, I have a new upcoming e-course on personal branding, social media, and storytelling to start in May. Announcement to go out shortly.

  • http://www.getstoried.com/ Michael Margolis

    Jazzman91 -

    Storytelling is like fortunetelling. The story you choose determines potential outcomes. That said, as a storyteller – you're forever at the mercy of your audience to choose to embrace, reject, or interpret your story as they see fit. So beyond just passion, relevance and believability are key to seeing any story take hold within mainstream reality.

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  • louhoffman

    Michael,

    Great post.

    Like the way you define the proposition as context + perception = value.

    Are you o.k. with me republishing this post on my blog?

    Lou

  • http://www.getstoried.com/ Michael Margolis

    Thanks Lou. I'd be most grateful. Please include the following attribution: “Michael Margolis from Get Storied (http://www.getstoried.com)”

  • louhoffman

    Will do. Thanks. Lou

  • Midge Miles

    I found the story prompts under Perception particularly applicable to leadership teams who know there is a disconnect between themselves and staff. Sometimes it's the executive group, other times it's management but either way the folks know something's not good. They may already be aware of the storylines about them being passed around the organization – in hushed voices of course. But it is a rare leadership team that actually sets out to learn how the folks are genuinely perceiving them – AND – they are willing to face the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

    The questions you pose in this section, Michael, would be excellent areas of focus for any serious story-research. Paraphrasing a line from the New Testament, “Who do you say we are?”

    What usually happens is that a boring employee survey is prepared in a predictable
    left-brain format with predictable statements to which the employees respond: I strongly agree, I agree, I disagree, I strongly disagree. Then the apprpriate numbered responses are tallied and whamo! Here's your answer, leaders!
    NOT!

    Would it take more time for employees to respond in narrative form to the narrative questions above? Sure. More valuable than checking the number aside each statement? Is the North Pole cold? A narrative lens will yield narrative responses: when we genuinely want to hear how our story is told by others, quantitative statements will never bring us to a place of meaning and true learning.

  • http://www.getstoried.com/ Michael Margolis

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I'm all for thinking and learning in narrative. Yet equally working through lots of employee narratives is not an easy process to manage. Especially at a large scale. So I think there's a place for quant and qualitative data. Even with numbers, its the story behind the numbers that matters.