Context + Perception = Value
Things change, and they change fast. And in this environment of flux, leaders have an important job: to paint the picture and frame the bigger conversation.
You take for granted what everybody else most wants and needs to know. Your staff, don’t have the same vantage point that you do. Neither do your investors, or customers, or any other audience. Help them see what you see.
To make that easier for you, consider the following framework:
Context + Perception = Value.
Three fundamental parts of the equation for unpacking the power of storytelling.
For business storytelling, context is the game-changer.
A story – at its heart – is little more than a relationship between the person telling the story and the person listening to the story. As the teller, context is something you have the most control over. You get to set the frame. You get to decide how to shape the story.
If you want to learn business storytelling, the magic is in the creative ways you use to set new context. How does your context make the story you’re telling shift from impossible to inevitable? (hat tip to Micro-Documentaries for that great expression).
To say: Let me show you what’s happening: the future already exists!
It’s your job as a business storyteller to set context for your audience to locate themselves in. Encourage them to say, This is my story. This is for me. I care about that. All of that is about context.
How are you setting the scene? What world are you inviting your audience into? Context defines the parameters. 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 is 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 is through storytelling-based process and techniques. If you want to know and understand your world – start telling stories about it.
Wait, why are stories so important? Perception is a powerful lens. Just think of Pawn Stars and Antiques Roadshow. What’s the difference between a $15 and a $500 Zippo lighter? Maybe it belonged to your grandfather, so it already has some age attached to it. But maybe your grandfather also used it in WWII. If he’s an even slightly significant historical figure, and if you had a picture of him using it – suddenly, the worth would skyrocket. And yet, the materials are the same. So what has changed? Now its value is about the experience attached to it.
Another example? There’s the Significant Objects experiment – a literary and anthropological experiment created by Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn. They used objects they bought for $1.25 on average, and sold them on eBay with purpose-written short stories as the item descriptions (written by writers like Meg Cabot and Tom McCarthy). And they demonstrated that the effect of narrative on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measured objectively.
In a business context, perception is all about being in tune with who your audience is.
Here are a few questions to ask, as you work to understand your audience:
- Who is the listener?
- Where are they coming from?
- How do they currently see things?
- How can you shift, move, or expand the way they see themselves?
- How can you influence what they perceive to be possible?
Perception is in the eye of the beholder, something that the listener has more control over. They already have an existing perception. But their perception might change by interacting with the context of the story being told.
And by interacting with what is being presented to them, this relationship between perception and context leads to the outcome of 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. The thing is – more organizations today, are in the business of “intangibles” – where what they’re selling is a service, an experience, or an idea. Whether they’re 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 need to 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, or coaches, the disconnect is often really huge.
Consider the following questions:
- What is unique or special to your business, to your offering? If you can’t answer that question, how can anyone else engage with your story?
- 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.