The story you don’t want to hear…


The edited transcript of a speech I gave to the PRMoment (www.prmoment.com) conference on “Storytelling:  The role of public relations as a content provider” on 20 November 2014 in London…

Story-telling is as old as the oldest civilization.  The Australian aboriginals painted symbols from stories on cave walls as a means of helping the storyteller remember the story. The story was then told using a combination of oral narrative, music, rock art, and dance. People have used the carved trunks of living trees, sand, and leaves record stories in pictures or with writing. With the advent of writing and the use of stable, portable media, stories were recorded, transcribed, and shared over wide regions of the world.

But story-telling in business has taken off more recently. As far as I can tell, it first began to become a business buzzword in the late 1990s. It’s Steve Denning, the management writer, conveniently writing after the story-telling in business trend took off, who makes the claim of first having used the power of storytelling in the late 1990s to convince World Bank colleagues to share information. Denning found that when he used cogent Powerpoint arguments to show the importance of knowledge management, his argument fell on deaf ears. However, when he told the story of a health worker in a small town in Zambia was unable to access knowledge about the treatment of malaria, his arguments began to get real resonance because the story helped managers envision a different kind of future for their organization.

In 2001, Daphne Jameson argued that story-telling was a key tool for managers in internal communications to persuade employees to follow a particular line. She suggested that narrative discourse could help to resolve conflict, influence corporate decisions, and unify a group of employees. By collectively constructing stories, managers made sense of the past, coped with the present, and planned for the future.

But all of this isn’t just cod business school theory. Oh no. It’s scientifically proven! In a piece of research disturbingly funded by the US Department of Defense, researchers at Claremont University have shown how engaging with stories causes the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after a narrative, researchers found that character-driven stories consistently cause the synthesis of oxytocin. Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.

And so the bandwagon of story-telling in business took off. Today, even big companies such as Microsoft and SAP employ people with the title “chief storyteller”. Microsoft’s in-house storyteller did the first “interview” with new chief executive Satya Nadella.

And like any business band-wagon, the marketing and PR profession has jumped right on board using the story-telling concept as a means of building customer loyalty.

And why has this suddenly become mainstream in marketing? Simple. There’s so much noise out there. Every week, we send 1 billion tweets. Every day we read 10 MB and hear 400MB of material every day. We see 1 MB of information every second.  And so audience cut-through is more important than ever. And story-telling is positioned as key to cut-through because stories, it is said, naturally imprint themselves on our brains in a way that logic and analysis do not. As the amount of data we deal with grows, the stronger the need for storytellers who make sense of it all.

And so story-telling has become a favourite topic of PR, communications, and marketing conferences. In this month alone, Google tells me there are twelve other story-telling in business conferences in London currently being publicised.

Then there’s the many views expressed on story-telling in business that you can find in books.  A quick glance at Amazon shows me that 63 books with on business story-telling in the title have been published in the last 90 days.

Most of this content is around how to tell stories in different case study situations. And while this is surely valuable, I’d like for us to be a bit more balanced in our embrace of story-telling techniques. Because there are five reasons why good marketing and PR should not embrace story-telling so readily and, if you ignore these reasons, there is a risk that story-telling won’t leave your business happily every after.

“USE STORY-TELLING MORE CAUTIOUSLY” IS MY MESSAGE.

REASON ONE:  STORY-TELLING DOES NOT REQUIRE CUSTOMER-FOCUS.

In nineteenth century Germany, society’s view of dwarves were as sinister monsters. If the authors of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, the Brothers Grimm had listened to their customers, then Snow White would probably not have shacked up with seven dwarves. The first reason why good marketing and PR should not embrace story-telling so readily is that the disciplines of marketing and story-telling start in different places. Story-telling risks your losing sight of who really matters when you design marketing content: your customer.

I’ll explain why. There is a risk that the very concept of story-telling causes your firm to start its content development in the wrong place – that is with your firm. In its purest form, story-telling is the process whereby your firm brand deals out a self-absorbed monologue to anyone within hearing distance. After all stories come from the teller not the listener. But if I’m in the audience for your firm’s story, why should I care? Who gives a damn what your business’s story is?   In contrast, good marketing starts not with the firm but with the audience. Marketing is about being crystal clear on who your customers are, what they do, and what they need. It’s about learning about your target audience and supplying valuable content – helpful and relevant quality information – that addresses your audience’s needs. If that content can be supplied in a story-format that aids clarity then great; but the story is categorically not the end itself. Note that, unlike good marketing, the process of story-telling does not focus on building an interaction with a clear, target audience. Story-telling is a one-way broadcast phenomenon. Marketing is not.

I worked for PA Consulting Group for five years. PA as a firm has a fascinating history. It was set up during the Second World War to advise the UK government on how to drive much-needed extra productivity from the munitions factories at a time when it looked like Britain would lose the war. It’s a fascinating history that the story-telling approach could have led me to focus my marketing around.   That was hugely tempting.  But that’s not where I started. The successful re-branding work I led at PA Consulting Group started with our customers. The marketing team went out and spoke to customers across all of the sectors, countries, and services we operated in. We asked them to describe to us who they were, how their days ran, and where they needed help in their own words. These became the stories we used to focus our business internally in the development of relevant, compelling content for our future prospects. In this way PA Consulting Group is relevant to the needs of today’s audience not to the audience of the 1940s.

So that’s the first reason why good marketing and PR should not embrace story-telling: the disciplines of marketing and story-telling start in different places. Story-telling risks your losing sight of who really matters when you design content: your customer.

REASON TWO:  STORY-TELLING DOES NOT NEED BUSINESS OBJECTIVES.

The second reason why good marketing and PR should not embrace story-telling so readily is that the two disciplines can have very different objectives. Unlike good marketing, story-telling does not encourage a focus on what the business is trying to achieve. When the Brothers Grimm began collecting folk tales, they did so with no particular objective in mind. They wrote in a cursory manner when they were unable to devote their energies to their more important scientific research. Indeed many story-tellers claim that their best work is committed when they have no clear objectives in mind. True: some great stories have a clear objective. But they don’t have to have such a goal in place. In contrast, marketing only has a purpose when there is a clear business objective and strategy.

I generated the content for PA’s re-brand for a purpose because the business was seeking to re-position itself as more than just a public sector consulting firm to respond to the decline in public investment in management consulting after the global economic down-turn. There was a clear business objective for our marketing work.

REASON THREE:  STORY-TELLING CAN LOSE YOU CONTROL OF YOUR BUSINESS.

The third reason why good marketing and PR should not embrace story-telling so readily is that story-telling can cause you to lose control of your business. There is a risk that corporate story-tellers start to believe their own stories. Because, to guide and motivate their customers, their staff, their boards, and their investors; chief executives must make their narrative take root in their business. And to get their narratives to take root, leaders have to repeat their stories and reinforce them time and again. But business is inherently unpredictable. And that can mean that expectations for growth may need to be adjusted. Strategic direction may need to change. In other words, you need to change the ending to your story. And that can be disappointing to your audiences. And that can tempt story-tellers away from the truth. The temptation then is that white lies, embellishment, tale-telling are more attractive as a means of telling the story more neatly than the truth.

When I read that the Financial Conduct Authority is investigating the once mighty Tesco under the Financial Services Markets Act to establish whether it was guilty of issuing incorrect, false or misleading information to investors, I can’t help wondering whether executives there were faced with a situation where the facts were getting in the way of the good story that they’d created. I have never worked for Tesco, but I wonder how tempting might it have been for that business to continue to weave a tale of strong growth, rises in market share, and corporate dominance over Aldi, Lidl, and Sainsbury’s? Clearly that behaviour – if it existed at all – has not led to a happy ending.

REASON FOUR:  STORY-TELLING CAN GET LOST IN THE TELLING.

The fourth reason why good marketing and PR should not embrace story-telling is that stories can lose something in the narrative re-telling. The efficacy of a story is frequently bound up in the efficacy of the story-teller. And when the story-teller exits the stage, much of the original alchemy exists too. The Apple story was compelling in the story-telling of Steve Jobs. Somehow Tim Cook is just not the same. Marketing is more about science than alchemy and therefore more able to create a practical tool-kit that can be applied by other people to communicate the marketing content. Marketing puts as much emphasis on the channels by which it can distribute its content in a predictable and reproducible way as it does on what its content is. Whereas it is difficult for story-telling to be about anything other than the story and the teller.

REASON FIVE:  STORY-TELLING DIMINISHES THE MARKETING AND PR PROFESSION.

Finally, story-telling does not help the case for B2B marketing and PR in a business because it moves the concept of marketing in many people’s eyes away from being a profession into something that can be done by anyone. Because anyone can tell a story. You don’t need a qualification.

B2B Marketing and PR is the toughest profession in business.  

Marketing and PR is tough.  You’ve got to put yourself in the position of your customers in the environment in which they will encounter your product or service and respond to it.  It’s fiercely competitive out there yet you’ve got to be ahead of the pack.  You’ve got to stand out in a sea of noise.  You’ve got to plan when people just want you to act.  You’ve got to be creative in a rigorously analytical world.  You’ve got to apply business analytics to the creative.  You’ve got to be down in the detail while staying objective.  You’ve got to stay focused in the face of distractions.  You’ve got to be able to marshal your content, your channels, and your distribution – against all the odds. You have to be really disciplined and work intelligently and strategically.

B2B Marketing and PR is all of that.  And some.  This profession is younger than FMCG.  It’s still got to prove itself.  So you’ve got to prove yourself in a sceptical environment.  Business doesn’t get B2B Marketing.  At EY, my profession was seen as the colouring-in department, housed in a separate building to the rest of the business. And so you’ve got to persuade otherwise, explain, fight for every point, and lead the way.  It can take years to turn around deeply-ingrained perception. Every day is tough. Add to the multiple internal stakeholders with multiple external customer groups.  There’s no longer just one buyer, there’s many – with different needs, opinions, and expectations.  And there’s no one to help you:  all the marketing professional bodies focus on FMCG rather than B2B.  You’re on your own.

And so what you do not need — what you absolutely do not need under any circumstances – is to give business the opportunity to dismiss what you do and devalue it further. Because that can sound the death knell of the marketing and PR profession in B2B.

So there you have them… five reasons why good marketing should not embrace story-telling.  That’s not to say that story-telling can’t be a handy item in a marketer’s tool-kit. It can be. I’ve already shown how stories were an important part of my re-branding approach at PA. But they did not lead the process. One item does not make a tool-kit. We need to be really careful that the trend to tell stories does not ride rough shod over all we have achieved as marketers in our profession over the last few years.

About DaveStevensNow

Dave is an experienced global B2B Chief Marketing Officer / Marketing Director with an established reputation for delivering commercial results in start-up, mid-tier, and blue-chip businesses across professional and financial services, telecoms, and technology sectors. Dave has worked for major brands such as Telefonica O2, EY, and Barclays and held posts from Chief Marketing Officer to Director of Online, has run his own business, and managed a P&L for a major corporate. He is a graduate of Cambridge University, a Chartered Institute of Marketing (CIM) Chartered Marketer and holds a MBA with Imperial College, London. Dave is a keen cyclist and adventure traveller, is married, and lives in Buckinghamshire. You can read his blogs at www.DaveStevensNow.com.
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