As with many powerful ideas, the importance of telling brand stories has been drained of meaning and resonance for two reasons:
- Bad practice
It is the second issue (bad practice) that I want to address in this blog, and specifically how bad practice in storytelling compromises the success of our new business pitches and any presentations of consequence.
Story is the most powerful and visceral activity we can engage in when doing everything from insight mining, to communication of corporate culture and values, to creating a brand, to creatively expressing a brand idea. Human beings are cognitively and emotionally wired to tell and listen to stories, and story continues to be the most powerful way to transmit ideas, beliefs, culture, and aesthetic experience whether person-to-person, in mass media, in social media, or in targeted communications. And, this is agreed upon by individuals with as diverse ways of looking at the world as artists, marketers, politicians, and scientists.
However, despite our belief in the power of story and our self-perception as consummate storytellers, we all too often do a poor job of meeting even the most elementary requirements for good narrative.
We often do not engage the audience with a clear articulation of setting, conflict, emotion; we do not chart a clear and undeniable cause-and-effect narrative line with a clear beginning, middle and end; we tell multiple stories as if they were one story, or we confuse data and information with story elements and therefore never sift through the “noise” to get to the “signal” or message.
There are many reasons for these failings—but I would like to suggest that one is our almost universal reliance on PowerPoint as the fundamental means of communication. Just as English has become the so-called “language of business” (not all from every culture would agree!), PowerPoint has become the lingua franca of business, and certainly of our business. And yet, it is a poor instrument with which to create stories.
First of all, PowerPoint encourages small incremental steps (slide by slide by slide) BEFORE the whole story is found or articulated. Second, it encourages the use of tables and charts and data with limited or no context. Third, it makes it difficult to read and adjust the story once you are in front of an audience—are you going too fast, are you going too slow, are you giving too much information (usually the case), or too little?
And, perhaps most insidious, it creates crutches for speakers. It actually encourages lack of preparation—“Well, I’ll just read the bullets,” or, “I’ll just talk to the slide.” (If you talk to the slide, you’re not talking to or even looking at your audience!!!). It’s the difference between an actor reading lines and an actor becoming or inhabiting a character.
Is the answer to eliminate PowerPoint? Well, I certainly would attempt to find other ways of presenting our ideas whenever possible—ones that rely far more heavily on creating a “stage” or sacred space for a storyteller to tell the story. But this is a more radical change and one that will not always be welcomed by the audience.
However, if the final deliverable will be a presentation aided by PowerPoint, I suggest that a flipping of the usual order of creation of a pitch or presentation can make a significant and immediate change to the strength of our presentation…
Usually, we write and edit PowerPoint first—and then practice at the end to “find” and clarify the story.
Write the story first. Write it as if you were speaking it. Don’t worry about anything else but telling a great story. Set the stage, identify and bring the hero to life, dramatize the conflict, identify the obstacles, show how the obstacles are confronted and overcome, bring the conflict to a satisfying and believable conclusion.
The brand story and the marketing prerequisites are all there: the patient journey is a story already. Setting the stage is situation analysis. Identifying the hero is the beginning of establishing the brand promise and essence. Dramatizing the conflict is identifying the driving insights of market analysis. Showing how the obstacles are overcome is the essence of strategy and tactics. Bringing the story to a believable and satisfying conclusion is based on objectives and analytics.
Get the story right first. Then pull out only the essential elements and use PowerPoint as the prompt to the story, storyteller and audience.
This is something we can all do for every presentation right now. It is a first and essential step in creating more powerful brand stories and making them come alive for our audience… THE END!
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