Step 2 To A Powerful Story (or all the Stuff That Happened from Things Being One Way to Things Being Another Way)

Part two of the Hero’s Journey, as applied to organizational storytelling, is the Journey. Yesterday I wrote about how the story starts – the Call. Today, we tackle the largest part of any story  – what actually happens or the expedition.

In some of the most famous stories of all time, like Star Wars and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, the journeys are long and arduous. Luke Skywalker meets up with Obi-Wan Kenobi. He goes to the alien bar. He meets Hans Solo. He attempts to rescue Prince Leia. He learns to fly. The Hobbits go to an inn where they are almost killed. They run into the Nazgul. They go to Rivendale. They meet the elves, and a hundred  other adventures. But, in business storytelling, the journeys — while they contain details and “happenings,” needn’t be so drawn out.

For instance, James Dyson, whose story I began to tell yesterday spent 5 years and built 5,127 prototypes to deliver to the world the first bag-less vacuum cleaner. Those numbers alone can be enough to showcase a pretty long journey.

But, you still must follow some basic rules, such as how and where you discover the road really is harder than it seemed at first. You meet friends along the way. But you also run into obstacles, the largest of which is the villain (or dragon or adversary). You  must introduce the villain. Otherwise, you might as well just recite a timeline. In a business setting you might say, we all knew we were fighting inertia, the economy, the competition, a specific  naysayer…”

James Dyson discovered that major vacuum manufacturers were not interested in his new technology. Want to know why? They weren’t really the enemy. (It’s really interesting if you can identify a villain that is not so obvious.) The enemy for James Dyson was the vacuum cleaner bag. Did you know the vacuum cleaner bag industry was worth $500 million dollars every year? (Who knew?) The manufacturers were not interested in giving up such a lucrative accessory, so they turned him away. But, then he eventually licensed his design to Japan and the royalties from that deal allowed him to manufacture a machine under his own name.

I am sure there are many, many things that happened in Dyson’s Journey that we do not know about. But, you don’t have to weigh it down with endless detail. In business storytelling, you give just enough of those details to give it some color and scenery. Include twists and turns. Show how you thought it was going to go one way and then it didn’t. That will make it more interesting.

Tomorrow, we discuss part three: The Achievement. (And, you thought just having a bag-less vacumn cleaner was enough?)

Step 1 of the Hero’s Journey for Organizational Communication

Yesterday I wrote about the Hero’s Journey and how using this simple pattern can elevate your ordinary communication style to one that is more powerful and effective.

Joseph Campbell, the great philosopher and writer, identified the pattern:

A hero is called to leave his common everyday life to explore the wonders of the world.  Mystical forces are there encountered and a conclusive victory over an adversary is won. The hero returns from this mysterious adventure – forever changed and more powerful – and with this new power, understanding and wisdom — can (and does) bestow benefits and gifts upon his fellow man and the Universe is now a safer place. The End.

Step one of the pattern is The Call. The hero ventures forth into this new world after hearing a call to action.

Because, really, something had to start this whole story. Gandalf shows up at Frodo’s house looking for the ring. R2D2 shows up at Luke Skywalker’s ranch with a message that he accidently encounters.

There also is a sense of a resisting this call to action, as if you know the journey you are being called to is going to be hard. For instance, Frodo and the other Hobbits didn’t want to leave the shire. Luke Skywalker felt there was more but he couldn’t leave his aunt and uncle.

But, they all felt like there was something more. Frodo was given the ring and enticed by Gandalf. Or, in Luke’s case, his Aunt and Uncle were killed. In a business setting, it might look like the following.

In 1978 James Dyson, now founder of the Dyson vacuum cleaner company, noticed how the air filter in a spray finishing room was clogging with powder particles. So, he designed and built an industrial cyclone tower, which removed these particles by exerting centrifugal forces greater than 100,000 times those of gravity. And, he thought – could the same principle work in a vacuum cleaner? That was his call.

(Note: You can read this on their version of an “About Us” page. Brilliant communication move on their part.) 

Every story you want to tell in business had a beginning. What was wrong that you believed could be better? What idea did you have that could move the organization from point A to Point B? What did someone say when they brought this idea to the meeting? There are a myriad of ways stories start. But, they all have a call, a beginning.

Tomorrow I will write about part two of the Hero’s Journey for organizational storytelling: The Journey.

Getting Pushback On Using Storytelling? What To Do About It

Say the word  “storytelling” and usually two images arise — mothers reading storybooks to children and an older person sitting around a campfire spinning a tale. While most people today recognize that stories are infinitely more interesting than a stale marketing message, the idea of using this concept makes many business leaders roll their eyes as if to say, tell a story? really?

But, if your job is communications, then you owe it to your organization to explore this communications tool. Below are some of the most common objections to using storytelling in business along with some ways to counter these prejudices.

Objection #1: If I talk about myself, I’ll be labeled a narcissist or worse, a marketer. The truth is that people are interested in other people. If you think about your latest case study or customer testimonial, wasn’t it all about how someone was affected? By telling a story that talks about the change you or someone near you experienced, you are actually creating the highest form of relevance.

Objection #2: I will sound too emotional or unprofessional. Make sure your stories are relevant to your audience. So, this means if you are speaking to someone who takes action because of an emotional appeal, by all means, throw in some of that. But, if your audience is seeking something more academic or bottom line-oriented, then it is all a matter or choosing the right tone, including the language, the setting, the lesson learned, and the characterization of the people in the story.

Objection #3: I can’t get my story into 5 sentences! Who says your story has to be that short? But, if it is long, then be sure to throw in some interesting anecdotes, colorful characters and actions that bring people along. Remember, there is a difference between telling the truth and being accurate to the point the truth is lost. What you must do is tell a complete story. Identify: the characters, the setting, the action, the change that occured, and the lessons that were learned.

Objection #4: My story’s not that great. Are you sure? Again, what happened? To whom? What happened along the way? What was interesting? What would be interesting to your audience? The idea is to describe something in a story format.

Objection #5: My story won’t sell. You won’t know until you try. What are you trying to “sell?” Your journey? The lesson learned? The end result? The people? Identify what you are trying to accomplish and stay true to that goal. You have to believe in your story for it to resonate.

What is Your TED Talk?

You would have to be living under a rock to not know about TED. This organization whose tag line is simply “ideas worth spreading” means to bring “riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world.”

Each talk is usually less than 20 minutes long. Most of you would never even notice they are that long, they are that good.

TED is a pretty cool idea and has gained such popularity that TED organizations have cropped up all around the world. But other than showcasing terrific presentations and speeches, the very idea of TED itself can be useful.

If you were asked to give a TED talk next week, what would you do? More importantly—what is your big TED idea? What idea would be the centerpiece of a talk you could give that would be considered riveting and brand you a remarkable person? Consider starting there next time you have to address your board of directors or even your boss.

Design your own TED talk.

Great TED talks:

Feel free to share your favorite TED talks here. Or, perhaps you’ve given one yourself. We’d love to hear it.

To Find Story Gold, You Have to Dig Through Some Dirt

As you can tell, I’ve been writing about the “origin story” quite a bit lately. This is an important tale to have in your story library. It gives context and usually reveals the passion behind your service and product offerings. But, there is an enemy in our midst when seeking the power in our origin story. It’s called perfectionism.

I was reminded of this enemy recently as I was reading Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott for, oh, the 15th time. (Quick tip: If you ever suffer from writer’s blog — even if you are just trying to write a news release or a very important memo — consider picking up this book. It works wonders. See link to it below.)

The problem with trying to write the perfect message, the perfect business narrative, the perfect story right away is this: You can’t do it. If you are trying to “get it right” straight out of the gate you will only immobilize your creativity. First drafts, reminds Anne Lamott, aren’t mean to be good. They are meant to get your started.

Perfectionism also is the enemy of getting the most out of your people.

When it comes to developing that elevator pitch, a corporate presentation, a nonprofit fundraising pitch or a talk, do you let your people play, dig, get messy and get it all wrong at first? If not, you may be leaving some valuable nuggets on the table. Here is a quick exercise for developing your origin story (or any other story or message) sans the perfectionism:

  1. Get everyone in the conference room (or the coffee shop).
  2. Tell everyone take a stab at your organization’s “once upon a time” story. Ask them to write down at least four sentences that describe how your organization or business started and why. Have them describe the moment it all came together that caused this enterprise to exist.
  3. Have them read their first drafts out loud.
  4. Identify the golden nuggets that tell the truth, show how you are different and are compelling to your audiences. They are there.

From this exercise, you not only will get your people on board to find the real gold for your origin story, but you’ll also help them understand where the organization or company has come from and why. You can do this with any of the stories that we recommend you have in your arsenal.

One Way to Confirm Your Suspicion Company Messages Are Being Ignored by Staff

Do you have a gut feeling that your team members have their own ideas about how they should describe your company, your products or service or your vision?

One quick exercise to get those disagreeing ideas out into the open is having staff contribute to a “good word-bad word” list. Laugh if you must. But, this very simple exercise will showcase opposing ideas quickly and efficiently. Nothing gets differing opinions on the table faster than to get people to admit what words they believe should always be associated with your organization and which words should never be associated with your company.

What to do:

  1. Get everyone around the conference room table. Or, bribe them with a free lunch or a late Friday afternoon wine and cheese party. But, get as many folks from your company around an easel or white board as you can.
  2. Draw a line down the middle of the blank space. Write “good words” on one side. Write “bad words” on the other side.
  3. Now ask everyone in the room to start calling out words that they believe everyone should use when sharing your company’s offerings (good words). Also, have them share words they believe should never be used (bad words).

Encourage people to avoid over used words such as “professional” and “excellent” on the “good word” list. Rather, seek more powerful, differentiating words like “formidable” and “catalyst.”

For the “bad words” encourage people to identify jargon (e.g. “solutions”). Have them identify words someone might use, but you would rather they did not (e.g. you are a nonprofit but people might assign you the “trade association” label and you’d rather they didn’t). Resist the urge to write down words that simply are opposite of what is on the “good word” list.

Now, watch the sparks fly as the Chief Marketing Officer throws out the word “creative” and your Chief Financial Officer’s eyes grow wide with surprise. Creative? Doesn’t that mean risky? the CFO may ask. The CMO may respond, it’s what sells. The CFO then retorts, There is selling and then there is staying in business. You get the picture.

Open the discussion to talk about why certain words are important to use and the words that are important to avoid. By having an open dialogue, you can get prejudices and default language out into the open. From there you can address disconnects and inappropriate language that may be causing confusion or a misinterpretation of who you are in the marketplace.

This exercise also helps boost your messaging by throwing out the old tired words and forces everyone to seek out some really differentiating and special words that only you can claim.

At first blush this exercise appears to be far too simple. It is simple. But, it could be one of the most eye-opening things you do around messaging.

Could You Describe Your Company in 6 Words or Less?

It is no secret that I am addicted to Honest Tea. In addition to it tasting really good, the inside of their bottle caps include interesting messages. Lately, they have been printing customers’ six word “memoirs.” Interesting exercise. Could you sum up the basis of your life in six words of less? Samples include:

• Born with big nose. Pursued comedy.
• Became an accountant but still can’t count.
• Cloudy with a chance of sun.

Could you sum up your company in six words or less? How about your company’s values? Your products or services? Your mission?

Here’s mine: Better Storytelling For More Influence.

Okay, it’s just five words. But, still…

What’s yours?

First Questions to Answer Before Crafting your Business Narrative

Before determining your company’s story or messages, consider asking yourself three basic questions:


1. Why am I thinking about my message or my story? When a business leader begins to question the message the organization is sending, it usually is because something is not right. The competition might be getting more attention. Customers may be acting confused or not acting at all. Or, employees are sending multiple and/or conflicting messages to customers and stakeholders. Identifying “what is wrong with this picture?” is an important step toward a solid business narrative.


2. What do I want my audience to do? Do you know what action you are seeking from customers or other stakeholders? Buying your product or service isn’t always the answer. Having customers refer you to colleagues and friends might be a goal. Or, have current customers buy more might be the objective. If you don’t know the reaction you are trying to illicit, then neither do your customers or potential customers when they hear about you.


3. How much do I know about my audience?  Most business leaders pride themselves on knowing exactly who they are trying to reach, what moves them, and their pain points. But, if you aren’t regularly checking in with your target audience, you don’t know enough about them. The world is changing at a rapid pace, and the people in the world are being pushed, pulled and influenced along with it. Seeking more information about your customers should be an ongoing activity. You will then know what they need to see, hear and experience from your story.