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Posted: May 17, 2013

Tapping into the power of storytelling…

...from the inside out

Carla Johnson

“Let me tell you a story…” is a very powerful phrase. Yet while people relish this from Hollywood movies and bestselling authors, they often shun it in the board room.

They shouldn’t.

Some companies are slowly starting to understand the power of storytelling. Cisco uses it to strengthen its brand through The Network Effect, a documentary-style video series that explores telecom stories and their impact on our world. Coca Cola has said they plan to double their revenue by 2020 and storytelling proves a key foundation of their strategy.

As we learn to talk about why we’re here as companies from a storytelling perspective – rather than traditional marketing speak – we’re able to connect with prospects and customers much quicker and on a deeper level. That’s because stories share beliefs, not product information. They help understand, rather than sell. They teach us lessons. And a great story stays with us.

Start at Ground Zero

Storytelling gives leaders a personal platform from which to bring their vision to life in ways that make it easy for people to remember them. But discovering your company story requires some key things for authenticity.

All companies started for a reason – the owner had a passion and a vision for something she knew she could deliver better than anyone else. Over the years, the story of that passion gets lost in the frenzy of daily priorities, quarterly projections and annual revenue. As years pass, customers lose connection and employees lose engagement when they no longer relate.

If you find your company fighting for attention in a noisy marketplace, here’s how you uncover your own company’s story:

  • Go back to the beginning and revisit the roots of your organization. Why did the owner start it? What was his driving passion? What did he do better than anyone?
  • Review false starts. What initiatives sounded great at the time but quickly went by the wayside. Is there a common theme?
  • Examine your successes. Go beyond the obvious and ask deeper questions about why you were successful.
  • Be honest about your failures. Really open them up and appreciate them for the ugly mess they were. Don’t get defensive. Do talk candidly about why they failed. 
  • Ask why. Why does your company do what it does? Why does that matter to customers? Why does it matter to employees? If your company went away, would you be missed?
  • Talk to employees. This is heart of your story. Employees are the people who interact with customers every single day. They know what works and what doesn’t. They know when your company is at its best and when it flounders. Your story will never take root and grow if employees don’t believe it.

A story creates an emotional connection. It’s not a brand message. It’s not a tagline. It’s not a campaign. And its essence needs to be short and easy to remember.

Always Start Inside

While the last step in creating your story involves talking to employees, it’s the first place to start when telling it. A company’s story will never work if employees don’t believe it, because they’re the ones who tell it.

When I do brand work with companies, I’m consistently amazed and how many ignore the employee audience when rolling it out. If a company spends thousands – sometimes millions – to rebrand themselves, why skip teaching employees how to tell that story?

Employees who consistently tell our stories prove powerful brand ambassadors, regardless of their role within the organization. With all the channels companies use to reach customers, consistency proves critical today. It starts with HR and recruiting, winds through product development, financial reporting, sales and explodes through marketing with social, branding, PR, web, mobile and so forth. The only way to make sure that customers hear the same story regardless of how or where they connect is to make sure employees know and tell the same story.

Create Insurance

Gallup’s 2011 State of the Global Workplace study looked at high-performance, world-class organizations. In surveying 47,000 employees in 120 countries around the world, they found only 11 percent “engaged” in the workplace. That leaves a staggering 89 percent of employees either not engaged or actively disengaged. This has a significant financial impact. These high-performance companies earned nearly four times more than their industry competitors and experienced one-third less attrition.

If our team isn’t telling the same story and creating the same customer experience, then all we’ve invested in branding, PR, marketing sales and customer service is a joke. If you need a business case for investing in your story internally, think of it as insurance to protect all the other investments you’ve already made.

Carla Johnson, Principal, Type A Communications, helps companies tell better stories in order to build stronger brand awareness, better customer and employee engagement and, ultimately, revenues. She’s a past president of the Colorado Chapter of the Business Marketing Association, serves on its board of directors, and is a contributing author to the association’s book, “Advice From the Top: The Expert Guide to B2B Marketing.” Carla serves on the Content Strategy committee for the BMA National board and is a consultant to the Content Marketing Institute. Follow her on Twitter @carlajohnson.

Enjoy this article? Sign up to get ColoradoBiz Exclusives. The opinions expressed in this article are solely that of the author and do not represent ColoradoBiz magazine. Comments on articles will be removed if they include personal attacks.

Readers Respond

Honora, I appreciate your feedback! As executives, and even marketers, it's easy to put priorities in other places. But "story" works best when the people telling it understand and believe in it. By Carla Johnson on 2013 05 21
Great article Carla! Storytelling is a powerful employee and customer engagement tool. This reminded me that we need to ensure all of our employees are great storytellers! Thank you! By Honora Roberts on 2013 05 21
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