The pros and “Cons” of Storytelling

Reading Time: 4 minutes

The pros and “Cons” of Storytelling!

Storytelling. Steve Jobs wasn’t the first to talk about, or practice it. Nor was he the first one to focus on the customer and build differentiation. Function and form. And he wasn’t the first to capture customer personalities, traits and passions in their marketing and communication, instead of just reading a dull list of product features. but he is probably the most famous or identified storyteller ever.

Storytelling predates writing. Its earliest forms were expressed orally, accompanied by expressions and gestures.

The world has come a long way since Jobs’ famous 1997 address and introduction to the ‘Think Different’ campaign. We increasingly appreciate being told stories. By companies and their advertisers, by friends and colleagues, and gurus – be it religious or management. We prefer stories to reading out technical specifications and product features, or trying to grasp complex situations or concepts.

And not surprisingly so. We are emotional beings after all, not logic machines. We give priority to emotions over even compelling factual information and the most compelling of logic. Unfortunately for us, not all those stories we believe, spring from a clean motive.

Companies, politicians and a lot of people in-between have become professionals at storytelling. And when the motive is not backed by good intentions, all it takes, is finding out the audience’s buttons. Accordingly, out comes a relevant, sometimes conveniently modified story that has the resultant effect.

A lot of companies are spending progressively higher on marketing and image and positioning of products. Lesser and lesser on the product itself, let alone the customer experience. Same goes for services. And politicians.

Hype, buzzwords and deception. Many businesses have become like the average Bollywood movie. No plot, cast includes famous or artificially created superstars, but a ton of money kept for promotion. Create enough hype, cash out with a good profit in 1 week, and move onto the next shoddy project. The same words that once formed a bridge between great products and services to customers by way of storytelling, have now been degraded to spinning yarn to maximize revenues while the going’s still good.

To show you the power of words, here’s a “story” from the early years of my consulting practice days. Each project I choose to work on is holy to me. And apart from sometimes being ruthless with my views, I am equally critical about evaluating my own work. However, on occasion, for the fun of it, I’d send out feedback questionnaires at the end of assignments to clients. Requesting feedback on their view of the quality of the work done.

Now for the fun of it, if I wanted scores in a particular range, say between 4-5, I would word the question accordingly. Similarly, if I wanted ratings for a particular question in the range of 2-3, all that was needed was framing the question differently. It would nudge someone in a particular way. What it showed, was that simple words can influence what should ideally be the unbiased feedback of a client.

A tiny part of my mission through my consulting practice, is to try to prevent clients from falling into such traps by either wrongly reading their customer perceptions, or by unintentionally or otherwise adding their biases to their customer feedback. Or even to their assessment of their own performance. Even though I used to send such questionnaires for the heck of it, I could see how client feedback would be influenced by the words. Now since I do not disclose client names as policy, or come out with any client satisfaction statistics reports, there is no way I could leverage such feedback even if I was the kind that would. But there are many companies that can and do.

Let’s say the unbiased review of a product is average. However, with the right words, ratings can be pushed above average. This would reflect back on feedback statistics, in turn generating more trust and revenues. The cycle goes on.

Storytelling and anecdotes serve the purpose of almost instantly explaining even more complex concepts or situations. However, recipients of these stories often tend to take the story and the correlation at face-value. And they possibly even cement their impressions and views about a situation. What they should do instead, is use a combination of listening and sufficient questioning. Only then should they form their own views on the matter.

What happens when you only listen to a story without thinking much about it? The story always comes from a fellow human. And humans are a complex being full of custom biases. What’s worse, you never know when someone’s running an agenda of their own. Which means their selection of stories will depict only one side of a story. And stories tweaked enough to evoke the right emotions for the naive mind to believe easily.

As a result, country leaders can convince their people to go to war against a country for no logical reason. Hey, the story sounded compelling enough. It wouldn’t happen overnight, but it happens eventually. And people who have who have lived for generations with neighbours of a different faith suddenly suspicious of them. They begin to believe people they have never met. They believe biased stories, and marginalize generations worth of trust as a result.

From a business point of view, storytelling is an integral part of a successful business. But not without an even greater underlying foundation of offerings. Storytelling is only a bridge, not a destination. Companies should not be working on becoming increasingly manipulative towards their customers. They should be working on becoming increasingly transparent to them.

Below is a great talk by Mohammed Qahtani about the power of words.

Many of us can Think Different. Why not try to Be Different Too?

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Why Design Thinking is Here to Stay

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Why Design Thinking is Here to Stay

A close friend recently shared this article titled ‘Why Design Thinking will fail’, written in 2013 by Jeffrey Tjendra. Jeffrey is a designer entrepreneur and strategist. Among some of us friends, there was were points of disagreement on the article. Jeffrey does seem to have a good understanding of design thinking. This post, however, is an effort towards taking a closer look at each point mentioned there. And to see if it makes sense or not. All of this, with my limited but growing knowledge of design thinking.

Before I begin, here’s a quote by Mara Wilson. While her quote describes storytelling, I believe it offers a more far reaching explanation. With products and services too, for instance. She said, “The more specific you get, the more universal it is. (It’s a special alchemy of storytelling).” – Mara Wilson

Back to the article, here goes:

  1. Misperception of Meaning – I’ll agree, it can be misleading to some. I use either ‘human-centered’ or ‘user-centered’ design thinking in an attempt to bring a little more clarity, especially when interacting with people I believe might misinterpret the meaning.
  2. Loss of Meaning – Can’t do much about that. A lot of effective methodologies often see phases of hype and a lot of randomness being packaged and sold in its name. But as the dust settles, only the real stuff and an increased respect remains.
  3. Misunderstanding and Not Accepting Creative Elements – True. However, any company or more specifically, a management that has ever worked on any form of creativity or innovation, knows how boring, full of trials and iterations, full of mess and uncertainty it can be. Look at your kid’s school projects for instance. If it isn’t too simple, it is bound to take a lot of ‘random’, before it starts to make sense. Anyone who doesn’t understand that, will surely not use design thinking. And that’s alright.
  4. Lack of Business Elements – Coming from a management and finance background, with experience in strategy and marketing, I tend to build those critical business aspects to a design thinking project. And that is especially why the design thinking team needs to have a wide-enough assortment of skillsets. Using only UI/UX people or ethnographers or psychologists is not going to do the trick.
  5. Language and Perspective Barriers – There have been worse instances of communication gaps. For instance, if you have heard the almost unbelievable and heroic story of the Gimli Glider. An obvious technical specification got so conveniently ignored, that it put at risk, 69 occupants aboard a Boeing 767. Read the fascinating story! So, it just boils down to the intention and seriousness of the parties involved. Nothing is foolproof or idiot-proof. But a lot of change and innovation can be brought about with the right intentions. And no amount of left-brain learning and practice can fix unpredictable situations either. Because a lot of left-brain thinkers often learn a process from end to end. Any deviation could potentially leave them baffled. Creative thinking, on the other hand, helps one focus on the fundamentals. On understanding the building blocks more and more. And then, irrespective of situations or deviations to them, there is often more clarity as the building blocks can be used to better understand complexity. And it’s often easier to communicate fundamental building blocks across language barriers, as opposed to communicating complexity to begin with.
  6. Missing Future – Even design thinking veterans like IDEO have made mistakes, overestimating future demand of tech products. A strong problem or opportunity statement (which is open to being updated when you learn more about the end-user) helps reduce the risk. As does an unbiased and strong mechanism to interact with, and observe and understand needs, behaviours and desires of end-users, and capture that information towards building a solution.
  7. Wrong Implementation of Process – Which is why a lot of products and ingredients come with ‘Instructions to Use’. If an ingredient needs to be mixed and cooked, simply sprinkling it will not help.
  8. Poor Direction Scoping – This is where an intention and objective to start with, matters. There are billions of people, billions of problems and billions more opportunities. Which one or ones do you want to target. That’s what you pursue. Ignore everything else.
  9. Co-creation at the End of Process – all I’ll say is, phone sex doesn’t help create babies.
  10. Misconception of Approach to Creativity – This is true. Some people would tend to follow the design thinking process like it is a treasure map, when in fact, it is navigating your way through hostile jungle. Your senses need to be on alert all the time. Any input can change a lot of initial assumptions. That lions don’t climb trees. Or that chimps tend to rely on third party to help resolve disputes.
  11. Wishful Thinking for Culture of Innovation – Completely agree here. Which is why, a startup whose founders have the right values and give importance to innovation, can build it better into their culture, as opposed to trying to inject it into a global behemoth that has a century of history.
  12. The End Process is not the End – true – design teams, just like any other specialty teams, need to walk the talk. Leaving projects with solution advice that is abstract to clients, won’t serve anyone’s purpose. A lot of large consulting firms were infamous for doing this back in the day. Leaving clients many million dollars poorer, and with a big “report” that the client was clueless what to do with.
  13. Risk of Stagnancy – As Zig Ziglar said, “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Well, neither does bathing – that’s why we recommend it daily.”

Thoughts?

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Sewage Popsicles

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Sewage Popsicles

Some Taiwanese art students recently created ice popsicles made purely out of sewage water. And the 100 varieties they showcased, reflects exactly how clean we’ve made our water bodies.

With all due credit for their noble effort to send a strong message across, globally, here’s what I don’t understand. While humans stay dangerously stupid when it comes to the environment, why does getting a preventive message across to need to get, ‘stupider’? I know, thick skull and all that, but increasingly complex ad storylines can still be justified. But this? This is adding insult to injury.

The ice popsicles are good. But creating what looks like plastic wrappers for the popsicles? Isn’t that like wasting water to tell people to save water. Or killing … hens, to tell people to go vegetarian. Something like that? Isn’t that somewhat counterproductive to the cause?

While it’s amusing when its not concerning, the last century has shown a clear trend between the evolution of ‘enforcing what is right’, and ‘communicating what is right, creatively’. A lot of things harmful to the environment are obvious, but we won’t do anything to change it. Instead, we’ll just make ourselves more immune to the obvious. Thus, giving an opportunity to ad folk, and art folk in this case, to work their brains and creativity to come up with increasingly ‘wow’ ways to transmit the same, age-old obvious warnings we should have paid heed to decades ago.

So much for the smartest species on the planet.

Nevertheless, all due credit to their effort at revealing the ugly effects of our lifestyle on the planet.

Here’s an article about the popsicles and the exercise itself [link].

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Are you Sold to the Idea?

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Are you Sold to the Idea?

Here’s a first post under a new category called ‘Management Mumblings’.

I recently addressed and interacted with about 70 really smart MBA students, with whom I was sharing experiences from my corporate career, and about starting up and growing, with the objective of encouraging entrepreneurship.

In comparison, I’ve always found it easier to interact with people from industry, comfortable with discussing anything from industry problems, current affairs, new ideas, etc. Interacting with freshers, often makes me a little nervous. They are highly impressionable minds after all, often easily influenced. That leaves us with a great responsibility when advising them on matters such as career, ethics, values, etc.

One popular concern among these students was fear of the possibility of landing a job that might involve sales. 

A lot of us are not too fond of marketing, and many detest sales. Selling has always been that inhuman task of lowering ourselves, often to the point of unimaginable desperation, to close a deal, before moving to the next one.

Salesman

Source: here

I attempted to change their impression of marketing and sales with a simple change of perspective. I hope you too find some benefit in it that helps in some aspect of your career or business.

We have come a long way to the times we currently live in. From times when we had a limited set of friends, and everyone knew what was going on in their lives. To now, when friends are in the hundreds or thousands. Mostly online, many strangers, some we’ve never met, and most we almost never interact with.

Given this reality, whenever we want to convey events, achievements or updates about us, we post things online. We tweet it or blog about it, or convey it in some such way. Be it selfies with a Starbucks cup, a new job, a marriage, loss of a family member, a holiday, a new pet, anything. We convey it online to our friends.

If you have done one or more of those, ever, don’t you think what you’ve been doing is a form or part of marketing? As is with our resumes and the confidence with which we speak at interviews. Which means we are already marketers to some extent, and have been doing a decent job with marketing ourselves. How cool is that? 

Now all we need to do is extend that skill to our jobs if it demands so. Identify what differentiates the products/ services we are trying to sell from that of our competitors, and convey the same to prospective customers with the logical and convincing points that we’d like to hear, were we being convinced to buy that product/service.

This won’t make you a killer salesperson just yet. But hopefully it will warm you up to the concept of marketing and selling.

Qualities of Salesman

Source: here

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Sell Blankets to Eskimos

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Sell Blankets to Eskimos

This post requires you to think a bit. Might be difficult on a Friday night, but do give it a thought over the weekend.

We all know how challenging the life of a salesperson can be. Unrealistic sales targets, unwelcoming prospective customers, unending follow-up calls and meetings. And then demoralizing posters outside offices and the crushing pressure of time as end of the month approaches. Not to mention clients who like the thrill of being pursued by multiple businesses.

Salesperson 3

image: glasbergen

And if all that was not bad enough, there are the trials of making it through the day with erratic food timings. I have spent a grueling stint in a Marketing role, and while I had the luxury of driving for meetings, lunches were more like a mirage in the desert. I always had 6-7 bottles of water stacked up, and that usually kept me going. From skipping lunch to spending time explaining a concept to a prospective client, to pecking at food at god-forsaken eateries, to the thrill of eating after a chain of hopeful meetings.

The internet connection at home was down recently. Finally when the engineer showed up, it turned out that the re-configuring would take about an hour. There was a big mug of tea waiting for me, so I offered the engineer some. He declined, saying he suffered from acidity, and tea would only worsen it. Something I am very familiar with, thanks to the poor eating regime I’ve followed over the years. But, it got me wondering about the thousands of sales people and field engineers who spend long hours chasing prospects or fixing things, resulting in them neglecting their own health. So I wanted to ask you, for ideas on how we could find a solution to the people who sell all the awesome stuff, and for those folk who fix our gadgets and appliances whenever they act up.

Salesperson 2

image: TrinityMarketingSystems

Can you think of ways by which sales and support folk can have their meals on time? Especially when they’re doing the rounds?

To get the ball rolling, here are a few initial thoughts that came to mind…

  • a very basic concept of a reminder app on the mobile, reminding the person to drink water, or have lunch, etc.
  • food delivery services specially focused on delivering to sales & support personnel on the go. They should deliver to anything from the crossroads at ABC junction, to outside XYZ company’s office, or outside the PQR store
  • this one’s my favorite, something I’ve personally been longing for, to streamline my eating schedule. Food in capsules. Just pop a few in, and you’re good to go. Beats even the army’s combat ration MREs

Let’s have your ideas, and hopefully someone can actually start working on a business service that’s focused on selling to those who sell.

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