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The pros and “Cons” of Storytelling

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.

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 movie. No plot, cast includes famous or artificially created superstars or not. 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 I don’t normally dilute my views when speaking to a client, since it is the future of their business that is at stake. I am equally critical about evaluating my own work. However, on occasion, as a fun experiment, 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 in a particular way. Similarly, if I wanted ratings for a particular question in the range of 2-3, all that was needed was framing the question differently. All it took was a few words to 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?


Look forward to your views. And if you liked this post, do follow or subscribe to my blog (top right of the page) for similar topics that encourage reflection and discussion. You can also connect with me on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

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