March 28, 2013


This is a follow-up to “Why we need better business storytelling.” 

Lack of clarity over the three basic elements of story — character, conflict, resolution — lead to attempts to tell business stories that are mere listings of events. Words without emotion, as if connecting with people is not part of business.

People are the core of an organization! We are fueled by stories. We thrive on emotion. We make emotional decisions (backed, of course, by sound logic). We need better business storytelling.

We need better business stories.

Current attempts to tell stories in business focus on environment instead of characters, symptoms over challenges, and present a resolution without the journey and transformation (if appropriate). All without emotion, insight, or connection.

Small shifts create big changes.

While training and development in effective communication and storytelling yield undeniable benefit, anyone who follows three basic steps demonstrates dramatic improvement:

  • Capture and share the details of the characters
  • Explain the challenge
  • Guide the journey through the challenge to the resolution, showcase the transformation

Business stories are non-fiction, but that doesn’t mean they have to be dry. Boring stories are boring. Period. Consider the three points and how incorporating these elements improve current and future business stories.

Capture and share the details of the characters

Move beyond the name and title and share the essence of the individual or people of the story. Include details about interests, hobbies, or something colleagues equate with them. This isn’t fiction, no need to focus on internal monologues, deeply held secrets, and the work of novels. Keep it simple. Focus on positive, relevant elements that foster a connection between the audience and the character.

Explain the challenge

This is where it pays to take a risk. Capture the real challenge, share the emotion. While work has moments of thrilling excitement, most people also experience extreme frustration, fear, and disappointment. The challenge, then, is not just the “business problem requiring resolution,” the emotional ride through the process of asking for help, finding a solution, getting the budget, implementing the project, and then, hopefully, realizing results.

The key is to share relevant emotion. It’s not a Hollywood screenplay. Revealing genuine emotion — including the way people evaluate solutions in terms of risk to themselves — provides a real connection. This is not one-size-fits-all, either. Just incorporate some basic emotion that most folks feel.

Aside: If telling the story in person, this is a great opportunity to confirm or alter the story based on audience feedback. In the event the emotion doesn’t connect fully, ask them what they think and feel. Ask them to share their story. When they’re done, build on the relationship and their insights to explore how to guide the journey. 

Guide the journey

Explain how the character(s) navigate the emotional challenge. Place focus on showing how specific excitement or concerns played out. If someone was worried the system would cause a disruption, first set up the concern, then explain how it played out. As long as the narrative is real, this offers proof that the problem is understood on a personal and business level.

Just like explaining the challenge, it’s okay if the journey of the story isn’t a perfect match. Sharing the emotion experienced on the pathway is a starting point for a more detailed and productive conversation. It sets the stage to explore how the solution would work in the environment of the audience.

What a better business story could look like

Note: this is not based on any specific person, client or situation. Probably as close as I come to writing fiction, it’s a brief attempt to illustrate the difference between the example here and better stories. In client situations, I profile real people (changing appropriate details), capture actual emotion and distill the right elements on the journey to resolution. I love talking about this approach – want to connect? 

Rather than setting the scene of a “generic client” with a “specific business problem”, introduce real people into the situation. Invite the audience into the world of the character, for example, the security administrator.

Harry is the security administrator for a medium-sized financial firm in the Midwest. Last year, a typical morning started at 7a with a trip to the company gym. After a fresh cup of coffee, Harry attended project and status meetings to represent security, handled routine and requested security reviews, connected with others on twitter (he loves that @catalyst guy) to catch up on the latest threats and ended his day around 5pm. 

But now, an endless barrage of attacks and shifting threat landscape means more manual tasks. Now the day starts at 7a – but Harry skips the gym to get right to his desk to find out what emergencies need attention. Skipping lunch and heading home after dark, Harry is putting on weight, stressed out, and most importantly — missing the soccer games of his daughters, and date nights with his wife.  

Consider the scenario above. Is Harry relatable? Does it hit home or seem like someone you know? What details would you add? I quickly created Harry based on personal experience and witnessing the toll on friends. Ideally, we profile real people (but change the names and some details as needed).

Modified as needed, the main character is introduced. By capturing the contrast in the environment in the last year, the stage is set to introduce the challenge. Noting the physical toll and impact to Harry’s personal life is a detail that most who have been there know well.

Faced with the reality that he is unable to keep up with the workload, Harry starts working later and later into the evening and on weekends to find a solution. After narrowing down potential solutions to three, he has to find a way to convince his boss to approve the time and effort for evaluation. Worried that his boss will see the request as a sign of failure, Harry mulls how to get the approval. He won’t even consider the budgeting until he sees if something can actually help without causing an even bigger headache. 

Now the real challenge surfaces: it’s not just the change in the external environment, but the personal realization that the current situation is not working. Harry has to admit he needs help. He has to ask his boss for approval just to evaluate solutions. A lot of people are uncomfortable admitting they need help — and fear the repercussions from a superior who may choose to question their work ethic and abilities.

This is a real, rich canvas upon which to create and explore. It’s also potentially dangerous and takes some time and effort to capture just the right amount of challenge without scaring people. It is important to capture the right amount of real emotion without overdoing it.

Now guide the journey through to resolution. Despite what people might suggest, solutions aren’t magical. Part of the challenge, the struggle, is to assess whether the solution helps or hurts. We’re working with people trying to cram too much into too little space. Even a solution that looks good on paper is a risk: maybe it won’t work, there is no budget, and if it doesn’t work, what personal embarrassment will they face?

Overworked and worried about the potential to disrupt the network, Harry was surprised that the initial setup only took two hours – and didn’t even cause a hiccup. An hour after the install team walked him through the system, Harry was able to see changes in the environment and take action from a central console. Suddenly, what used to take the entire morning was done before his first cup of coffee even got cold

What really impressed Harry was how easy it was to demonstrate the value to his boss. VENDOR was able to help Harry produce reports and show how the system would pay for itself in the first year. More importantly, it freed Harry up to work on other pressing responsibilities. Initially worried that his boss would penalize him, Harry found an accommodation of excellence on his desk and a better relationship with his team. The real prize, though, was getting back to the gym and seeing more of his family. 

I may have embellished that part a bit. I also glossed over a lot of details that a real solution must capture and demonstrate. But I made this up to showcase the journey and explain how it allayed fears.

Inherent in the struggle is finding find the time and energy to properly assess the solution and come to a decision. As they work through the conflict… what do they do? More importantly, how do they feel? What are their fears? Excitement?

What prompts the decision? Once the solution is decided on, and the system installed and running, what is the resolution? Did they get the time back in their schedule? Did they get back to regular date nights with their spouse? Back in the gym and losing weight?

Too perfect? Well, it has happened. I interviewed some individuals last year on behalf of my clients and found two people that relayed stories just like that. One individual even got a promotion out of the deal. When I asked what they would do different, both told me they wouldn’t have waited so long!

Liberate and share better business stories

We all have stories waiting to be discovered, liberated, shared. The key to telling better business stories is to build better stories. Start with the basics. Consider the reality of character, conflict and resolution to distill and guide the emotional journey to successful conclusion.

I live to liberate stories. Have a question or want to talk about how to make a difference? Let’s talk!

About the Author Michael Santarcangelo

The founder of Security Catalyst, Michael develops exceptional leaders and powerful communicators with the security mindset for success.

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