Strategic Storytelling: bridging ideation and scaling

  • Design Thinking

Strategic Storytelling: bridging ideation and scaling

When people think of running a business or working together, the last thing they would think of is storytelling as a major driver for the success of the business or the success of a team. Often time when we start a new project, the team is assembled <What should you look for when assembling a team? Read my next blog on Building a successful team>, we immediately go into production mode. Dumping data as proof on each other’s desks. As proof of what? Jumping from initial idea directly into “scale mode” means you’ll be skipping some important steps. There is a time for spreadsheets and strategic documents just as there is a time for strategic storytelling.

When you start working together on a (new) project, everything you start with should be focused on inspiring people, creating room for (future) successes, and setting each other up for success. That’s not the moment for lengthy word documents, spreadsheets, or endless meetings where we kill each other with PowerPoints. Not that PowerPoint is a bad thing in and of itself. Yet we’ve all had our fair share of bad presentations. So, you’ll often get a sort of Pavlov response when you step into a meeting with a text-heavy presentation on the screen…and not the kind where you’re drooling and hungry for more (though you may be drooling). More likely you’ll probably be answering emails and doing other stuff. Job well done? I don’t think so. Especially if the focus should be on scaling an idea, getting people connected to a cause, and infusing them with a passion for this cause.

We’re all storytellers, and we have been since the days of yore… From the time that we scribbled oxen and buffalos on a cave wall all the way up to this very moment when we play with our toys as a child, inventing a whole new reality with us in it as the hero. And we know we all respond well to storytelling. No matter what age you are, you vividly remember (and can probably even paraphrase) your favorite children’s story, your fairy tale. Yet when – in a business context – it’s time to share information (storytelling time), we immediately go at it the wrong way. Mostly because storytelling (i.e. creating a pitch) is part of our checklist and often even the last thing on our list. And not as something that should be designed from the very beginning of your journey.

Although it might sound like a rather touchy-feely topic this strategic storytelling, it’s not. It is nothing more than designing your information sharing moment in such a way that you know you’re going to appeal to the needs of your business audience. You want them to be onboard. You need them to make the project successful. You want them to understand that your cause is their cause. You want to galvanize them into action. Because, at the end, you need a numbers person, and that colleague with the big network, and definitely the one who has the final say.

1. Vision

So, what are the tools you can use to achieve that goal? The most important “tool” is your Point of View. Point of View is not being right, or opinionated. It’s your take on things, your perspective, your vision. It’s a belief that you embrace and what you’re passionate about. It’s the one thing (amidst a lot of initial uncertainty) that helps you to decide what your next step is going to be. It is the metrics you’ll be using to benchmark any result. It’s also an important reason if and why people will connect to your story. Because you’re personally connected via your Point of View. Besides your point of view, you have a couple of tools under your belt that will help you to create a blueprint for your strategic story.

2. Hero’s Journey

Heroes journey canvas

Joseph Campbell, a (mid 20th century) mythologist started reading into all the archetypical hero’s featuring in all the worlds mythology. He realized that they all go on somewhat the same journey: the hero’s journey. In 1949, he wrote a book about that: The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It all starts with everything appearing honky-dory in the life of the hero. At some point, something disrupts the peace and the hero has to make a choice. The hero starts off by denying the problem but ends up being pushed into it whether he wants to or not (it’s fate). After a near-death experience and a lot of hardship, he will arise successfully and returns a better man.

You’re probably thinking, “Hey, that sounds familiar!” And you’re right. Likely 90% of all (Hollywood) movies are based on this blueprint. Scrub to the middle of just about any movie and you’ll find yourself smack in the middle of the mayhem, with the hero in his worst moment in life. Not only is it Hollywood that uses this template. For Design a Better Business we used the Hero’s Journey to Write all the case studies. Who was the hero (rebel) on this journey? What were the hard choices he or she had to make? How did he at the end deal with the adversity?

3. Persona Canvas

Persona canvas

Using the Persona Canvas will help you to understand (in this case) your audience better. Normally we tend to keep our audience abstract. Yet, for any strategic interaction, you’d better go a couple of steps further as to figure out what makes them tick. What are their fears, dreams, needs, hopes and even nightmares? The more “idiosyncrasies” you know the better you’ll be able to use those as triggers in your story. If you take your time to make the persona tangible, you’ll certainly benefit from that at a later stage.

4. Storytelling Canvas

Story telling canvas

The storytelling canvas uniquely helps you to organize all the things you’ve gathered along the way into a strong and designed storyline. The focus of this tool is to design the storyline with the audience (and end) in mind. It’ll also help you to really get a grasp on the triggers you can use in your strategic story, you know they’ll respond well to.

You can read more about the storytelling canvas here. I do want to emphasize the order of things: after filling out the top part (subject, goal, and so forth) continue to the left column “Before”. Try to understand what your audience thinks now, what is keeping them busy, what is their behavior now. Then move to the right column “After”: what do you want them to think, what should be their behavior, their belief after your strategic interaction with them.

Story telling canvas example

To give you an example, I have taken Benjamin Zander’s Ted Talk “The Power of Classical Music” and used it to fill out the Storytelling canvas. It will help you understand better how to use this tool. But also, that it is helpful even when you have a diverse audience as is the case for Benjamin Zander’s talk.

Blueprint

As mentioned neither of these tools will get you your story, but they will help you create the blueprint for your story, including all the building blocks. They help you to figure out what best to use to connect with your audience. Once you have your blueprint it’s up to you to decide how you want to execute your story. What’s the impact you want to make? How do you want to make it stick? Most times people will leave it to change. But it should be part of you designing your story. It is up to you to decide what is needed to create that impact. It goes to show how important it is to always design your strategic story with the end in mind.

So, at that point, instead of leaping towards PowerPoint, think about other ways to tell your story. Not because you want to go for the special effects, but because you want to make an impact on people, inspire them into your project, and set them up for success. And success here means: creating a group of ambassadors to help you scale your idea.

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