How To Win At Corporate Storytelling

“How do I tell my company story?” you may have asked yourself. That’s the question a dude on LinkedIn asked. We’re told our brand needs to be better at “storytelling” but the idea is quite abstract, and repeated without much thoughts. But what does it mean, how do you do it, and what does it truly involve?

Telling a great story attracts the right kind of customers and separates you from the generic folks by truly connecting with people. Great stories work, in part, because people buy from people. There’s a practical reason storytelling works however: It’s easy to remember, explains Robert McKee speaking to Bronwyn Fryer in The Harvard Business Review. McKee should know, he is the world’s best-known and most respected screenwriting lecturer. 

Cognitive psychologists describe how the human mind, in its attempt to understand and remember, assembles the bits and pieces of experience into a story, beginning with a personal desire, a life objective, and then portraying the struggle against the forces that block that desire. Stories are how we remember; we tend to forget lists and bullet points.

– Bronwyn Fryer, Harvard Business Review

We know storytelling is vital, but Fryer writes it’s remarkably difficult and most executives struggle how to do it properly. It’s because they want a concrete process.

The Concrete Process Doesn’t Exist

Many executives are looking for the magic formula of storytelling, but the truth about great storytelling is quite simple. It doesn’t require long hours, extra hard work, just simple human communication.

I understand Peep Laja’s frustration, truly. Especially in the emerging tech PR communications space, everyone wants a concrete Peep Laja-process, and a clear obvious answer to “How do I tell my company story?” but there isn’t one—every storyteller is different and uses a different style. Some do it the “right” way” others do it the “wrong” way, but they’re both right.

My editor at The Washington Post taught me how to polish my work and write in a new way and dramatically helped me. He taught me how to write like a journalist. Meanwhile, a literary agent was reaching out to me because my writing and storytelling wasn’t like a journalist.

Marilynne Robinson is an elegant masterful writer, whereas Seth Godin‘s writing is just brutal to read—I’d dare to say awful. But both have amassed massive followings, have adoring fans, and have book deals. I do not.

Podcast hosts like Joe Rogan break the radio rule of shoving all your ads up front, opting not to tease the content of the show. Love him or hate him, Rush Limbaugh rattles papers around and breaks every radio rule in the book, but both have truly a massive following.

Follow Me!

In nearly every communication platform, there is no set, magic bullet process. In fact, communicators seem to be rewarded for breaking from the process.

What Do All Great Storytellers Have In Common?

While it’s true great storytelling takes practice and I’d argue may be a natural skill more difficult for some than others—there is hope. All great storytellers have one thing in common. Great stories.

That’s why the first step in answering, how do I tell my company story, is to actually find great stories to tell. Once you know the stories, it’s imperative to internalize those tales, developing the natural ability to pull them up at a second’s notice. Everyone—natural skill aside—can do this.

How do I tell my company story?

Years ago, one client of mine pushed back on the idea that every company has great stories to tell. He explained, their vertical was too niche. “Justin, don’t waste time getting us any kind of interview, the general public doesn’t care.” Two months later, I booked their CEO on Bloomberg. (He canceled at the last second, but after apologizing they kindly rescheduled.)

The same strategy I used to interest Bloomberg is the same strategy I outline here. It’s great for PR and content strategy. It requires time and value of differing perspectives, but be warned: its simplicity may turn you off, just like it did for my new LinkedIn friend.

1. Storytelling Requires Strategic Listening

Answering how do I tell my company story starts with you becoming a strategic listener. By speaking with employees, partners, customers, and even competitors as a strategic listener, you’ll be shocked at the information they give you—if you know what to ask.

This couldn’t be more simple:

  • Zip your lip
  • Raise your eyes brows
  • Lean in
  • Hang on every word
  • Ask follows up questions.

Internalize and absorb what individuals tell you and read between the lines as much as possible. Write down everything, never interrupt, and if you need clarification, go back later. If you want to learn how to become a better listener, just use the 2-minute notebook method. When you do this, the individual will feel cared for, and care will compel them to share more data with you—and this data is the good stuff.

2. Storytelling Requires Cognitive Empathy.

Empathy is largely misunderstood and therefore easy to screw up. To truly empathize in the workplace, you must apply cognitive empathy. Michael Ventura, founder of SubRosa and Guest Lecturer at Princeton and West Point, told me cognitive empathy is the trainable form of empathy, focused on perspective-taking. Applying cognitive empathy involves stepping outside yourself, removing your perspective from the equation entirely.

Take the position, albeit temporarily, the other individual’s word is the ultimate truth in the universe. Bend and contort your mind to accept what they say. This will change you, showing new ideas you’ve never considered. Lawyers do this exercise, and I’ve asked several if they’ve ever changed their mind on things they knew to be %100 true. “All the time” is often what I hear.

You can’t address the question “how do I tell my company story” without understanding, and applying cognitive empathy.

3. Storytelling Requires Trust.

Your entire storytelling ability and strategy relies on trust. If there is one step you put into practice, this is it—innovation is only apparent to the innovator. Some executives assume if the idea or solution isn’t quickly apparent, it must be invalid. This is a dangerous view to hold.

Think back to the famous examples of innovators who pleaded with investors, only to be laughed out of offices. We’ve all heard the same stories of the record label who refused the Beatles, the investors who ignored Steve Jobs, or the publishers who refused Tim Ferris’ book.

Embrace the idea that you are wrong about many ideas and stories in your own company because you are. Embrace the idea that you don’t truly understand why customers buy, why employees come to work, or why your service is being bought by people and you won’t be disappointed. Assume everyone is trustworthy until they prove otherwise. And yes, you will get burned. Embrace the pain, because true innovation and the best stories won’t come unless you trust first.

***

The next time a coworker, a colleague asks “how do I tell my company story?” don’t overcomplicate the issue. Listening, empathy, and trust are simple in theory, but difficult in practice because many don’t believe great storytelling can be so simple.

Make it a daily habit to listen, trust and empathize with your employees, partners, customers, and competitors—writing down what you learn—I guarantee you will have more stories than you know what to do with. 

Hi, I’m Justin. I’m a writer, podcaster and entrepreneur. I cultivate & amplify emerging tech companies’ stories, reaching millions of people.

My private contact list is reserved for communicators who want to sharpen their skills with new resources and fresh methods.
Email me and introduce yourself if you you want to be added.

Photo courtesy Supushpitha Atapattu from Pexels.

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