Tell me a story
by Dennis Bruce

Most advertising and marketing strategies are downright boring. They're overworked, overcooked, jargon laden, cliche riddled documents. Is it any wonder so many creative people ignore them?

What's the answer? Ditch the formula with its subheads and bullet-points. Instead write the strategy as a story. Like 3M does.

3M, whose positioning line is "Innovation", has been writing its strategic plans in story-form for several years. According to Gordon Shaw, director of planning at 3M, in a recent Harvard Business Review article, stories are central to 3M's culture. "They're a habit of mind…part of the way we see ourselves and explain ourselves to one another."

In writing their strategic plans as stories, 3M has discovered a rich and creative way to empower people to act and live out the strategy.

Stories are central to our humanity. As far as we know, animals don't tell each other stories, only humans do. Stories define us. That's why we're endlessly fascinated with them. Stories engage the imagination and fire the emotions. Stories give our lives meaning and purpose. Stories make us think, laugh, cry and relate to each other. Think about it. What happens when you meet a friend you haven't seen for a while? Over a beer, or clutching a coffee, you tell each other your stories. Stories about your family, your job, your adventures (real or imagined), your wins, your losses, your hopes, your dreams, your fantasies.

Stories are mnemonic. "Stories play an important role in learning,' says Gordon Shaw. "Language researchers, studying how high school students learn, found that the story-based style of Time and Newsweek was the best way to learn and remember." And continues Shaw, "When researchers translated American history textbooks into this format, they found that students recalled up to three times more than they did after reading traditional textbooks."

The problem with the conventional bullet-point strategy format is that it tends to encourage people to generalize and not think through the issues. As a result, readers read selectively; taking note of the most convenient points and ignoring those that may be hard to implement or execute.

A good strategic story, on the other hand provides a context, defines relationships, outlines a sequence of events and details causes and effects. It also goes beyond the rational and touches the emotions. It allows people to see the possibilities and get excited about them. If it's a really good story it will also contain an insight that gets the creative juices flowing.

The best advertising campaigns are stories about people and brands. Take Hal Riney's Saturn commercials: all are stories about the people who make the cars and the people who drive them, stories often drawn from real life, stories that forge loyal relationships between the brand and its customers. In a story, the brand becomes a person with human characteristics. A brand can be cool, intelligent, fun, warm, sympathetic, loyal and trustworthy.

One of the things I most enjoy about running focus groups is listening to people's stories. Ask a question and you don't just get a factual, cut-and-dried answer but an anecdote involving the respondent's relationship with the brand, her feelings, experiences, expectations, disappointments etc. One woman told me how her car conked out one dark, rainy night and left her stranded on the highway. She told it with so much passion it was clear she felt not just inconvenienced but betrayed. Her car had been unfaithful to her and she never ever trusted it again.

Rolf Jensen, a US brand expert, says the future of brand husbandry lies in the art and heart of storytelling. "Those who tell the best story," says Jensen, "will be leaders in their category. Explicit monologues on product features, benefits, and value don't require storytelling abilities. But good stories are not monologues. They are silent dialogues between the storyteller and individuals in his audience. His words will catalyze dialogues throughout a large audience only when members of the audience see themselves in the storyteller's tale. If the storyteller reveals all, his audience will be small. If he drops cues, he can draw legions into dialogue with him as the makers of the Blair Witch Project did so successfully."

Recently, over lunch, a colleague of mine, Rick Wolfe, told me a story. We were talking about the search for artificial intelligence. A group of scientists hooked up several super computers and put them through a number of tests. Incredibly, one of the computers started to form words and even a sentence or two. Beside himself with excitement, one scientist put the question to the computer, "What is intelligence?" The computer, said nothing for a moment and then replied, "Let me tell you a story…"


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