During college, I was working toward a dual degree in English and math, with an emphasis on creative writing (my brain is weird!). My English advisor was a man named Brent Spencer, who was very adamant about how you wrote and told stories—and he expected you to relate the story back to your childhood, in some fashion.
He sat with me after many classes to help me work on my storytelling, advising me once to stop writing about superficial things and really dig into what I knew.
I remember being so stubborn about not digging up the past that I almost quit the coursework. Of course, I didn’t, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without him pushing me like that, but it turns out we were both right.
He was right in that stories couldn’t be superficial and needed to mean something to the author and to the audience. And I was right in that you can be a great storyteller without digging up or creating drama or trauma.
Use Curiosity to Tell Your Story
A Fast Company article about storytelling talks about how to use curiosity to tell your story. They relay two examples that I’m going to share directly from the article.
“Journalist and author Elizabeth Gilbert recounts how after her fourth book, Eat Pray Love, sold 12 million copies, she set to work on another memoir. But when she finished, she concluded, “Truly, the book was crap. Worse, I couldn’t figure out why it was crap. Moreover, it was due at the publisher [and] I had absolutely no passion for writing. I was charred and dry. This was terrifyingly disorienting.”
A friend advised, “Take a break! Don’t worry about following your passion for a while. Just follow your curiosity instead.” Gilbert admits she was curious about gardening—not passionate, just curious—and so she spent the next six months planting vegetables. “I was pulling up the spent tomato vines when—quite suddenly, out of nowhere—I realized exactly how to fix my book. I washed my hands, returned to my desk, and within three months, I’d completed the final version of Committed—a book that I now love.”
Curiosity is indeed a tiny whisper that we hear when we pay attention, and that grows stronger when we follow it. Paul Smith grew up dreaming about and preparing to become a professional cyclist. But when a biking accident put him in the hospital for six months, he had to change course. He began to get curious about clothes, and when out of the hospital, he took a class on tailoring clothes. That led to a job on Savile Row and then to opening his own small store, a mere thirty square feet. Today he is an internationally recognized designer with stores all over the world.”
Take a Break
This is not to say you should start dabbling in what you’re curious about and change careers entirely. Instead, it’s a great reminder to get away from the computer when you’re stuck or a story isn’t unfolding the way you would like.
There are a few ways you can do this: take a break! Walk away from your computer and take the dog for a walk, jump on the Peloton, or have a dance break (we like Just Dance in our house). Sometimes even taking a shower helps, assuming you jumped right onto your laptop and you’re still sitting in your PJs. Get in the shower, you monster!
The point is, get away from your computer. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but it’s the best way to unstick your brain, as Elizabeth Gilbert and Paul Smith proved.
Another tactic is to turn off all distractions. I don’t have Slack, text, or email set up on my laptop and use that when I need to write or do deep work that requires me to concentrate. Sure, I can access email, Slack, and social media via the internet, but I don’t have the constant notifications coming at me, so I’m not interrupted. Makes it a lot easier to develop stories that way.
Become a Better Brand Storyteller
Now that we know we don’t need to lead with conflict, and that curiosity and getting away from your desk can spark ideas, let’s talk about some specifics in telling the story of what’s coming out of your organization.
First, I am a massive believer in reading fiction to improve our storytelling skills. I suppose some of that comes from burying my nose in a book from the moment I could read and hiding in the stairwell in the dorms, but even without that, I contend that watching Netflix or reading non-fiction isn’t the same.
Let’s review some of the things you can learn from reading fiction that will help you become a better brand storyteller.
- Imagine a fictional future. This is a fun exercise to do with your colleagues—and especially fun to get the executives on board. Schedule a 30-minute conversation to imagine what the future looks like for the company. Think about the kinds of products you’ve launched, the major competitor you’ve taken down (or acquired!), the team members you’ve added, the dream customers you’ve added, and more. The sky is the limit. Use this time to start to break boundaries about what the future might look like. If you find you’re all getting stuck, think about the things you don’t want—to go bankrupt, to have an economic crisis put you out of business, to be bought by a competitor (or maybe that is something you do want)…the point is to dream big.
- Focus on solutions versus specific outcomes. For the longest time, when people asked me what I wanted out of life, I would say, “To sit in the corner office, make six figures, and have a BMW.” For real. I was a bit, um, money hungry and naive. Guess what? I hit all of those outcomes and then I sat at my desk and thought, “Now what?” My goals today are a lot less…flashy, shall we say. But also, those goals weren’t focused on my values, and they didn’t help me grow an organization. Imagine if I told you in a new business meeting that we were focused on making money and driving BMWs. You’d run the other direction. Not a great or selfless story to tell.
Instead, focus on the values of the organization: culture, team-driven, loyalty, integrity, honesty, passion, accountability, and more.
Infuse your story with words such as help, inspire, shape, and change, rather than lists of achievements.
- Develop a narrative. No one cares about your mission statement. I’d venture to guess not even the employees can recite the mission statement. That’s not to say you don’t need one, but don’t lead with it. Instead, start with a narrative. The brand’s story should be about who the business is and the future you are working to create. The CEO of Patagonia just gave away his company to fight climate change. That’s far more powerful than a vague mission statement about fighting climate change.
Work the Process
Now it’s time to get to work! This is not a once-and-done process. You have to work it. We like to do this quarterly with our clients—and every time there is something to announce, such as a new product launch or a new campaign. It takes some practice and some people will be hard to track down at the start, but with some consistency, people will begin to look forward to those meetings—and you’ll develop an incredibly enticing story to tell.