Gini Dietrich

Three Steps to Create a Compelling Business Story

By: Gini Dietrich | January 29, 2013 | 

I (finally) started writing Spin Sucks this past weekend and boy am I fired up!

Right now I’m writing the “Sex Sells” chapter, which has enticed me to dig further into the concept of telling our stories in interesting and compelling ways.

I’ve also been working a bit on my fiction, which Jamie Wallace reignited in me when she said she didn’t do National Novel Writing Month this past year all because of Larry Brooks.

Until a week ago, I’d never heard of Larry Brooks, but after reading Jamie’s post, I spent some time (I won’t admit how much) reading his stuff.

A Story is a Concept

I am fascinated with how easily he breaks down storytelling. In fact, I can’t do it justice by paraphrasing, so I’m going to quote him:

An “idea” is not inherently a concept.  Not until it transcends the simplicity of a singular arena or theme or character, and moves toward the unspooling of conflict-driven dramatic tension.

Too often the writer answers this instead: “What is your story about?”  That’s not necessarily a concept, either.  Let’s look at a bestseller to help (no pun) illustrate.

What is “The Help” about?

  • Three African-American maids in the south.  Yes, it is about that.  But is that a concept?  No.  It’s an idea.  A starting point.  Could go anywhere.  And that’s the problem… when a writer begins with something this vague, it often does go anywhere, several places, either at once or in sequence… and the story ends up being about some combination of nothing and everything.  Such stories become an episodic “The Adventures of So-And-So,” which, like any other story, isn’t an effective novel until that becomes much more conceptual.
  • Racial prejudice in the South.  Yes, it is.  But is that a concept?  No.  Not yet.  This is more theme than concept.   Could be anything, most likely a series of rather unconnected stuff happening to the characters.
  • A book project between a young and wealthy writer that requires  the participation of the black maids being oppressed by their white employers in 1962 Jackson, Mississippi.  Now this is a concept.  Because it describes more than what the story is about, it opens the door to a dramatic question.

Notice that the first two answers – an idea, and a theme – do not pose a dramatic question.  And that the much stronger answer, the one that really is a concept, does.

Create Your Business Concept

I want you to think about this when you create stories for your organization. What is the idea, the theme, and finally, the concept?

Let me show you, using Spin Sucks Pro as the example:

  • Idea: There is a big need for ongoing professional development in the PR and marketing industries. Something that transcends the two or three day conference immersions you have to create a way to come back to the office and implement, rather than have it sit in the notebook never to be touched again. If that exists, will you pay for it or do you expect it for free? Can it provide you tangible results to take to your boss (or clients) for a pay raise? Will it help you keep up with technology changes?
  • Theme: There is also a need to manage communications in an ethical way, without spin, lying, or stretching the truth. You can build trust among your customers and prospects by telling stories about your organization. Stories develop humanization, which creates kinship, which drives purchase. By doing this, we’re also changing the perception of the industry from one of spin doctors to one of trusted advisors.
  • Concept: Spin Sucks Pro is a professional development site that helps you stay ahead of technology changes, provides results you need for that promotion and raise, and builds your reputation as a trusted advisor.
I did this exercise as I wrote the blog post so it’s not fully baked. Rather, I wanted you to see how you can do it without spending a lot of time (at first) to create it.

How can you tell your story using these three points? Are there companies you admire who do this really well?

About Gini Dietrich

Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro. Join the Spin Sucks   community!

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  • I don’t know if you remember, but a while back I wrote a post about why reading fairy tales is great for PR pros and business communicators. Maybe I just never “grew up,” but I still love fairy tales, to this day. From a professional point of view – they are the perfect way to tell a story that gets its point across, and that has you rooting for the (desired) outcome from the start. They have a beginning, middle and end; protagonist & antagonist (sometimes more than one), and by the end of it, you know the lesson you have been taught through the story. Idea, theme and concept are beautifully integrated, and you walk away with one clear lesson.

    • @Shonali You’ll love the Sex Sells chapter of Spin Sucks. I make mention of fairy tales and even say Disney ruined me. 🙂

    • @Shonali I just read all the Grimm fairy tales, as they were originally written in 1590 (ish). Anyone who wants to improve their own story telling, should run to Amazon and pick them up. (of course, I meant this figuratively.  They should actually click to Amazon.)

  • I love the way this breaks it down. One of my side projects the past year has involved the idea of storytelling and this is helpful. Now I have to check out Larry Brooks. If you want to read a really nice piece about storytelling, mostly from a radio perspective. check out this decade old piece from reporter Robert Krulwich. It’s a bit lengthy but he has a lot of great stuff in there that you might find helpful. I’ve been chewing it over for some time now.

    • @KenMueller I’ll check it out! And you check out Larry Brooks. I might be in love with him.

      • @ginidietrich you’re in love with everyone.

        • @KenMueller Not true. I’m not in love with Bill Clinton like everyone else.

        • @ginidietrich good to hear. i never understood that.

  • maryanneconlin

    Back to basics approach Gini! As PR & marketing pros we hone our writing skills in corporate speak, where online storytelling brings us back to creative writing class.

    • @maryanneconlin And we’re so accustomed to writing in corporate speak (I know I spent the first 12 years of my career doing that), it’s so hard to change that thinking to something we were taught in college. But the polished messaging is going the way of 8 tracks so we have to rewire a bit.

  • belllindsay

    I love this. But you know how much I love writing.

    • @belllindsay And you’re very good at it.

      • belllindsay

        @ginidietrich *blush*

  • Andy Donovan

    Yup but my BFF there would cry “bias” if I mentioned them. 🙂

  • I’m going to be sending a link to this post to both my news and advertising teams.
    Idea, theme and concept can be applied to shorter works – an article, short story, etc. – just as it can to a book-length project. I believe it is adaptable to marketing and advertising solutions for clients as well.

    • @ClayMorgan Yes…that’s why I loved the thinking so much. It applies to any writing.

  • I am still trying to mind my writing niche/chops, you always give me food for thought & something to build on! You rock!

    • @sydcon_mktg That’s why you hire me. 🙂

      • @jasonkonopinski You are so right, it is!! I need to do more with the blog though and I can never seem to find enough food for thought or decide how to take my idea and develop into a worthwhile post!

    • @sydcon_mktg The very best way to mind your writing chops is to keep writing. You should see some of my first blog posts. Terrible.

      • @ginidietrich  @sydcon_mktg Gini is correct. I write every day, sometimes it is 500 words, other days 2000 and on occasion 5,000. I’ve read that it takes a million words to really get it down. I have no idea if it is true, but remembering that idea makes every writing moment seem more valuable.

  • I’ve always hated how people use buzzwords imprecisely, indicating that they really don’t have a grip on what the word actually means. “Concept” falls into this category.  So for me, the way you’ve broken this down is helpful on a number of levels. 
    Now, moving on to one of those “boy, he’s really older than I thought” moments: I once had a job interview at an LA ad agency where they guy questioned whether I had any “concepts” in my portfolio. I wasn’t sure what he meant. He said he was looking for “big ideas.”  I was a relatively young copywriter at that point and maybe he had a point.
    Then he showed me an example of his own work. It made me glad I wasn’t toting around a book full of what he called “concepts”:

    • @barrettrossie I have many thoughts on this:
      1. “It’s new from the outside in.” Really? Were cars before it not new inside and outside?
      2. Is there where Oh! What a Feeling came from?
      3. Was he looking for you to have something like this in your portfolio?

      • @ginidietrich When I saw what he thought was good, vs. what I thought was good, I took a job with the guys who made this commercial:

        • @barrettrossie That is a great ad!

        • @barrettrossie  @ginidietrich Wow, that was a great ad.  I worked in the marketing department for GEICO for a while, and the director of the ads, had problems with the Senior VP of marketing, the VP and the President/CEO of the company. They just didn’t think that a Gecko would catch on. None of those men have the eye for ads that she did and after the first GEICO Gecko commercial came out, they stopped questioning her judgement.
          The Martin Agency, who does the GEICO ads, rocks.

        • belllindsay

          @ExtremelyAvg  @barrettrossie  @ginidietrich I’m actually a little bit sad that Lou did that ad. Ugh.

      • @ginidietrich (1) The language of bad advertising is filled with meaningless crap and buzzwords.
        (2) I don’t think this was the first of those ads, and it may not be literally the ad he showed me. But he was very proud of the jumping guy. 
        (3) Yes, he wanted to see some kind of “hook” that campaigns were built around. Didn’t care about he actual communication, but something he could sell the client.

  • This is great 😉

  • You don’t know how timely this is for me! And developing the thoughts beyond story telling to idea/theme/concept is a sound exercise, even if just to clarify statements of intent and the ‘why’ behind what you’re developing. Glad to catch this, thanks 🙂

    • @Steve Birkett I’m so happy to hear it was helpful!

  • A post on storytelling?… yeah… count me in!
    I’ll add this… once you’ve broken things down this way, start thinking about the people who can bring it to life.  Employees who are passionate about the company, cause, etc.
    A story needs good characters.
    –Tony Gnau

    • @T60Productions And a great way to do that is through video. You will LOVE this chapter I’m writing.

  • This would actually be a great writing test. One I would be a fan of. I agree with it completely, too often writers forget to peel back all the layers. A good story has layers of themes which make up the concept. I can’t wait to pull this exercise out during then next team brainstorm session.

    • @stevenmcoyle You know what? That is a really, really good idea! I’m totally going to do that here. You’re so smart!

  • mikekmcclure

    Thanks, Gini
    We’re always talking about how you “need to tell your brand’s story” these days, but few actually know what that means, other than finding interesting things about it and sharing them (which is fine content, don’t get me wrong). This is as good a way as I’ve seen to describe it.

    • @mikekmcclure I’m super excited about this chapter in Spin Sucks. I spend a lot of time (way more than one blog post) talking about what works and what doesn’t work. I’m glad you liked this… some of it is in the chapter.

  • This is fantastic!!! I was JUST writing a post about  how your proposal needs to tell a story so that the client can SEE what you are going to do, and buy into your story.  Awesome synergy there.

    • @AmyMccTobin That whole great minds thing, huh?

  • This is so helpful it makes my brain hurt a little. I think I’ll blame Mr. Brooks for that, too.

    • @jeanniecw It made my brain hurt a little until I did the exercise. And then it was very clear. You should try it!

  • Gini. Uh-huh. I knew that was gonna get me.
    Ok, fine.
    Idea: There is a need for people to know that hiring the “best deal” from the Big Game Hunting world is not a good idea. There is a need for a counter balance to the shows on television, on sportsmen’s channels, to give the public a balance of information. This is a hobby for most potential clients, not a world they live in. There has to be a way to make this current and youngest generation of Big Game Hunters that a Big Game Hunt costs between $15,000.00 and $30,000, with prices going into double that. The problem is, with the changes in how advertising is done as well as all communication, explaining how (looking at big game hunts similar in value) that a 5-9K Hunt may, and i do stress may, not be a good idea. Theme: The public needs to know WHO we are. Who and what. Why, we do what we do and how we do it. This opens a whole new world, so much bigger than hunting. That requires that people don’t just know our game faces and the 24 minutes of a Big Game Hunt that not only took 6-18 months to plan and arrange, but ten intense days. It requires that people know us in January and February while we are prepping, March through May, trapping, ice fishing, hunting, having adventures, snow-machining, skiing and the photography. They need to know us in May and June, building, working on everything, buying horses, taking Horseback Adventures, going to the gold mines, watching the Grizzly bears antics, they need to know us in July, taking longer Horseback Adventures and getting everything ready for the Hunts to begin, in August and September, focusing on both the Fall Photo Safaris and Hunts, October with us finishing the Fall Hunts and taking the horses to winter graze, saying goodby to the guides that don’t stay year round and of course getting ready to begin home school again. November and December are meetings and holidays and then, it begins again! Concept: Pioneer Outfitters is a family owned and operated. Since 1924, Pioneer Outfitters has been leading and guiding people in the remote wilderness of the Wrangell and Nutzotin Mountain Ranges, to their dreams. We are real people, living the real deal, walking the walk.

    • @AlaskaChickBlog I think your concept is right on the mark. It is exactly what I would have expected to read, having followed your blog. I’m not a big game hunter, but it still speaks to me. I think you nailed it.

      • @ExtremelyAvg  @AlaskaChickBlog I disagree with Brian a little bit. I think your concept is here, but it’s in the theme. For someone outside of Alaska and the big game hunting (or hunting, in general) world, your concept doesn’t speak to me. But boy! What you use for your theme totally does. It’s too long, but I think it’s in there.

        • @ginidietrich  @ExtremelyAvg K, well now I have a head ache! Ha, no, I’m joking… I really don’t know what you mean.. “Concept is there”… Does that mean I don’t understand the “concept” yet? But the theme does… I am really confused. Can you explain it to me or is this something that has to do more with businesses too far removed from my own and I do not need to go deeper? (Sigh)

  • I remember a radio ad from the 80’s. That fact alone speaks of its effectiveness. The copy went something like this.
    “So, I walk into the house, and there is some sort of commotion going on upstairs. Suddenly, a giant banana runs down the stairs, almost knocks me down, and then dashes out the front door.”
    Voice two, “Then what happened?”
    “Nothing, but you saw it here, on the radio.”
    I loved that ad. They were selling the virtues of using their medium for advertising. It has been probably 30 years since I heard that ad, once. Well done copy writer! Well done, indeed.

    • @ExtremelyAvg THAT IS AWESOME!!! You totally “see” it! What a fantastic story.

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  • The importance of storytelling in business fascinates me. I took a rhetorical criticism course a while back and worked a bit with Walter Fisher’s narrative paradigm, which says that humans fundamentally relate to the world through narratives. Bells and whistles went off in the marketing sector of my brain because if that is the case, it’s pivotal for the marketer, brand manager and communicator to remember, right? 
    I think Fisher’s requirements for a narrative seem to be inherent in the Brooks exercise above as well. Ideas and themes are not narratives, but concepts seem to be. Concepts have space, time, causation and plausibility. So perhaps we can also ask “what is my business’s narrative?”
    A link to info on the narrative paradigm if anyone is interested:

  • Gini Dietrich

    LOL! You can mention them Andy!

  • Andy Donovan

    Well then it would be the venerable Arment Dietrich of Chicago, Illinois. 🙂 Thanks BFF…feels good to get that off my chest.

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  • suddenlyjamie

    Hey, Gini! I’m thrilled that you took a trip over to Storyfix and are enjoying Larry’s work. The way he breaks things down has been, for me, like a whole box of lightbulbs going off. And I love the way you’ve translated his ideas to work with your business – very interesting! I’m going to have to play with that for my own business. 
    RE: your Spin Sucks concept … I’d love to see you develop that even more into something that, as Larry says, “opens the door to a dramatic question.”  
    I wonder – what is the dramatic question that Spin Sucks poses … answers … brings to light? I find it helpful to preface a concept discussion with “what if?” As in “What would happen if?” How does Spin Sucks generate that kind of question? Is it about what happens if people approach PR & marketing with a different focus? Is it about what happens when PR & marketing professionals find and hang onto their true principles? Is it about what happens when PR & marketing professionals have their eyes opened to a new world of possibilities that are couched in a “no spin” context? 
    What’s the question you’re asking … and answering? 

  • profkrg

    Thanks for the writing recommendation! I’m always looking for new teaching and learning tools. 
    I usually say that people like to read about other people, not issues or process. They want a story they can relate to, regardless of the real topic of the piece. It sounds like you’re learning that well. 
    Thanks for sharing, Gini! Have a great weekend.

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