The Reason Good Businesses Tell Boring Stories
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"Ultramarathon Man” Dean Karnazes is a jerk. I say this jokingly because the year I ran my first marathon, he ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. He’s also written several bestselling books about his trials and triumphs as an ultramarathon fanatic.
A business journey, like a marathon, can become quite rambly, yet you can make engaging, vibrant stories out of it. The key — and this is something people get horribly wrong every day — is respecting the difference between a story and a narrative.
The good news is you don’t need to be a creative genius to tell a story that makes people want to work with you. Simply understanding the distinction between a story and a narrative will help you construct higher-quality stories with greater ease. And that will help you grow your business.
Marathons as narratives
A marathon rarely makes for a great story. In fact, running 50 marathons could be fodder for 50 really bad stories. But that’s not what Karnazes did, which raises the question: How do you talk about running a marathon, whether a literal marathon or “marathon” as an analogy, in a way that keeps the audience engaged? Because if running a marathon is both a joy and a slog, listening to someone yammer about it start to finish is only a slog.
Think of a marathon from a narrative standpoint. It may be grueling, yet it follows a predictable course and ends at a designated spot after 26.2 miles (assuming you’ve trained well and aren’t injured). The potential to add endless, mundane details is unlimited, just like the stories you forge on your business journey.
The reasons this doesn’t work are similar to the reasons businesses are so bad at telling their stories, telling their clients’ stories, presenting interesting case studies and communicating purpose. The storytelling principles below give you clear guidance on what to emphasize, what to leave in and what to leave out.
In the excellent book Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World, authors Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace discuss the difference between stories and other forms of narrative. Simply put, “stories progress with emotional dynamics; narratives repeat emotionless facts.”
McKee, who has taught and mentored hundreds of award-winning screenplay writers, directors and authors, is emphatic: “All stories are narratives, but not all narratives are stories.” In Storynomics, he defines “story” as “a dynamic escalation of conflict-driven events that cause meaningful change in a character’s life.”
Most people incorrectly use these terms "story" and "narrative" interchangeably.
It’s important to convey credibility, but creds don't get you anywhere if you can’t hold a person’s attention. Doing that successfully requires coming back to those two elements — emotional dynamics and conflict.
Set your conceptual hat aside for a moment and think of it this way:
- If you’ve ever considered triggering a fire alarm just to get out of a bad conversation at a cocktail party, you were probably trapped in someone else’s narrative.
- If you’ve ever found yourself hanging on every word of someone whose company you normally dislike, that person was telling a story.
- If you can add the phrase “and then” to the beginning of almost every sentence of a “story” without messing up the grammatical logic, that’s a narrative, not a story.
In telling your story, remember that nobody wants to hear about your IP strategy, your headquarters move or your workplace pet policy — unless there’s a specific, practical reason it concerns them.
With each story you tell, ask yourself these two questions:
- Is it clear what’s at stake?
- Am I communicating a shared purpose that invokes some emotion?
Case in point: Bad story narrative | Good story
This story is based on an actual company and its founder, but I changed all information that could be used to identify them. This is the narrative version of their origin:
Bart Bartlebee, the founder of Bartlebee Household Products LLC, understood that if you’re proud of your work and show that you’re proud of it, good things will follow naturally. With 13 patents and counting, Bartlebee has emerged as a trusted industry leader (blah blah blah)…
Interested? Me neither. Here’s the same company, storified:
Bart Bartlebee had an independent streak not everybody appreciated early in his career ... like the time he fired his boss’s mistress. He was always tinkering and looking for different ways of doing things. That restless, proactive and imaginative nature nourished the vision for Bartlebee Household Products.
Although Bart was a capable and well-liked founder, our early years were a roller coaster…
This is a decent hook with humor and a somewhat empathic character. It hints at conflict without being cinematic, which is unnecessary.
Not all narratives are stories. Respect that distinction and you’ll tell good stories that contribute to an authentic, memorable brand. Ignore it and you’ll alienate people or put them to sleep.