Seems like everywhere I turn these days I see marketing trumpeting the value of telling stories. Heck, I’ve been doing that myself for years. I recently published a post I called The Extraordinary Craft of Story Building that outlined how important the notion of storytelling in business has become.
People connect with stories that move them and most every business can and should tell a story that helps prospects and customers connect at a deeper level. I truly believe the Internet, while making it easy to find information, has left us craving real connections, with real people, and the companies they serve.
And while I stay firmly in the camp storytelling as marketing, I also see examples all around me that suggest storytelling may actually be one of the greatest skills of effective leadership.
In fact, some of today’s best companies are led by people that create, nurture, curate and tell the organizations most important stories. The leader creates the story, lives the story, keeps the story alive, and coaches everyone in the organization to tell the story.
It’s said that Southwest Airlines founder Herb Kelleher chain-smoked, loved Wild Turkey whiskey, and frequently dressed up as Elvis for company functions. Above all, Kelleher, now officially retired as the company’s spokesman, was a legendary story creator and teller. Quite possibly his most famous story surrounded an ongoing battle with a competitor airline in the early days of the company. The story is chronicled in great detail in Kevin and Jackie Freiberg’s book Nuts!
The story, dubbed “Malice in Dallas,” was just a friendly contest between Southwest Airlines, represented by Herb Kelleher, and Stevens Aviation championed by chairman Kurt Herwald, to decide the rights to a slogan. Stevens, an aviation sales and maintenance company in Greensville, South Carolina, had been using “Plane Smart” as its slogan at least one year before Southwest unknowingly began infringing with its “Just Plane Smart” ad campaign.
After bringing this to Southwest’s attention, Stevens Aviation proposed that, rather than paying teams of lawyers to hash out the dispute over many months and under cover of hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees, the companies send their top warriors to battle it out, one-on-one, in an arm-wrestling tournament before an audience of their employees and the media.
According to the Freibergs, Malice in Dallas is now an epic, a story thousands of people inside and outside Southwest Airlines know almost by heart. This rambunctious alternative to a drawn-out, boring, lawyer- enriching, half-million-dollar courtroom battle was exactly the sort of antic that Americans have come to associate with their favorite maverick airline.
Many businesses have actually reached some level of success based on the founder’s ability to tell a vision story about the business, product, service, or results before they are quite a reality. I wonder how much business has been won on the heartfelt belief that “if they buy it, we’ll figure out how to make it.”
But heed this from John Steinbeck in East of Eden: “If a story is not about the hearer, he will not listen. In this I make a rule – a great and interesting story is about everyone or it will not last.”
Great leaders are natural storytellers, but even business owners who would never readily consider themselves to be great leaders often can’t help but tell their story so passionately that those who listen simply want to believe.
So what’s your story?
Here are a few action steps and resources to get you started on your storytelling path.
- From your conversations with your customers craft a story about you, your company or your products and services that would allow you to convey why you do what you do, who you are, what keeps you awake at night, what motivates, thrills, and scares you, what makes you laugh, what you’ve chosen to do to make this a better world. Don’t tell us the history of your company, unless it’s so entertaining it makes us want to hug you. Tell us instead about the moment you came face to face with the biggest, most audacious idea you ever had and you charged in. Tell us instead about what was missing in the world until you created your big idea. Tell us instead that even though cleaning windows seems like an unglamorous task, you always loved doing it as a kid and now you’ve created a company around that passion.
- Get your story down to one page and start telling it to everyone in your company (spouses and teenagers are good subjects.) You need to start living your story and using your story as a core marketing message. Your story, if done well, is the foundation for what makes you standout. Use it on your website, on the back of invoices, during sales presentations and as a hiring tool.
Image credit: Jill Clardy
John Jantsch is a marketing consultant and author of Duct Tape Marketing and The Referral Engine.