Updated: Sep 12, 2020
You might be surprised to know that in the world of B2B tech the hero story looms large. The hero is your client who seeks a solution to their problem (villain).
When you approach them to sell your wares view the client as the super hero in their own drama where they are either wanting to protect their company from peril (think bricks and mortar retail industry right now) or help their company reach for the stars (think Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson in their heroic space travel quests).
See where I’m going?
A Teller Of Tales And A Spinner Of Yarns
Think like a story maker. It will stop you from putting together dry, merely instructive and frankly boring sales and technical presentations, staff town halls, or industry presentations.
Before you resist my advice, know this: whether you’re a technical expert, sales person or senior executive, you’re already a storyteller. Without even thinking about it, on a daily basis you share morsels about your life, relay business anecdotes; exchange shoptalk and pass along gossip.
False Belief: Business People Don’t Tell Stories
Storytelling is as essential as oxygen. You’re a natural. You’ve got this. What’s getting in your way is the false belief that worldly business people don’t tell stories. They provide solutions to problems. True. But it’s in the how you present the solution that magic happens. How you present the business story will determine whether people will listen or not.
And story crafting is the best way to capture the hearts and minds of your audience, whether they are enthusiastic young professionals, sophisticated yet jaded business buyers or serious-minded CEOs.
This is because storytelling has been around since human existence and is the easiest way to relay information in a way that the entire tribe will understand. It is also the best way to relay information that emotionally connects the reader to your story and to you.
Don’t you want that? Of course you do.
Use The Storyteller’s Wheel
Now that we’ve established you’re already a weaver of wickedly good stories, I’m going to share with you how I apply storytelling techniques across business communications.
It’s straightforward and it’s about using the six basic elements of storytelling you can see in the wheel. You may already use some of these elements without thinking about them but I rarely see all six used as a storytelling technique in B2B IT.
If you can apply this approach consistently throughout your important communications pieces, presentations or speeches, it will help you to better influence people, win more business and show the world how interesting you really are.
What Are The Six Basic Elements Of Storytelling?
1. Character: A person or persons that take part in the action of a story.
2. Setting: Time and place in which it happens. It's important to provide a strong sense of setting.
3. Theme: The central idea or belief.
4. Plot: A series of events and character actions that relate to the central conflict.
5. Conflict: A struggle between people or things like society or something inside him/her. It's important to provide the necessary context and emotion for the audience to make the connection and process the story.
6. Resolution: How did the character(s) change or transform through challenge?
Applying The Six Basic Elements Of Storytelling
Why is character the first and most important element? Without people, there is no story. From a business standpoint, if you’re writing a sales proposal whether the executive summary or main response, everything hinges on character: that is, your prospective customer. You must address their needs, you must map your solution or service to help them overcome their problems or realise a business objective. The story of your offer must place the customer at the centre of the story.
You must also study the individual decision-makers and influencers within your customer so you can adapt your message to meet their unique business requirements or political/personal ambitions.
Yet how often do we fail to do this and don’t explain how our solution meets their specific needs.
The same principles apply if you’re crafting a prospect nurture email or a speech to staff about a company-wide change you need them to follow.
You’ll notice in the explanation of character, that they take part in the action of a story. Yet in B2B IT, we tend to write passively as though our characters only think their way through life, as though they are not physically moving in the wrong or right direction. Thinking about the character’s current action is important. Thinking about the future actions we want the characters to take is important especially if we want to influence them to do things differently. And when addressing the character’s actions, we should use active language.
For salespeople, thinking about character goes deeper. While putting the customer at the centre of your communications, you also need to think about their customers. How do you help your customers’ customer? Who are these characters or personas? How do they take part in the action of the story as it relates to what you’re selling?
If we continue to explore selling our services to customers, time and place is extremely important. What is going on right now in their industry? What sort of disruption is happening that is motivating them to want to improve their business? Where are they located? Where do they need to be located? Where do they need their IT partner to be located?
Time and place can also be used to help your prospective customer envision the future with you. Get them to imagine a time and place where their dreams come true such as a large retailer delighting their customers through digital transformation or becoming the No.1 insurer globally by using technology that lets them rapidly scale business operations into new territories.
Storytelling without taking into account time and place provides no framework or reference point, which could result in losing your audience’s attention. Understanding time and place as it relates to the character and as it relates to your theme is essential to crafting a powerful story.
What is the main theme of your persuasive argument, educational presentation or speech to staff? For example, what is the singular value you will deliver to the customer through your competitive solution?
What is the singular benefit your staff will realise when asking them to take some sort of action? Coming to grips with figuring out your central idea will keep your story on track.
Not having a theme or only having a vague notion of the theme means your story will go in all sorts of unrelated directions. You’ll end up confusing people and losing their attention. This doesn’t mean you only have one thing to say. The main theme of this article is storytelling in B2B IT – not storytelling for screenplays or children’s books. My central theme is to help business people tell stories when delivering business communications. I don’t deviate from that.
You will have noticed that in the explanation above for theme, it is about the central idea or belief. There is a belief system in place that drives your main theme.
Here’s the belief that compelled me to write an article on the theme of storytelling in B2B IT:
I believe storytelling in business, particularly in the IT industry is not well done, if at all. A lot of our communications are dull and don’t connect with our audience. I believe that the complexity of doing business today and the increasing pace of change is overwhelming our customers, and they are looking for us to explain solutions in simple yet profound ways. I believe storytelling helps with this as it breaks down complex and abstract concepts.
And I also believe that right now IT professionals like you want to learn and figure out how to tell better technology stories – ones that truly resonate with your audience.
Whatever the story you’re crafting right now, stick to one major theme and let your belief drive that story to its compelling conclusion.
Plot refers to a series of events and character actions that relate to the central conflict. Have you ever watched a movie and said, “It didn’t have much of a plot”, well, the same goes for storytelling in B2B IT.
Without events and action, you have no story. For example, the entry of cheaper and/or more carriers disrupting the airline industry meant that traditional large carriers had to take action to compete. In B2B IT sales we call that, a compelling event.
Characters and plot maketh the story. When one or both are weak, the story becomes weak. When we don’t know the compelling event or series of events that have brought the customer to releasing a Request for Proposal (RFP), then the story of how we will solve their problem or meet their need falls apart.
How can we deliver a customised solution – one that meets their business objectives when all our insight is gleamed from an RFP document that merely hints at the plot? However, when we do have that insight, we can create our own story of how future events and character actions will unfold to meet the customer’s needs and expectations. It might be events and actions they will need to take, or we will take on their behalf or together.
No matter what story you’re crafting, understanding how to plot it out is important. For example, after a merger of two companies has destabilised the organisation (your central conflict) you still need to motivate the sales team to meet targets. Not an easy thing to do. This is where you explain what series of events and actions brought us here now – the story of the past leading to the present. You will then move on to tell the story of a future, what events and actions need to be taken to ensure sales success especially in the face of ongoing conflict.
“Conflict is contact. It requires power; it builds power”, so writes Harriet Rubin in ‘The Princessa’. This is the wisdom of conflict operating at its best.
Solving life’s big problems is usually the result of a monumental struggle between opposing ideas and thinking. Those that run toward the turbulent waters of conflict and survive become evermore powerful.
And yet in business, we shy away from stories of conflict, or we talk about conflict in an abstract and clinical way. In reality when conflict arises, the air crackles with creative tension and strong emotions are aroused.
If you want to tell a good story, whether you’re a sales person facing a prospective customer, a solution expert sharing ideas with your teammates, or the CEO looking to inspire staff, use conflict to create interest and help your audience connect with the story.
As a flesh and blood human being, you crave stories of conflict. As an IT professional don’t back away from emotionally connecting with your audience through stories of conflict.
To illustrate, when I worked for a past organisation writing customer success stories, I got hold of an email from one customer that talked about the difficulties implementing the vendor’s solution. There were many problems and conflicts between people on the vendor and customer side. However, 15 months after go-live, the benefits to our customer were nothing short of outstanding especially across improved efficiencies and better services to their customers. The IT project was a huge success. I insisted on inserting the story of the painful implementation process, which the customer welcomed but not so much my employer.
When in pursuit mode, be sure to understand and interpret the conflict between what the customer wants and where they currently stand. Be prepared to have a point of view about their conflicts (challenges) whether in a written executive briefing or a face-to-face presentation.
Your audience wants you to recognise their conflicts. How else can you present your elegant solution if you don’t acknowledge their struggles?
Most B2B IT story plots are Quests. The Quest plot is the search for a place, item or person that requires the hero (your customer) to leave home in order to find it.
Your customers are on a quest to solve their business problems, exceed their customer expectations and thrive in an unpredictable business terrain.
Quest stories are filled with challenges as the hero searches for the thing they need. In the end, there is resolution and the character is transformed in some way. A well-delivered business story especially one that seeks to convince the business buyer to invest in your services needs to clearly articulate resolution.
How will the business buyer or their organisation be changed and transformed?
How do you prove the change will be good?
Saying things like, “Imagine if…” helps them envisage resolution. Proof points about similar projects that have transformed other customer’s businesses are crucial if you want to convince your audience that they can overcome their challenges.
Business stories without resolution are pointless because the hero has to save the day, save the world, otherwise what is the point of living? What is the point of operating a business that can’t move forward or flourish? We must be able to strongly illustrate how the mission or quest can be accomplished.
That’s my deep dive into the six basic elements of storytelling. I hope it helps you shape a business story that emotionally and psychologically connects with your audience whether it is to convince decision-makers to buy, motivate staff to do more with less or solve customers problems so they can better compete in the marketplace.
When crafting a story it's important to start with an outline first. Read this article to find out how to build your story so it hits the mark and influences your audience the right way.