Digital Strategy Story

Episode 32: Telling The Strategic Story – Taking Your Audience Down The Rabbit Hole

“Make me care…emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically…just…make me care”. That’s Andrew Stanton, writer and director of the Toy Story movies and Wall-E explaining the key to great storytelling.

Think about that statement and ask your self the last time you sat in a meeting about digital marketing and really cared. It rarely happens, and I believe the reason is that there is a lack of awareness about how to tell a story in our industry. More than that, there’s a widespread belief that it just isn’t that important. Digital marketing is so accountable, so straightforward and metrics driven that it doesn’t need all the ‘fluff’ to explain it. I believe this is a mistake because it loses sight of the need to help your audience understand your work, to make them connect emotionally with what you’re saying, and ultimately to care. And it is a fundamental part of the digital strategist’s role to tell that story, and in so doing, to take the audience down the rabbit hole of possibility. This is how you tell the strategic story.

Here’s Andrew Stanton again explaining what storytelling is and where you start:

“Storytelling is joke telling. It’s knowing your punchline, your ending, knowing everything you’re saying from the first sentence to the last is leading to a singular goal and ideally confirming some truth that deepens our understanding of who we are as human beings”.

Starting with the end in mind and building from there gives a story momentum. As Andrew vividly explains, “a well told promise is like a pebble being pulled back in a slingshot – it propels you forward”. From there you build the structure, As Scott Simon of NPR says,  “a story out to have a point. I don’t mean a lesson, or a moral, or even a punchline, but a point, something that people can take away from it. Will it snow? Who died? What shoes were they wearing when they got swept away in the rainstorm? What did it look like in the bombing, the thunderstorm, the children’s birthday party? Give people telling vivid details that they can recall when they tell the story to others. Sometimes just a single phrase will do it. Give them something to repeat to others.”

Building outwards from a defined end is a strategic exercise; it’s what we do as strategists. So how do we apply these fundamentals to telling a strategic story?

We start with clearly defining what we want to achieve with the story and the one thing we want the audience to take away from it in order to have that thing happen. For example, if we want to expand an existing engagement into new areas, the one thing we may want the audience to take away could be that integrating new initiatives into an existing program will lead to greater performance. Be very specific about these objectives. And then focus on them. Invariably we try to do too much in a single story, and as a result we tell sprawling messy stories that no-one cares about.

Next, understand your audience. What are they like as people? What do we know about them? There’s an incredible trove of data on virtually anyone, from social networks to personal contacts. Are they visionary or analytical? Are they closed or conversational? Skeptical or trusting? What motivates them personally as well as professionally? Understanding your audience will determine the content and cadence of your story.

Finally, it’s time to figure out how to tell this story. Knowing who the audience is and the one thing you want them to take away will define the content of the story. I find it extremely useful to sit down and write out the story. Not a transcript, but rather an outline. It’s the equivalent of a storyboard, a clear visualization of the story. This storyboard will help you organize your thoughts and confirm that this is a genuinely compelling story that will make people care about what you’re saying.

So how do you make people care? Well, in the context of telling a digital story, here’s how you don’t do it. You don’t talk about yourself for an hour. You don’t show 153 slides of disjointed data. And you don’t show obviously recycled content.

The most important rule of successful strategic storytelling is to make the story about the audience. People love to talk about themselves, or hear others talk about them, their problems and aspirations. So make sure that the story is built around the audience.

What does a story built around the audience look like? You start by telling them the one thing you want them to take away. You explain why that is important to them. You then assemble the elements that support this takeaway. Each element needs to support your point, whether it is a piece of research, a data point or a creative concept. You show how each of these elements matter to the audience and how it supports the point being made.

Only once you build this story do you start to assemble the supporting materials. These materials can come in the form of powerpoint slides, handouts or videos. The most important thing to remember is that these materials are there to support the story. Under no circumstances should you bend the story around content you have assembled elsewhere. We’ve all done this before; there’s a particularly good case study or visual that we’ve used elsewhere and that has worked very well in that context. But it’s just not that relevant. And yet because we like it, because we are familiar with it and because we are short on time, we decide to jam it in anyway. This is the way you sell a product. But a strategic story is not about selling products, it’s about aligning solutions with objectives. So remember to not make the mistake of becoming a slave to your canned powerpoint presentation.

Now I’m not suggesting that you build everything from scratch every time. You can and should re-purpose elements from previous stories, but only do so when it makes sense, and in a way that supports the point, the punchline, the takeaway of the story.

Something to remember in assembling the supporting content; any visual materials should be just that, supportive and visual. So take time and care with formatting and the creative treatment of these assets. Ensure they look like a single story, including formatting re-purposed elements to support the story. Too often these look like exactly what they are, regurgitated, rushed and poorly formatted content assembled from a dozen sources into a franken-presentation. If you don’t care about how these assets look, then why should the audience care about the story they are designed to support? Looking the part will tell the story appropriately in a visual sense.

Finally, think about the delivery of the story. Who is tasked with telling it? I can’t emphasize how important this is. A good story poorly delivered will not achieve its objective. Think about an otherwise great movie ruined by poor acting. I’m looking at you Sophia Coppola and Andy Garcia in The Godfather III. Here’s a clue to tell you if the right people are going to deliver the story. If someone has had no part in designing the story, in building the elements or understanding why they matter, they won’t be able to deliver it well. Successful storytelling means a deep familiarity with the content so that you don’t have to think about what to say next. You just focus on how to say it, how to respond based on the audience reactions and how to deliver the punchline. This is how you will come across as authoritative, compelling and convincing, and how your audience will connect with your content and care about what you say.

So take the time and make the effort. The story matters. Now tell it like it does, and make them care.

Next week on octopus, we will continue to explore the role of the digital strategist. Please be sure to comment below. I’d love to hear from you. Please subscribe for alerts about new episodes and content. Thank you for listening to octopus. I’m Nasser Sahlool.

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