Persuasive Storytelling Part 2: The Process, Pitfalls and Perils of Narrative Development
By: Joshua Reynolds
In our previous post on persuasive storytelling, we explored a five-chapter mythic structure for creating compelling company narratives. In this post, we look at a practical process for creating one, along with some common pitfalls and setbacks that can crop up along the way—and how to avoid them.
Process and Playbook First off, process. There’s a fundamental pattern to creating a smart recommendation about anything, including a great narrative, and it feels familiar to anybody who’s been through it. Projects involving messaging tend to go through four essential phases:
Input—Ask the right people the right questions
Synthesis—Boil it down to essential insights and options, and workshop the options
Scripting and design—Put it all into the right words and images
Testing and refinement—Make sure it works in the real world, and improve as needed
Here’s a detailed breakout of each phase and their strategic considerations.
Input First things first—active listening. It’s critical to listen to customers, external influencers, partners, executives, and the people on the front lines of your business getting things done. One of the best ways to gather input is through live interviews, where you can have a meaningful dialogue, spontaneous follow-up questions and serendipitous discovery. And if you need to get a general sense of perceptions from a broader group, surveys are also helpful.
It’s also important to get a signal around what’s going on with competitors. What’s their story? Where and how do they tell it? Where does your offering—and your narrative—differ from theirs? What problem do you solve that they don’t? And what principles and values do you stand for that they don’t? Many companies would like to believe they don’t have any competitors, but that’s not for them to decide. Customers have a funny way of making up their own minds. Sometimes the biggest competitor of all is doing nothing. Looking at your competitive advantage vs. other companies—and vs. inaction—is a useful exercise during the input phase.
What’s more, the input phase is a great time to look for those unresolved strategic issues that could impact the success of a marketing program. Are we all on the same page regarding the target market? Are we thinking about our competitive differentiation the same way? What kind of brand promise or customer experience are we prepared to deliver? Are we at risk of over-promising or falling prey to hype? At the end of the input phase, the ideal deliverable is not only a findings report and some initial recommendations, but an identification of key questions that need to be resolved.
Synthesis In the synthesis phase, we start to turn initial findings and preliminary ideas into concrete story components and key messages. It’s best done as a co-creative workshop in which the project lead presents a summary of findings, facilitates the resolution of key strategic issues, presents options for how to tell the story, and previews what it all will look like in execution. And as difficult as it can be to schedule a workshop with busy executives, it’s definitely less time-consuming than a Gordian knot of conflicting feedback sent via email.
Synthesis is also about creating consensus. It’s about framing choices and getting people to buy in on the final direction—a direction they helped to shape. That takes time. Throwing up a large volume of neatly formatted notes and insights isn’t helpful unless you’re able to synthesize and frame the choices a company has with regards to the story it’s going to tell. So your workshop deck needs to be concise and leave plenty of room for a healthy debate.
There should be debate. If your workshop feels really comfortable, and there’s no tension, and everybody’s in complete agreement the entire time, then something is awry. The creative process is a messy one. Without a healthy, constructive exchange of opposing views, there can be no lasting buy-in. And without that honest discussion and genuine buy-in, people will go off and create their own version of the story by themselves, diluting the main message and killing any chance to break through the white noise.
So at the end of the workshop, the ideal deliverable is the resolution of open questions, authentic alignment around the core components of the narrative, and directional feedback on creative execution ideas. What does not happen in the workshop is finalizing the script. That happens separately …
Scripting and Design Wordsmithing by committee is hellish. People can spend precious time debating the use of a particular word or phrase, and completely miss the underlying concepts and persuasive strategies being deployed. That’s why we don’t do it during the synthesis phase. Instead, we focus on the core concepts, and then we put it into the language of our target audience in the scripting and design phase.
We can also script storylines that have more than one beginning, mapped to all the different reasons an audience might care. Maybe they’re motivated by profit, or environmental impact, or fun, or convenience, or … the list goes on. We can start a narrative dozens of different ways. We can even create standalone thought leadership pieces that are focused on an external trend, and weave in our narrative as a subplot. By separating out scripting and design as its own phase, we bring a core narrative and to life across multiple channels and creative iterations.
What’s more, during the scripting and design phase, we can lay the groundwork for future content creation and communication by establishing our core design principles. We can establish how we tell our story, visually, verbally and experientially, not just logically. We can craft a creative brief that gets the entire marketing and content creation team on the same page. And we can give marketers solid footing for pushing back on executives, as needed, and staying true to the soul, not just the letter, of the narrative.
Testing and Refinement This is probably the phase that gets the least attention—at least up front. In our experience, a lot of testing ends up happening in actual execution, which is fine if everybody’s aware of that. But there are all kinds of options for testing messages ahead of time, each with its pros and cons. And one of the biggest cons of all is around social media-based message testing.
It’s critical to stay aligned around the strategic impact we want to have on our priority target audience. And without confirmation that social media feedback is actually coming from our target audience, there’s no way to discern static from signal. If, however, a social media-based testing solution is able to confirm that these are in fact the droids we’re looking for, and the target audience is the one generating the feedback, then it’s a winner.
Testing messages with industry analysts is also a popular approach with many B2B tech companies. Not every industry analyst is an expert on persuasive messaging or creative marketing. So rather than asking them what they think of a message, it’s better to ask them how they think their clients would react, what trends they think we can play to, how our narrative differs from what they’re hearing from competitors, or what questions our messaging raises in their minds. Those kinds of insights can be invaluable. So again, the trick is to ensure the analyst’s consulting clients are the same people we want to reach.
Pitfalls and Perils So that’s the process. It’s a fairly standard playbook followed by most agencies and consultancies who offer messaging and narrative development services. But there’s still a lot that can go sideways in each phase. Here are some pointers on avoiding the pitfalls:
Get clear on purpose. Before we even consider putting words around a message, we’ve got to get clear on our target audience, desired impact and key takeaways, as we’ve covered in a previous post on building a persuasive strategy. If you and your team aren’t on the same page around whom you’re trying to reach, or what you want them to think, feel and do, then you need to stop. Get clear. Otherwise, you won’t discover the disconnect until you’re at the end of a time-consuming process, and you’ll need to start over.
This is especially challenging with early-stage startups who haven’t honed their product-market fit or established market incumbents attempting to reach a new audience they don’t quite understand yet. If we don’t know whom we’re trying to reach, we won’t have much luck figuring out what to say. And often times, these kinds of narrative and messaging projects can reveal a gap in go-to-market strategy—which can be extremely valuable, if you catch it before you go to market.
Make sure you speak with the right people. A narrative has to actually be used in order to be useful. If you’re scripting something you expect somebody to deliver on their own, with conviction, it’s critical to get their perspectives ahead of time. As a general rule of thumb, we ask to speak with the following groups (and sometimes there’s overlap across them):
People who know the customer or target audience best
People who know the product or solution best
People who know the competition or opposition best
People responsible for delivering the message and/or creating content around it
Skeptics, critics, or anybody who could veto the project: This last group is especially useful to include early on in the project. Leaning into the naysayers early on results in a stronger narrative—and if you can win them over during your project, your biggest detractors can become your biggest champions.
Don’t take your own word for it. This is probably the biggest mistake anybody can make. Your own perceptions of your solution, your value proposition, your competition and your differentiation are important, but not nearly as important as what customers, prospects and industry influencers think. Talking with your own customers will give you insights into why you win. Talking with customers who didn’t choose you will give you even more valuable insight into why you lose, and what you can do to win more. And talking with third-party experts such as industry analysts and consultants will give you insights into what people are saying about you and your competition when neither of you are around.
Get real. It’s important not to stick too closely to an interview script. First off, it doesn’t make sense to ask everybody the exact same questions. Everybody has slightly different areas of expertise and different perspectives. But more than that, scripted questionnaires rarely get at the root of what’s really going on with a brand, or solution, or customer. Actively listen to the person you’re interviewing. Let their responses shape your next question. Follow-up on things that surprise you. Listen for what’s not being said, as well, and check out unspoken assumptions or concerns.
Don’t be afraid to encourage skepticism. Better for somebody to tear down your narrative and make it better before releasing it into the wild, than to realize that the only people who really like your narrative are the people who attended your workshop.
Sweep for mines. It’s equally important to ask what kinds of shortcomings you’re working with. What does your solution not do? Where is the competition genuinely better at something than you are? What space do we not want to occupy? And what battles are we most likely to lose? It can be an uncomfortable conversation—and in that discomfort there are vital lessons to be learned.
One of my favorite ways to get at this issue is to ask the following questions:
What questions do we hope our customers or audience never ask us?
What are our answers to those questions if they do ask us?
What questions do we wish they were asking our competitors?
And what questions would we rather be answering?
Don’t acquiesce your expertise. One of the questions I rarely ask an executive during the input phase is, “What should our message be?” As experts in persuasive marketing, that’s our job to figure out. An executive is much better qualified to tell us what their business priorities are, which target audience they want to go after, why they think that target audience is going to care about our story, and what they think sets them apart from the competition.
Keep in mind, there’s a huge difference between a takeaway and a message. If you want somebody to trust you, the worst thing you can say is “trust me!” So don’t just ask your execs to tell you what they think the message is. Ask them what impact and key takeaways they want to generate, what conclusions they want to avoid, and how their target audience is likely to react to certain messages.
Find your conviction. That said, it is equally critical to get your own people’s personalreactions to the narrative. To what extent do they find it inspiring, or truthful, or differentiated, or authentic? If they don’t believe in it and aren’t inspired by it, it’s not likely anybody else is going to believe in it or be inspired by it, either. That’s how enthusiasm works. When your own people are into it, they’re much more likely to persuade others.
More than that, make sure that your narrative is grounded in purpose that matters. Which leads us to our final pitfall …
Don’t pull your punches when it comes to purpose. We believe, deeply, that purpose persuades. And we’re not alone. In 2019, HBR featured the results of an eight-year study that found purpose was a game-changing driver behind business growth. Just last November, our survey of 625 B2B tech buyers revealed that 90% of all purchase decisions are impacted by a vendor’s purpose, mission and values.
All too often, senior executives think of “purpose” as a gimmick to attract talent, or some sort of reputational tool. But ultimately, in order for a company to succeed, it needs to understand why the world needs it. And without a strong why at the center, a narrative is nothing more than a pretty collection of words. Purpose persuades. Conviction convinces. And if you want to really break through the white noise, don’t bullshit. Tell it like it is, use language your audience would use, and talk about what really matters most.
So ask you and your team these hard questions during the input phase of your next narrative project. Dig deep. Get to the good stuff. And don’t stop until you find it.