Storytelling is scalable

Why should entrepreneurs and business executives care about storytelling? Many reasons, but a frequently overlooked one is that storytelling is SCALABLE.

In their fine book on business storytelling, The Elements of Persuasion: Use Storytelling to Pitch Better, Sell Better and Win More Business ... co-authors Richard Maxwell and Robert Dickman explain that "a good story is infectious. It spreads like wildfire". Just as a good joke elicits surprise and in doing so draws its audience in to participate (in the form of laughter), corporations understand that good stories "deal with the unexpected and actively engage us in finding solutions." And once they find a good story, they tell it over and over on a large scale.

Storytelling that moves people

There's no question about it. Storytelling is becoming a big thing in the corporate world, and for good reason. There can be a lot of power behind a few well chosen words (emphasis on the word "few"). How big is the blogosphereSome 100 million blogs have been created in the last ten years, and another 100 million are on the way. 

That adds up to a lot of not-so-well-chosen words. And that makes my blog #100,000,001. If you want to stand out in this heaving sea of electronic messages, why not make every post a short story? It isn't that difficult if you take a little time and study some of the highest rated and most popular blogs out there. Seth Godin is one that immediately comes to mind. To spice up your posts, create a distinctive rhythm and learn some of the tricks of the trade. Here are four great ways to start:

1) Read these fascinating books on how storytelling is used in business:

2) Watch any Steven Spielberg or James Cameron or David Lean movie. Observe how the story begins (set-up), complicates (middle) and pays off (ending). Believe it or not, this 3 act structure is contained within virtually every story that has found an audience over the past several hundred years.

3) Get acquainted with The 5 Laws of Storytelling

4) Think about your company's story for a moment. Every company has one. What's yours? How do you want to tell it?

Storytelling that moves people - excerpt from a HBR interview with Robert McKee:

Persuasion is the centerpiece of business activity. Customers must be convinced to buy your company’s products or services, employees and colleagues to go along with a new strategic plan or reorganization, investors to buy (or not to sell) your stock, and partners to sign the next deal. But despite the critical importance of persuasion, most executives struggle to communicate, let alone inspire....

Why is persuasion so difficult, and what can you do to set people on fire? Read this Harvard Business Review articleStorytelling that moves people


The Internet, and especially social media, have blown open the doors of obfuscation and misrepresentation. Now, if you lie, you die. Whether you're a person or a Fortune 500 company, your story will die just as quick a death. That is a good thing, by the way, because truth is everything. "Truth is the cry of all, but the game of the few."

"tell the truth" is an interesting book for marketers and others who like to spin the truth a little. The authors suggest that the era of lies (or at least little white lies) in marketing is over. The most effective way for a brand to stand out is to tell the truth. Well, duh.... The obvious couldn't be more obvious, could it? We live in an age where truth is so rare that Presidential and Prime Ministerial candidates consistently tell us lies so they can get elected. Of course we are complicit. Reality is too harsh for us as voters to meet the truth head on. We much prefer vision to reality, even if the vision is one of pseudo-happiness. We tell ourselves the near-truth hoping it's the real-truth.

Speaking of near-truth, have you ever watched a reality show called The Pitch? It pits two ad agencies against each other as they work to win a big new account. The stakes are high and the anxiety is through the roof. We watch as prospective clients seek someone who can pull the truth out of their product and present it to the world -- which, on the surface, would seem to be an eminently logical desire. But what they really want is magic, says The Guardian:

"Whether it's sandwich giant Subway, trash recycling conglomerate Waste Management or air conditioning mogul Clockwork, the demands are identical: the media buyers want out-of-the-box thinking. They want ideas that will change the public perceptions of their companies. And, of course, they all want a video that's going to go viral. If one lone copywriter had been foolhardy enough to blurt out: "Asking for a viral video is like asking for a hit record or a successful movie or a healthy child. You can hope it will happen but it cannot be pre-arranged," I would have raised my glass in admiration."

Or, as Jack Nicholson's character famously said, "The truth? You can't handle the truth!"

The brave new world of marketing accountability

 "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted. The trouble is I don't know which half."-- legendary American retailer John Wannamaker

Wannamaker vented his frustration over a hundred years ago. But until recently little had changed to reduce the frustration that CEOs and business managers felt about advertising through mass media. Now, media experts like Mitch Joel are telling the world that advertising accountability has arrived, thanks to the growing application of metrics that digitally track and measure prospect response. Direct marketing has relied on metrics for years but "measurable marketing" is finally coming to TV:

The world of change(d) by Mitch Joel

We're about to enter a very different media generation. Accountability for TV ads is going to become as precise (if not more detailed) than what the people in search engine marketing have known for over a decade. We're going to soon have a much better idea as to what creative works, how much of it was truly seen, and if it had any impact (beyond people hitting a "skip this ad" button). Something tells me that traditional advertising is going to be in for some tough truths about the type of work that is being produced, and the value behind the entire process. Directly correlating sales and interest to TV ads isn't going to be the type of metric regulated to the specialized agencies any more. It's going to be table stakes in what will become a very complex game of finding optimal marketing mixes that are no longer so heavily weighted to TV ads over everything else.

The full article is posted on his blog, Six Pixels of Separation.

Measurable marketing isn't a fad. Thanks to the web, it's here to stay. Drew Williams writes extensively about measurable marketing on his blog, Feed the Beast. Full disclosure: I co-authored Feed the Startup Beast (McGraw-Hill, 2013) with Drew.

Is it the end of the line for the venerable white paper?

Are B2B white papers losing their clout? They just might be, according to some who say they fail to meet the need for speed (when it comes to reading) that today's "infovores" crave. 

Making the case for shorter content

IDG Connect has this to say on the subject:
When creating content there is a widespread feeling that more is better. But the truth is, buyers simply do not have the time or interest to wade through 20+ page white papers any more. The era of lengthy content is beginning to wane.

Please note: You will need to register to read this IDG article, but it's free.

Then there are others who say "It depends":

It depends on the the content. 
Is it "laced" with sales promotional copy? 
Is it devoid of real research? 
Then yes, your white paper is a waste of time and energy, say the folks at Matizmo.

Then there are those who give a definitive"NO" 

(and bring out the hard data to prove it):

Joe Peterson at B2B has this to say:
In a 2010 Eccolo Media surveyed 501 C-level execs, vice presidents, managers, directors, developers/ programmers, and technicians involved in technology purchase decisions. A whopping 76% of the respondents indicated that they read a white paper in the last 6 months to evaluate a technology purchase.The only category that beat white papers was product brochures/data sheets at 83%.  White papers trumped Case Studies (67%); Videos (59%0 and Podcasts (40%).

The takeaway?

White papers, like eBooks, DO work...If you put some real planning and thinking into them. If you learn to write them well (or pay someone to write them), make them helpful to readers and give them depth, chances are your key prospects will not only read them but pass them on to their colleagues as well.

How we search

How do people search when they go on line? Of course, this is a question for the ages... but an interesting answer appears in an article written by Joe Pulizzi of The Content Marketing Institute. It's a couple of years old but still well worth the read. Here are some of the highlights:

  • 88% of clicks come from organic search (left side). The remaining 12% of clicks go to paid keywords (pay per click). Where are you spending more money?
  • The fastest growing type of keyword search is a length of eight words.
  • The type of search that converts at the highest rate is the four-word search.
  • 80% of readers coming to your blog (on average) are first timers.
  • 70% of searches are considered “long-tail searches” (see chart). Long-tail searches are less competitive and convert at a higher rate.

How Siemens uses storytelling to engage customers

Another real world example of business storytelling at work, this time in the B2B space with Siemens, one of the world's largest tech companies.

There's work involved in telling stories, and not all clients want to do the work or pay for the content. But those who do gain a competitive edge.

How Siemens uses storytelling to emotionally engage clients and staff

(Click on the above title to read the entire article):

What does storytelling mean to you?
I think story-telling is an area of expertise that some people have and that isn’t necessarily part of corporate comms, corporate affairs, media relations or anything else. It’s an area of focus for a lot of companies now, they realise that storytelling is one of the most powerful forms of communication, and that comes at a couple of different levels.

I think that good communicators, the great communicators, all really do it naturally. These days though, there is some science coming into it so that all communicators and all companies can start to consider how they use it.  I think that’s the difference.

Think of someone like [Richard] Branson, he uses it all the time.  Every time I've seen him interviewed, he basically tells a story...   

What's your story?

If you're an entrepreneur and you're trying to promote your product or service, Seth Godin makes a most compelling point about timing: (he posted this many moons ago but it still holds up years later). 

"Great stories don’t always need eight-page color brochures or a face-to-face meeting. Either you are ready to listen or you aren’t."

In his B2B marketing blog, Drew Williams reinforces this point. Business prospects must be ready to buy, or ready to consider a purchase. But the only way to find this out (without picking up the phone a thousand times and trying to ask them -- good luck with that) is through a systematic Nurture campaign.

Here is Seth's post:

Ode ... How to tell a great story

Great stories succeed because they are able to capture the imagination of large or important audiences.
A great story is true. Not necessarily because it’s factual, but because it’s consistent and authentic. Consumers are too good at sniffing out inconsistencies for a marketer to get away with a story that’s just slapped on.
Great stories make a promise. They promise fun, safety or a shortcut. The promise needs to be bold and audacious. It’s either exceptional or it’s not worth listening to.
Great stories are trusted. Trust is the scarcest resource we’ve got left. No one trusts anyone. People don’t trust the beautiful women ordering vodka at the corner bar (they’re getting paid by the liquor company). People don’t trust the spokespeople on commercials (who exactly is Rula Lenska?). And they certainly don’t trust the companies that make pharmaceuticals (Vioxx, apparently, can kill you). As a result, no marketer succeeds in telling a story unless he has earned the credibility to tell that story.
Great stories are subtle. Surprisingly, the fewer details a marketer spells out, the more powerful the story becomes. Talented marketers understand that allowing people to draw their own conclusions is far more effective than announcing the punch line.
Great stories happen fast. First impressions are far more powerful than we give them credit for.
Great stories don’t always need eight-page color brochures or a face-to-face meeting. Either you are ready to listen or you aren’t.
Great stories don’t appeal to logic, but they often appeal to our senses. Pheromones aren’t a myth. People decide if they like someone after just a sniff.
Great stories are rarely aimed at everyone. Average people are good at ignoring you. Average people have too many different points of view about life and average people are by and large satisfied. If you need to water down your story to appeal to everyone, it will appeal to no one. The most effective stories match the world view of a tiny audience—and then that tiny audience spreads the story.
Great stories don’t contradict themselves. If your restaurant is in the right location but had the wrong menu, you lose. If your art gallery carries the right artists but your staff is made up of rejects from a used car lot, you lose. Consumers are clever and they’ll see through your deceit at once.
Most of all, great stories agree with our world view. The best stories don’t teach people anything new. Instead, the best stories agree with what the audience already believes and makes the members of the audience feel smart and secure when reminded how right they were in the first place.

So.... what's your story? 

Some thoughts on "thought leadership"

The catch-all phrase now known as "thought leadership" has been bandied about perhaps once or twice too often for many people. It has been so poorly defined by so many that it's almost in danger of becoming an empty suitcase.

But the fact remains, a proven way for B2B firms (especially professional services firms) to separate themselves from the madding crowd is to make a genuine commitment to thought leadership. PwC and IBM are two examples of great thought leadership in action.

What, exactly, is thought leadership, and how can it help your firm? A blog post by Craig Badings and Dr Liz Alexander from Cannings Corporate Communications helps explain:

There are many definitions out there. In fact click on definitions of thought leadership to the right of this post and you will find a number of them. However, co-author Liz Alexander and I have said this in the book: “Thought leaders advance the marketplace of ideas by positing actionable, commercially relevant, research-backed, new points of view. They engage in ‘blue ocean strategy’ thinking on behalf of themselves and their clients, as opposed to simply churning out product-focused, brand-centric white papers or curated content that shares or mimics others’ ideas.” link

Why do companies struggle to make thought leadership work? Badings, who is a director at Sydney-based Cannings Corporate Communications, believes there are three main reasons:

  1. Organisations generally are not great listeners and many are not truly engaging with their customers/clients around the genuine business, social, economic, environmental and political issues they face face
  2. Many leave their thought leadership to the marketing department and it is not owned by senior management i.e. there is no culture of thought leadership
  3. Most companies are too product or service focused and sharing content or intellectual property is a big ask for them

So what will you do when someone asks you why your firm isn't known as well as it should be, given its expertise in a particular area? Do you really want to tell them you haven't made the time to engage with your customers about the issues they're facing?

Perhaps it's time to make the time.

Kurt Vonnegut on storytelling

Mr. V. sure knew how to spin a story

The following eight points are Vonnegut's clear-eyed advice to writers of short stories, and while it some of it -- like being a sadist -- doesn't exactly apply to business stories (LOL), much of it does.

Get to the point, he says, create a rooting interest (a hero), and write as if you're writing to only one person. Truer words have never been spoken.

  1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things — reveal character or advance the action.
  5. Start as close to the end as possible.
  6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them-in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

From his book, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction

(thanks to

It's all about "us"

all about us

Companies continue to include boring, faceless and impersonal "About Us" pages on their websites. This is a huge mistake.

Why? Because it's perhaps your one opportunity to give prospects a quick on-line glimpse into the "why" as opposed to the "what" behind your firm's existence.

The About Us page is not a corporate history or corporate services column. It's a way to offer a reason why your firm exists. It's an opportunity to provide key facts (or unusual facts) about your business. But just as important, if you're a small company with few customers, it allows you to vividly paint a picture of how your values and beliefs and vision and (yes) personal history have come together to create a company that offers prospects a different experience, one that no one else can offer quite the same way you can. 

The About Us page lets you differentiate yourself when you're not a household name. When you don't have an instantly recognizable brand (and few of us do) you'll discover that people buy the anticipated experience being offered as much as the product or service being offered (your product still has to be first class, however). Okay, so you're keen to improve your page but the prospect of writing about yourself phases you somewhat (it does for many people), or perhaps you have a tendency to brag instead of engage, I suggest you take a look at this:

8 Ways to Improve Your 'About Us' Page
......If you're fairly modest, writing your About Us page feels salesy and self-congratulatory, so you stop short of describing your business accurately. If you aren't particularly modest, writing your About Us page is really fun, so you go way over the top. Either way, get over yourself. The end result is too important.

It's from an excellent article in Inc. Magazine by Jeff Haden (click on the title to go to the full article). And finally.... If this doesn't do it for you and you're still procrastinating, consider hiring a professional writer to help you get it done.

Hiding from the truth

Seth Godin writes a marketing blog 

It's easy to get caught up in learning and using the latest technological gimmick because there are so many new ones coming out al the time. But it's even easier to hide behind the gimmicks and unconsciously obscure the truth in your story.

This can happen because you're not sure of your story or because you don't yet know what it is. I think Seth Godin's post (below) is bang on. It made me wonder whether infographics are hiding the truth more than revealing it. here is his post:

Neophiliaas a form of hiding (by Seth Godin)

Every once in a while someone will say to me, "yeah, sure, I've heard that before... what do you have that's new?" In contemporary art or movies, it makes perfect sense to be focused on the bleeding edge, on the new idea that's never been previously contemplated.

But when we're discussing our goals, our passion and the way we interact with the culture, it seems to me that what works is significantly more important than what's new. Racing to build your organization around the latest social network tool or graphics-rendering technology permits you to spend a lot of time learning the new system and skiing in the fresh powder of the unproven, but it might just distract you from the difficult work of telling the truth, looking people in the eye and making a difference.

"I can't describe the value we deliver, I'm too busy integrating this new technology into my workflow!"All too often, the ones who are aggressively seeking the theory of the day don't have a lot to show for what they did yesterday.

Too true.

The business of delivering TV stories

"The TV business: A primer for the uninformed"

This is a wonderfully researched "insider's view" type article, written by Alan Wolk and posted on his blog, The Toadstool -- Random Notes from the Convergence of the Internet and TV. Wolk dives behind the scenes to tell us what's going on in the media world (and just as important, what's not going on).

When entrepreneurs meet

Recently i went to a meetup for startups called startup grind. The guest speaker was Nir Eyal, a young serial entrepreneur. Nir talks about habits and habit formation, especially from an entrepreneur's perspective.  Here's a picture of some of the crowd that attended.

a Startup Grind meeting in Toronto
a Startup Grind meeting in Toronto

As he talked, a young woman artist illustrated his talk on a whiteboard.
You can see part of that illustration below.

When entrepeneurs meet

Story. Told visually.

That's Nir passing through the shot :)

What I found most interesting was how his story built visually, based on a core concept:

behaviour = m.a.t.

m = motivation
a = ability
t = trigger

Together, they form a reinforcing loop that creates long lasting habits.

His blog -- -- is quite different than most. While it is somewhat on the theoretical side, it has deep practical implications for any entrepreneur seeking success, and happy productivity.

Writing your book proposal

I'm frequently asked how one goes about getting their non-fiction book published. While there are pros and cons to traditional publishing, going the traditional route gives you (potential) access to a distribution network that self-publishing can't.
Simply put, this means that your book, if it's good and it's published by a global house, will likely appear in countless book stores and possibly translated for publication across the globe. 

Of course, there's a catch. Unless you're already a household name, publishers won't accept a book idea, but they generally won't accept a manuscript either. What do they want? A professionally written book proposal that's structured a certain way and contains the content they're looking for. If you want your book to be accepted for publication., you must write a book proposal. The proposal I co-authored with Drew Williams was a hundred pages long! You may not need to go to that extreme, but the work must be put in because publishers need to see how they can make money from your book.Here's an insider's description of how the process works, from the publisher's point of view. Not that your book is called a "project", because there is much work to be done to it, and with it, in order to safeguard the publisher's reputation (and of course help their bottom line). 
The project
Projects usually arrive on an editor's desk in one of two forms: most commonly a synopsis, but sometimes a manuscript. The latter is fairly rare. Most authors would prefer to write and present a synopsis and find out whether the publisher is going to be interested or not. They would prefer not to have to go to the trouble of writing a whole book, only to have it rejected. A synopsis should consist of the following:
• A rationale for the book—which is the author's assessment of the need for (or demand for, or attraction of) the book. Here the author is justifying why this particular work should be published.
• A detailed description, chapter by chapter, of the book.
• The author's assessment of the market for this book—who will read it, and why.
• Contextual information, such as examples of what are often called "competitive texts"—what is wrong with them and why this proposed project will be superior. Similar information can be presented showing that this particular genre of book is enjoying success with the reading public. In sum, the author is using his or her powers of persuasion, harnessed with information gleaned about who is buying what books, and why, to convince the editor that there is a demand for this type of book.
• The author's assessment of how long the book will be and how much time he or she needs to write it.
This is usually enough information for editors to start working on a series of procedures that might lead them to the point where they can recommend to their colleagues that publishing this book is an acceptable commercial risk. Remember, when recommending a book to your colleagues, you are asking the company to invest in it. Investment means money and a lot of effort, so editors must get this recommendation right.
Occasionally, you will find yourself dealing with an author who does not want to put the effort into writing up a proper synopsis. The solution here is a simple one: turn them down. Writing a synopsis is the most effective way for authors to think through properly what they want to write. An idea is not enough: execution is everything. So, if they are not prepared to put themselves through the disciplined process of working out how their ideas can turn into a viable, structured text, then they are probably not up to writing a book or handling the publication process.
[Excerpted from Gill Davies and Richard Balkwill's The Professionals' Guide to Publishing: A Practical Introduction to Working in the Publishing Industry (Kogan Page)]

Of course, if you use a ghost writer to write your proposal, you will dramatically lower the risk. Here's what Michael Larsen has to say in his widely read book, "How to Write a Book Proposal" (Writer's Digest Books, 4th Edition). It's my bible for writing proposals:

"How to Write a Book Proposal" by Michael Larsen

The bottom line: your proposal is as important as the finished book.

The importance of not giving up

"We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell." publisher's rejection of Stephen King's book, Carrie

Never give up if you truly love what you're doing. The following excerpt from a post by Michelle Kerns at should provide inspiration, especially for business authors.  (And the publishers' comments are priceless!)

selected excerpts FROM MICHELLE KERNS BLOG

What Michael Lewis keeps telling us

I finally got around to reading The Big Short by one of the finest financial writers of our time, Michael Lewis. While he's more famous for writing Moneyball and the Blind Side, both of which were made into popular movies, the Big Short is a great book in its own right. Especially if you like following a small group of disrespected financial outsiders as they crawl through the fiery money pits of Wall Street and emerge triumphant on the other side.

By now, most of us know all about the financial insanity that preceded the crash of 2008. (I actually ghosted a report called Economic Insanity back then for a financial client.) Truth be told, the insanity and the excesses haven’t gone away, they've just grown more outrageous. We need to keep reminding ourselves of this fact so we don't become pawns in the game, and Lewis' excellent book does that. Click the image if you want to enlarge it.
Michael Lewis
What I think makes Lewis such an exceptional writer is that while he's generally detached from the industries he writes about, he's very sympathetic to a certain portion of the people who populate that industry. These people are almost always the outsiders. Though they represent but a tiny portion of the industry Lewis happens to be focused on -- whether it's Wall Street or baseball or football or Silicon Valley -- the underdogs drive the narrative. They are his heroes.