Storytelling in Business

Mike Wittenstein advises leaders on how changes to their customer experiences can positively transform their brand narratives and their bottom lines. He is the managing partner at Storyminers, a design pioneer, and a developer of unique methods and tools for enhancing front-line customer experiences. Mike chatted with us recently about the importance of storytelling in achieving the objectives of a company or brand, and he offered some suggestions as to how corporate leaders can get their companies to embrace this approach.

Tell us a bit About Your Background

Why did you decide to create Storyminers?

When the dot-com boom became the dot-com bust, it was time to leave a very fulfilling position at IBM Global Services as their eVisionary. There, I had done work in the first consulting practices to tackle customer experience and business design (adaptive enterprise). Undeterred by the significant corporate shifts, I wanted to continue doing customer experience and business design work, so I started Storyminers. I’m glad I did!

What are the Characteristics of a Dull, Lifeless, Ineffective Pitch or Presentation?

People who use themselves as the primary frame of reference miss great opportunities to connect with their audiences (or prospects). Regardless of how great their slides look or how convincing their stories are, prospects like to be the hero in practically any presentation. If you put yourself at the center, you steal their opportunity to learn – and to connect. Oh yeah – bland titles, too many ideas presented at once, graphics that don’t match the main point, and assumptive writing styles all contribute to that dreaded feeling of boredom.

What is “Human Prototyping,” and What Kind of Information can it Yield for a Company?

Human Prototyping® lets leaders and their teams see how ideas play out before they commit to big-ticket components like retail construction, software development, or training and roll-outs. The Human Prototyping technique puts a client’s ideas on a real theater stage with professional actors AND their customers. The results are transformative. In real time, everyone can see what works and what doesn’t. The technique spots the littlest of details that can go wrong early, then suggests fixes right on the spot. Our clients have used Human Prototyping to help identify new services, find the right story, improve sales training, rehearse negotiations, and speed innovation.

When you conduct “undercover” research in search of a company’s story, what information do you often discover that can’t be found anywhere else? As a regular course of business, we visit our clients’ businesses in all channels to see how the experiences they give their customers play out. We also go behind the scenes to get a sense of the employee experience, including its peaks and challenges. We seek out conversations with real customers, too. We look for what matters most to customers and how well the company is delivering the kind of value they want.

From these interactions, we learn first-hand how customers position the company’s brand and what they expect from it. We learn the stories customers innately want to share. The bottom line is that we find out how customers want to connect with the brands that serve them. There’s no better direction for a company’s brand, its experience, or its storytelling than that!

Under What Conditions Might a Company Leader/Owner use his or her Personal Story as a key Component of the Company’s Marketing or Brand?

Brands that promise personal transformation often rely on “founders’ stories.” Examples include Sara Blakely of Spanx (look better, feel better). Richard Branson of Virgin (fun, value, sassy). Steve Jobs of Apple (design, ideas that change the world). The personality of each individual imbues their respective brands with behavioral characteristics, values, cause, and style. If the value-creating attributes around your name are hard to pin down, consider how your personal values create value for your customers. If there’s good overlap, chances are you can tie your personal stories to clients’ expectations of your company’s brand.

Since your website declares, “The best strategy is to become agile,” could you tell us what steps a company leader can take to improve his or her company’s agility? Choosing a traditional/hierarchical way of scaling a company vs. an adaptive one is one of a leader’s most critical choices. Go down the traditional (command and control) design route, and the organization will get better and better at the same things. If market desires change, that company can fail quickly.

Picking agile as your organization design makes your business resilient. By sensing and responding to customers’ needs, an agile company can stay relevant, innovate faster, and deliver the new kinds of value customers want. Agile businesses can adopt technology faster, accommodate new generations of employees with less effort, and change their go-to-market plans – all while staying on brand and being meaningful to their customers.

Agile Enterprise Leaders Need to Install new Thinking and new Capabilities Into Their Operations

  1. Adapt your business structure from a hierarchical (command-and-control) model to one that senses and responds to customers’ requests.
  2. Design your organization to serve customers ahead of shareholders.
  3. Declare your “Reasons for Being” which clearly articulate how the company will create value for its clients and how they, in turn, will create value for their customers.
  4. Document your principles – the ones to which everyone in the organization subscribes.
  5. Authentically negotiate commitments between the roles responsible for customer value creation.

How can a Corporate Leader Utilize Storytelling to Facilitate Employee Adoption of a Campaign or Initiative?

Instead of sharing stories about the numeric outcomes a leader hopes for, develop clear storylines that let people see and feel what the journey of getting to the goal will be like for them. This information can’t be made up. You must design the way things are going to be and how they will work with your employees in mind. A clearly thought-out “future story” can help people understand the what and the why. Surprisingly, you can leave the “how” up to them in most cases. That gives them some control over the outcomes, which will reduce stress and build trust.

How do you see the Concept of Storytelling in Business Evolving Over the Next few Years?

I’m already seeing that we have more good storytellers in the world. Storytelling is a mindful endeavor that requires listening before speaking. When storytellers listen first, the stories they relate to others become more relevant, have more purpose, and create more value.

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