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A three-step narrative approach to telling your company’s story

These days, managers are expected to be adept storytellers to get their marketing and other messages out effectively. That's great in theory but often they fumble when trying to figure out exactly what storytelling involves.

Professor K. can help.

Richard Krevolin, a screenwriter and playwright who has taught at both the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) film schools, found himself explaining storytelling to executives when a Unilever marketing manager decided that Prof. K's Hollywood pedigree could be helpful selling Sunsilk shampoo in its Asian and Latin American markets. That success led him to become a brand narrative consultant, a storytelling professor, if you will.

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"Everyone agrees we need to tell better stories but teaching a human being to tell stories better is not easy to do," he said in an interview. Managers live in a world of data and metrics; storytelling is quite different.

He boils it down to Prof. K's three-step narrative approach, shared in his recent book The Hook. It starts by being able to articulate the premise of your story in a single sentence – one that will leave people gobsmacked because it's so compelling. To do that, you may have to move on to the second step in order to clarify your thinking, answering seven key questions:

Who is your main character?

There must be one – and only one. KFC has Colonel Sanders. In many companies, the hero is the founder, who had a brilliant idea that gave the world this magical offering and the hallowed values behind the organization. In some firms, the main character is a special ingredient or formula. The hero should not be your brand, even if that might be your first instinct. Instead, the hero would be the user. The brand is an ally in helping the consumer achieve a better state by using the product. The same thinking applies if you are trying to sell a new program to your staff: You need a main character.

What does your main character need/want/desire?

This opens up the dramatic problem at the heart of your story, and it needs to be articulated in terms of both an inner emotional need and a concrete, physical need that exists outside the protagonist.

Who or what keeps him from achieving what he wants?

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This raises who the antagonist is in the story.

How does he achieve what he wants?

Even in a love story when you know the couple will get together, you keep watching or reading to find out how.

What are you trying to say by ending the story in this way?

What are your themes and motives?

How do you want to tell your story?

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What will be the narrative devices?

"This is the biggie. How you tell the story is everything. Where do you begin? Where do you end? What do you keep in? What do you leave out? Do you tell it by video or print?" he says.

How do your characters change?

It is these changes – the story arc – that will make your story compelling.

The final step is the outline. Some people love doing this, others hate it.

In telling the story, you should choose from four typologies:

1. Origin stories:

This is the simplest for most managers, telling the origin of the company or brand. Take Apple, and how two young men named Steve worked in a garage to build a personal computer. An origin story is usually deeply personal and authentic – indeed, make sure you don't lie. That can be a barrier for companies when the story is not all that noble or someone wants to manufacture a more enchanting legend. Politicians often begin their campaigns with origin stories.

2. Mission/values stories:

He encourages companies to list their values and see whether those give rise to a catchy story about the company or product. "It's hard to do well, as ideally those values should come out of the story I see or read. I should feel the values as I listen or read but the company usually wants to state the values and if not done well, it can feel false."

3. Knowledge sharing:

Managers may love to share knowledge and information but usually resort to bullet points. Here you must move from an information dump to find a compelling story that happens to share important information.

4. Brand/vision myth: Sometimes stories are told to inspire or create myths. An executive might use this approach to lead a change initiative, setting out a vision and a story of how together they will create a magnificent company.

He said the biggest mistake executives make is over authenticity. Their audience is jaded, and so the story must be highly credible. Executives can also be timid about touching on emotions, preferring facts. But the power of a story comes from its emotional component, Prof. K. stresses.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column, Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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About the Author
Management columnist

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. More

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