Storytelling … the Lost Art of Engagement


When you talk about storytelling in business, you get some strange looks. Most people automatically think of fables, fantasy and fiction when you say storytelling. But storytelling is deeply rooted in the human experience not only as a way to entertain, but to communicate truths, lessons and experience from one person to another.

But what makes it important in today’s business? Simply this, storytelling is an intimate art form that engages groups of people with common concerns, interests and values.  Listening to stories is deeply embedded in the human psyche.  We’re not wired to remember obscure facts and details.  But we are wired to remember stories.

So, let me tell you a story…

My family is from eastern Kentucky deep within the Appalachian mountains. This is a very isolated area and most of the families there could trace their history back for generations. The mountains and valleys made it difficult to access and modern conveniences like electricity and running water were slow to arrive. Even when I was a child in the sixties, my grandparents home had no running water.

I spent a lot of time there when I was a kid, and one of my jobs was to draw water. That meant taking buckets to a small, cramped shed called the well house, lowering a long, skinny tube down a small hole in the ground and hauling the water back up to fill the buckets for the day’s drinking and cooking needs.  This was coal country. And while the well water was sparkling clean, it always shimmered with a golden hue from the sulphur it collected deep underground.  A color that stained the inside of the water pails and dippers and that I vividly remember even today.

With the exception of the bible, there were few books in each home.  The small local newspaper was a weekly and contained few stories from outside the county line.   But, there was a rich oral storytelling tradition and each evening people of all ages would gather on dimly lit porches to tell and listen to stories.

The stories ran the gamut from epic adventures of man vs. the wild to everyday tales of hardships and struggles . There were ghost stories that captured the imagination. Histories of feuding families and mountain romances to rival Romeo and Juliet. Tragedies of illness and the triumphs of overcoming handicaps. Cautionary tales of greed leading to arguments and violence between friends and family.  And the roar of laughter filled the darkness when the comic adventures of long dead loved ones were told again and again.

Over forty years have passed since I sat on those porches, yet I can still tell most of the stories exactly as I heard them.  While you might easily discount this as the fond memories of childhood, I believe those stories are memorable because they were always woven into a specific context and richly accented with details to create an unforgettable picture in my mind. Brands spend millions to create these images, yet these people created them with simple stories.

As B2B marketers, we should embrace storytelling.  

Today’s world of social media, websites and blog pages are really just online dimly lit porches beckoning to weary surfers.  Their visitors are actively hoping to learn more, find answers or feel some type of empathy and understanding. But far too often, they find mind-numbing lists of product features, contrived customer benefits, cryptic case studies and an endless string of the latest overused “buzz” words that may sound impressive but convey no meaningful message.

Try a quick test with me.

In my story, do you remember

  • The color of the water?
  • The book in every home?
  • The state my family is from?

These were all very small details, but important to help paint a picture and create a context.

A story creates paints a picture visitors remember.

Stories need context to convey a point and enough details to create texture and paint a picture for your audience. They don’t have to be long, but they do have to be relevant. It’s much easier to list out product features, advantages and benefits than to weave a story about your product.  But in our electronic age of storytelling, hearing your story is the first step in making a personal connection with your next prospect.

So, tell me your story.

What bar talk can teach us about B2B Communications.

The Bar is Open Sign

You can learn a lot about communications just by striking up a conversation with the person sitting on the next bar stool. Let’s face it, expectations are pretty low for bar talk. No one seriously plans on solving the world’s problems or finding their next best friend swilling a Long Island iced tea in the local gin mill. Normally, a bar chat is just a  pleasant diversion as you wait for your best friend to arrive.

But, I guarantee striking up a conversation at the lounge can be invaluable in learning about disengaging an audience. Let’s look at three types of people who will make you start fidgeting right after you begin talking to them and see what they can teach us.

The Egotist

Initially, the egotist is very entertaining. Who wouldn’t want to hear their story about running a marathon or their adventures in Paris? But after  a few minutes the “I” at the beginning of each sentence starts grating on me. Suddenly, I’m more interested in my swizzle stick than in the egoists conquests and find myself casing the joint for exits.

B2B communications often falls into the same egotist trap. How many presentations, brochures  and websites begin with a list of the company’s size and accomplishments? Remember, a prospective customer has a problem they need solved. What’s most important is how you can help. Highlight your accomplishments to add credibility to your solutions rather than making them the whole story.

The Know-it-All

No matter the subject, the know-it-all can tell you all about it. They’re filled with mostly useless data and have the most obscure dates in history right at their fingertips. The know-it-all will engage you, but not in a good way. If you’re like me, you start looking for mistakes you can point out to put them in their place rather than really paying attention to the context of the discussion.

B2B communications often depends on data to prove a point. Facts and data appeal to the rational left side of your brain. But data can be analyzed and interpreted in a number of ways. Just look at politics and how different parties will spin the same data to justify their stance. So, don’t be like the know-it-all and depend only on facts and data. Have a “point of view” that creates an emotional tie as well. Be passionate about your point of view and use facts to back it up.

The Space Invader

When you strike up a conversation with the space invader, they move in on you fast.  They get into your personal space and even worse start asking all kinds of very personal questions very quickly.  This just sends a chill up my spine.  I’ve actually gotten off  the bar stool and used it as a shield to keep a space invader at bay.

Don’t forget, most B2B prospects won’t buy immediately. They’re looking for a solution and need to research their options.  Retail websites are geared toward gaining an immediate sale. B2B communications look to create long-term business relationships and  must be much more subtle in their approach. Good B2B marketers look for ways to engage prospects in a dialogue to answer questions and educate first. Over the long haul, this builds lasting relationships and not simply pressured and transient short-term sales.

B2B Communications create interpersonal relationships.

The point is B2B communications are no different than building an interpersonal relationship.  Your audience reacts to both the content and tone of your message.  Think carefully about how you construct your message and look at it from the perspective of your audience.  Will they be put off by your tone? Do you choke them with facts and data? Do you seem a little to eager to close a sale?

So, next time you find yourself sitting at the bar waiting for a friend, engage the person next to you in conversation.  You’ll be amazed at what you could learn about disengaging or maybe even engaging your B2B prospects.