How to create impossibly imaginative brand stories

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You probably already tell very realistic tales about your brand. Telling much more imaginative brand stories about it – science fiction, fantasy, even horror ones – can unlock very important truths about it too.

That’s because those kinds of stories reveal different kinds of truths in different ways. Let’s start by understanding what those truths are.

What does each kind of story do?

Science fiction stories think about the present from the point of view of the future. We use them to think about what might happen next and how we could respond to it. They help us practice being surprised by tomorrow.

  • SF stories are about things that could happen.

Fantasy stories are about the impossible. They describe worlds and people that play by their own rules. They help us understand which parts of ourselves will never change, even if everything else does.

  • Fantasy stories are about things that never happen.

Horror tells stories we want to turn our eyes away from. They help us explore all the different ways our lives can go horribly, irrevocably wrong, then show us how we might live through all that awful pain and loss.

  • Horror stories are things that shouldn’t happen.

And finally, there are the realistic stories you’re already telling. They help us look directly at the world of today, understanding either how it works or how it came into being. They explain the world as it already is.

  • Realistic stories are about things that do happen.

New worlds for your customers

Telling customer stories in different genres helps you think through all the different things they might need from you and you can do for them.

A few years back, I did some work with a big DIY supplier. When we discussed how people already used their products, we told realistic stories. That helped us understand problems customers actually had and improve their day-to-day product experience.

They liked making up fantasy stories about their customers too. That’s how they ended up staging gigs in people’s gardens as part of a big promotional campaign (‘What’s something that will never, ever happen?’ ‘Your favourite comedian playing your garden shed!’).

Telling SF stories helped them understand how the DIY world could change, and what they could do about it. And when they thought about how it could all go wrong, so they could make absolutely sure that everything went right, they told horror stories.

New ways of imagining your business

Telling different kinds of stories about your own company helps you understand who you really are and plan for whatever’s coming next. Imagine that Brexit’s going to have a big impact on your business, for example.

It might have come onto your radar years as ago as a fantasy story: ‘It’ll never happen, but let’s think through what it could mean anyway.’ Exploring the impact of impossible changes will throw up surprising insights into your business and your customer relationships.

Then Brexit would have turned into an SF story. ‘Well, it could happen, so let’s look at how it might pan out and see what that’d mean for us.’ With greater realism comes more precise speculation and planning, making sure you’re never surprised by whatever’s next.

Right now, the chaos and uncertainty it’s created is something that shouldn’t happen. Telling Brexit as a horror story will help you understand what you need to preserve and what you might be forced to let go of as it goes forward.

And one day, it’ll be a story about something that actually did happen. You’ll know exactly how it all turned out, and you’ll be able to tell the tale of what you, your business and your customers learned from it.

What’s next?

So those are some ideas about new kinds of stories you can imagine. But they’re only starting points – the world of storytelling is limitless. So now, it’s over to you.

Think about all the fantastical, surprising, terrifying stories that have blown your mind over the years, then work out how you can tell stories like that about your business. You’re sure to find out some wonderful – and very useful, and hopefully not too scary – things…

How to help your customers change

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When you’re telling stories, you end up spending a lot of time thinking about change. That’s because stories are for the most part about why and how people change. And the way they map out change can help you think about the customer journey that turns people from distant prospects into committed customers.

How change works in stories

That change can be purely emotional. But it usually involves real world change too. Jane Austen’s ‘Mansfield Park’ is a good example. Its hero, Fanny Price, is often seen as quite passive – but she actually changes quite a lot.

She begins the book as a 10 year old girl, feeling profoundly lost as she arrives to live with her rich (and sometimes rather hostile) relatives. She ends it as an 18 year old woman, married to the son of the house and at the moral heart of the family.

And sometimes it can be entirely practical. Hercule Poirot’s personality never really changes, despite all of his adventures. But in every single one, he starts the story not knowing who the murderer is and ends it by revealing them.

Mapping out change

As a writer, one of your big challenges is to map out that change. And there’s a way of doing that that can help you map out a customer journey too.

First of all, you find a single word or phrase to describe your character’s starting point. For Fanny, it might be ‘lost’ or ‘terrified’. For Poirot, it’s ‘oblivious’ or ‘unenlightened’. Choose extreme, evocative words – the bigger the change, the more compelling the journey.

Next, find the opposite of that word – perhaps ‘at home’ or ‘supremely confident’, or ‘fully aware’ or ‘all-knowing’. Then track a course between them, finding maybe six to eight words that move you from your first word to your final word.

So Fanny’s journey might be: ‘lost’ – ‘disoriented’ – ‘unsettled’ – ‘clear’ – ‘steady’ – ‘at home’.

Once you’ve mapped that journey out, you’ve got the spine of your story. Then your job is to describe the events and people that help your character move through those different words.

Defining a customer journey

Every customer journey is about change. Your customer moves from having a problem you can solve but not knowing about you to not having the problem, and both knowing about and being grateful to you.

So you can use the same technique to map out their journey. Think about how they feel when it begins; think about where they end up; then blast out words describing the stages between those two points. And that gives you a basic map of the journey you need to plot for them.

Once you’ve defined that journey, you can make sure you’re there for them in just the right way at every stage of that journey. At first you’ll reach them with communications, and then with products and services, that make sure they’ll always get where they need to go.

Why Dr Watson’s right about good writing

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Sherlock Holmes is very famous indeed. His adventures have been translated into 76 different languages. The Guinness World of Records lists him as the ‘most portrayed movie character’, played by over 70 different actors in more than 200 movies. Even his computer game’s sold more than 7 million copies.

But there’s one thing this most famously brilliant of thinkers is always wrong about  – how Dr Watson writes about his adventures.

How Sherlock would do it better

There’s a great example of Sherlock complaining about Watson’s writing style in ‘The Adventure of the Abbey Grange’. He says:

Your fatal habit of looking at everything from the point of view of a story instead of as a scientific exercise has ruined what might have been an instructive and even classical series of demonstrations. You slur over work of the utmost finesse and delicacy, in order to dwell upon sensational details which may excite, but cannot possibly instruct, the reader.

In short, it’s all far too sensational – or, using a more modern word, far too emotional. Then Sherlock describes the more strictly rational approach he’d take:

I propose to devote my declining years to the composition of a textbook, which shall focus the whole art of detection into one volume.

Why that wouldn’t work

Watson’s four novels and fifty six short stories are pacey, exciting, unputdownable reads. They dramatise startling solutions to baffling, often scandalous crimes. Each of them balances a rational description of how Sherlock’s art of detection works with a compelling sense of its varied emotional impact.

They describe the costs and rewards of Sherlock’s own dedication to his art. We see how it drives the evolution of one of literature’s strongest, most affecting friendships. And of course the stories show us how it soothes the anguish of Sherlock’s clients and sometimes even of the criminals he catches.

And it’s all of that emotional detail that Holmes’ disapproves of and would strip out of his own book. But by losing it all, he’d lose the impact of Watson’s writing. It’s pretty hard to imagine his rational little textbook immortalising his art as successfully as Watson’s powerfully emotional stories.

What Dr Watson shows us

In the corporate world, I very often meet people who remind me of Sherlock. They work for companies with very specific expertise, so they want to see writing that precisely and rationally communicates that expertise. They want words that instruct people; a textbook, not a story.

That’s an entirely reasonable thing to ask for. But, like Sherlock, it misses something very important – the Dr Watson side of things, the emotional details that turn bland instruction into compelling storytelling, that show us why expertise can matter so much to the people who benefit from it.

And that’s what Dr Watson can teach us. He immortalised Sherlock’s product – his art of detection – by describing both how it works and why that can matter so much. To write powerfully about your business, you need to balance those two rational and emotional factors in exactly the same way.

Lose the charts, just tell it as a story

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Lose the charts, just tell the story

I was at a tech meetup the other night. It was a hot evening and I’d had a glass of wine beforehand. All the presentations were full of fascinating info, but also quite technical and bullet pointy. So – as I’m sure you can imagine – my attention began to wander and I started feeling a bit sleepy.

Then someone new took the stage. He didn’t have any slides. He just sat down and started telling a story. He told us about his journey into the blockchain world, sharing how he’d come to understand and believe in the tech, and how that belief was driving him to invest in and document its growth.

A story to act on

That talk woke me right up. It did what a good speech should, grabbing its audience’s attention, memorably sharing both experiences and information and, most importantly, motivating its listeners to actually do something.

It did that so well because it wasn’t really a speech – it was a story. And stories have a very strong impact on us. They’re how we’ve been sharing information for millennia, lighting up parts of our brain that other comms styles don’t even begin to reach.

They do that in some very specific ways:

  • They’re built around people we identify with, so they trigger our sense of empathy and set us imagining what it’d be like to live through them ourselves.
  • They use emotive words and details, waking up every single part of our brains – unlike dry corporate language, which only triggers our language processing faculties.
  • Because they create so much empathy and brain activity, we find it much easier to remember any facts we hear as part of them.
  • And as we all have an instinct for story, we’re more likely to retell them to other people and act on them ourselves.

Before and after story

Here’s a practical demonstration. First of all, read this:

  • Blockchain engagement and support actions:
    • Growing investment from initial $100,000 purchase
    • Establish blog, podcast, YouTube channel, etc
    • Prioritise long term commitment over short term gain

Yawning already? Yup, me too. Let’s tell it as a story instead – I’ve blogged about how to structure a story here:

‘So when I went to my first meetup I was just amazed, everyone was so open and friendly. They were all in t-shirts and shorts, they’d all brought their dogs, I wasn’t used to that. And I realised I wanted to get involved – but how?’

‘Well, I bought $100,000 worth of Bitcoin, so now we had a position. But that wasn’t enough, it didn’t help the community. So we started our blog, we made films, our podcast runs every day.’

‘We’re recording it, we’re helping people understand it all. We’re building for the future because we’re in it for the long term. It’s such an exciting world to be part of.’

If you share information as a story, you make it easy for people to take in, remember and act on. And that’s the power of story in action.

Getting through a crisis with stories and druids

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The other day I met up with a crisis management expert. We had a fascinating chat – not least because we ended up talking about how important story telling is in his work.

If you can’t tell a powerful story about how you’re going to get out of trouble, you’ll have big problems convincing anyone to come along with you. To tell that kind of story, there are two very important things you need – a clear structure and a strong hero.

The simplest story structure

Well, it’s three act structure, which is really just making sure that your story has a beginning, a middle and an end. But that doesn’t tell you why those three acts create such compelling stories.

A better way of understanding it is to think about the story’s hero. Each act brings a different part of their journey to life, like this:

Act 1 – hero wants to do something

Act 2 – hero can’t do something

Act 3 – hero does something

Now let’s see how that works in practice.

Learning from the druids

At the moment, I’m watching enjoyably nutty woad and weirdness epic ‘Britannia’. One of its lead characters is a rogue druid who’s resisting a Roman invasion.

His story is going like this:

Act 1 – Druid wants to protect Britain from the Romans

Act 2 – Druid can’t protect Britain from the Romans

Act 3 – Druid protects Britain from the Romans

Act 1 establishes why it’s so important for the hero to act and what will happen if they don’t. The Romans burned a village down and enslaved its menfolk as soon as they arrived. If our druid can’t stop them – exploitation and chaos!

In Act 2, you put obstacles in the hero’s path and explore how they learn how to overcome them. Our druid hero’s big obstacle is pretty obvious – he’s up against lots of heavily armed, politically savvy Romans.

And in Act 3, you explore how they get what they want and where that leaves them. That’s going to be interesting for our Druid, because of course historically the Romans did win. So I think victory might come in an unexpected way for him.

Telling your own story

And that brings us back to storytelling your way out of a crisis. That’s what our druid’s doing, with his Roman crisis – and it could help you too, when you hit your own critical moment. Think about what winning through would look like, then work back from that through your three acts to build your story of success.

That will give you a simple, powerful story to tell about what winning through looks like and how you’re going to get to it.

Oh, and there’s one last thing to add – how to be a strong hero. It’s simple – just be an active one! Don’t let things just happen to you. Make sure you’re driving the story on yourself, and then you’re sure to win out, even if that takes you somewhere you didn’t quite expect.