What’s Your Story?

How the Natural Power of Storytelling Can Grow Your Business Featuring Matthew Woodget, Founder of Go Narrative

When given a new product or service to market, marketing and sales pros typically ask, “What’s the story?” What differentiation does the product or service offer? Why this product? Why now? It’s not that we’re overwhelmed by communicating new products and campaigns (we are!). It’s also a reflection of how we are fundamentally wired as human beings. We both want and need to hear a story—a good story, one that is authentic and speaks to our soul.

OK, maybe that’s a little deep depending on what the product is, but the point is, we crave an example story that will help map how a new product or service fits into our lives. It might be something as small as a product tagline or elevator pitch or it could be a bigger vision or important mission statement from the company. Whatever the reason, the story needs to resonate and is ideally powered by authenticity, emotion, importance, or is at the very least entertaining.

Recently at Digital Summit Seattle, I met up with Matthew Woodget, a storytelling specialist who has spent nearly 20 years pedaling technology stories at Intel, Microsoft, and in the agency world before striking out on his own. We watched a keynote by Microsoft’s Storyteller In Chief (actual title) Steve Clayton and both felt excited to see storytelling get its due at a marketing conference. It sparked a great discussion about how to get storytelling right, the need for it in business, and the lack of awareness so many executives and business owners seem to have about its importance. Here’s a link to Steve Clayton, Microsoft’s Storyteller In Chief's older presentation

Matthew Woodget Interview

Matthew Woodget, Seattle, WA

Matthew Woodget, Seattle, WA

Why did you decide to focus on storytelling for your business?

I’d answer this with a little story. I’m a big fan of Aesop’s Fables, and I’d encourage others to check these stories out. There is a story called “The Lion and the Man.” A Man and a Lion are walking together through the forest arguing who is the superior animal. After a time, they stumble upon a large statue of a strong and chiseled man strangling a lion.

Upon seeing this, the man says to the lion, “See, even this statue is a testament to the man’s superiority over even the king of beasts. Man is the best! We are superior in every way.” The Lion responds, “That’s all well and good, but that statue is made by a man! If a lion had made that statue, you would see a statue of a man under the mighty paw of a lion.” You see, stories greatly depend upon who is telling the story. Here we see two different interpretations of which animal is the best. The medium in this case is a statue, but these days our mediums can be blogs, video, podcasts, and even 3D or VR video. Those that harness the power of the story and the medium will win.

Source: The Baby's Own Aesop (verse fables by W.J. Linton), 1887. Illustrations by Walter Crane. Available online at  International Children's Digital Library .

Source: The Baby's Own Aesop (verse fables by W.J. Linton), 1887. Illustrations by Walter Crane. Available online at International Children's Digital Library.

I’ve spent the better part of the last two decades at Intel, Microsoft and the last year in the agency world, and through this experience I recognized there is a constant need for storytelling in business. Storytelling is not something you can fake or assume it will be taken care of by sales or marketing somehow down the line. Some companies think that if you talk about storytelling, or if you are good at presentations or public speaking, that’s enough. But it’s not just copy that you sort out on your website. A lot of businesses think of storytelling as just some kind of generic messaging you can use and change as you will. In fact, it’s much more fundamental than that.

There’s a great quote by Gloria Steinham where she says, “If you hear a statistic, you will make up a story to go with it, because our brains are organized on narrative.”

Gloria Steinem Quote

I don’t know how much Gloria Steinem knew about psychology, but she was right. There have been tests done on the right and left sides of the brain, measuring the reactions of the different hemispheres when being stimulated. In a nutshell, the right side of the brain can see big concepts while the left side is trying to put structure around things, like we do when we create a story. In Jonathan Gottshcall’s book “The Storytelling Animal”, he likens it to having a mini-Sherlock Holmes in the left hemisphere of your brain who is cataloging whatever information its fed to come up with an explanation or story.

How should businesses approach storytelling?

If all business leaders treat storytelling as sizzle or a bullet point in their presentation, they are selling themselves short on how they interact and engage with their customers. And the companies that get it right can have a much bigger impact and connection with their customer. (See GE example below.)

Consumer brands tend to be better at this in general due to the way customers consume and recommend products. They have a shortcut to effective storytelling because it’s easier to tell stories to customers who are personally experiencing the product up close and personal. An iPhone is in my pocket. I sit in a car. I wear my clothes.

Storytelling is inherently harder to do in a B2B context but the world is screaming out for stories because that is how we are wired. Why wouldn’t businesses want to take advantage of this? I challenge you to find good examples of storytelling in business and you will find it is difficult to find companies that are doing storytelling consistently and effectively. For me, the challenging opportunity is to teach businesses to do this. I spoke about this more in a recent LinkedIn blog post.

What tech companies are telling effective stories?

There are a few examples I can give, but as I said, it is difficult to do well. Which is precisely why I got into this business—I want to leave the world with a bunch more amazing B2B stories in it than were here before. Here’s a few I’ve written about.

General Electric is telling stories about how they solve impossible problems. This Lighting In A Bottle story is filled with challenge and story. They start the story with an impossible challenge.

“Like catching lightning in a bottle”

Another strong example is Cisco’s storytelling around connecting a young girl with cancer with her classroom each day to provide normalcy. The story of ten-year-old Peyton's battle with cancer and her struggle to fit in with her classmates dramatically demonstrates the powerful connection possible through Cisco technology.

Finally, Microsoft’s education team did a good job telling a story of technology in the classroom. Here we see real people, real challenges, and real outcomes. I had some suggestions on how they could take it to the next level—but seriously, kudos to them. I hope they keep it up. I know the team, and their leader Margo Day. Margo is amazing and has had some profound life experiences. Not least of which is the work she did for girls in Africa. Her fingerprints are clearly on that organization. I wish there were more leaders like Margo in B2B.

How do you typically get started when creating better story/narrative with clients?

When working with a company, I typically dig in and look for meaning and topics that will resonate (more on this in a minute). I like to meet with the founders and key stakeholders to learn about their mission and why they started the company. I like to learn about the company themselves and what makes them special. From there, I imagine how they might stand out in the market. Imagination really is a key tool in my process. My late great father, John Woodget, frequently said I was a “visionary and a dreamer”—not sure if he always meant it as a compliment. What I do know is you can’t create stories without a healthy dollop of imagination.

You see, storytelling is all about resonance. When you have a sound that resonates, you want to hear the sound and it is pleasing. A resonant sound reverberates from the surfaces around it and creates an even bigger, more pronounced sound. With dissonant sounds, you don’t want to listen. It’s like a bullhorn or siren warning of an emergency or fire. You might get someone’s attention but they want to get out of the way. If you are a siren people will get sick of you.

We are all living our own story. If something doesn’t have meaning for us, we don’t care about it. If we don’t understand, say the plight of the Syrian refugee, we won’t care about it. But if we spend some time thinking about the Syrian crisis, consuming some news about it, then these stories will resonate for us. You have to educate your audience and tell a story that matters to them.

The big challenge for business leaders is reverse engineering this process and developing their narrative to guide their storytelling. That’s where I can help.

What is the difference between storytelling and narrative?

A story is an event unit. It could be a comedy, tragedy, and so forth. How you contextualize these stories is narrative. Narrative is a framework, and there are different levels to it; for example master narrative, meta narrative, cultural narrative all contain stories that are held to the themes of the story.

The act of thinking through and developing a master narrative is developing the meaning and guardrails for your business, brand or product. Your narrative themes then become your litmus test or filter that helps to guide the storytelling

Let’s take an example. Say your company's master narrative is three part: Helping businesses grow, innovation, and longevity. If you zoom down to the story unit, you would be looking for customer stories where they grow or innovate. What can we say about our customer’s longevity? Are the company’s founders committed to these themes? If so then you have a story that resonates with your master narrative and you should be out there telling it. Every story that you tell uses these narrative guardrails and themes. The master narrative also informs the branding initiatives.

I would argue that effective storytelling happens by either happy accidents or by a well defined and crafted master narrative. If you don’t have your master narrative nailed down, you are going to run into problems such as Pepsi recently did. They didn’t look in the right places to consider how social media might run away with negative opinions about Black Lives Matter. That was a massive failing on their part. I would encourage companies to think about their master narrative all the time. Heineken on the other hand did something similar but different and very, very effective.

When it comes to a story framework, you have a character, something happens and it is resolved. A character is longing for something and goes after what they are looking for and hopefully gets what they want. Second, it’s about emotion. What do people want and what do they care about? Empathy, for example, is a strong emotion for a customer who might care about a business. There is also a fundamental structure to storytelling similar to what we learned in high school. The beginning, middle, and end of story. Essentially, you have:

  1. Context: The story’s landscape, characters, protagonist, etc.
  2. Action: What does the world impose on the protagonist and what are the actions of the protagonist? What challenges do they run into?
  3. Results: Did they get what they were after? Or did they not? Is there a moral? What is the takeaway?

When you use the story structure, you are relying on some deep neurological seeds. People put themselves into the story. When you hear the Aesop’s fable, you imagine you are walking through the woods, arguing with the lion. When you put people in the story for business, you have the opportunity to then influence them and their decisions about spending money on your products and services.

Relating this back to our Microsoft example, their master narrative is about “empowering people.” Their sub-narrative for the education team is about empowering teachers in the classroom. The micro-narrative would be about empowering math teachers and students in the classroom. So I work with clients to identify and clarify their narrative and then put that in action.

Matthew also has a great blog post on this if you are looking for more about narrative.

Photo: Matthew Woodget, Fireside Stories, Cornwall UK

Photo: Matthew Woodget, Fireside Stories, Cornwall UK

Pretend Stories

As Matthew and I were talking, we realized that we both practice our storytelling each night by telling our kids made up stories based on the common three act forms with fun metaphors and challenges for the characters we create. That evening Matthew was planning to make up something around “The chipmunk, the squirrel, and the scritchy scratchy sound” and even I found myself wanting to know, what happens? How did they get rid of that sound?

My sons (Dave speaking here) call them “pretend stories” because they don’t come from a book and they tend to be more zany and involve lots of superheroes.

Matthew has a bit more structure here (which I’m going to borrow from now on). He advises that kids' stories need to have heart, emotions, and something the main character is searching for or a problem to solve. He adds with a laugh that his wife is constantly surprised with the richness and diversity of the tales he tells the kids and asks him where the stories come from. His answer? It just happens. There is after all a healthy dose of art as well as science in storytelling.

When is a good time to engage with a storytelling expert?

It’s cyclical. When you are launching a new product or service and you want to get your story to resonate with your audience and make positive decisions about you. For older companies, facing more intense competition, you might need improved narrative or storytelling to be more relevant and resonate with customers.

I like to think of the necessary tool belt. Companies need backend tools, sales process, market research, public speakers, customer understanding, and also storytelling.

There are four common challenges or pain points that storytelling can directly help with:

  1. Having trouble standing out from the crowd
  2. Struggling to get buy-in from investors and stakeholders
  3. Feeding the content marketing beast is too hard—storytelling metaphors and analogies can be helpful for this.
  4. Data-driven but not getting any meaningful results.
It ain’t only whatcha write, it’s also the way atcha write it
— Jack Kerourac

How do clients prepare to work with you? What's the discovery phase like?

First and foremost, my clients need to value storytelling. If you don’t value storytelling, I’d invite you to sign up for my free business storytelling tips or read about it on my blog or start thinking about it. Second, do you have one of the above challenges? Lastly, what do you stand for? What meaning are you trying to deliver to the world? What gets you out of bed in the morning?

If these questions are a struggle to figure out, you are working in the wrong company and should do something else. Seriously, get a new job. It’s important that my clients have a passion for what they do and that they are in touch with the pain points I described above. I help my clients get focused on what their meaning is and their narrative themes.

So what's your story?

I spent a lot of my life moving around. Twelve different homes by the age of 15, which included England, Phoenix, back to England, Cheshire, Bay Area, Portland, South Pacific, Phoenix, back to Portland, Scotland, and so on. Another part of who I am, is that I am dyslexic. Because of that, I have a very interesting right-brain, left-brain mix going on. This has resulted in me being passionate about both science and also art. They are sort of smashed up together and at times it’s a bit messy. My left-brain does well with the structure needed for storytelling and science, while the right side of my brain has incredible passion for the big picture, interconnectivity of things, and the strategy of how things work together. A third aspect is that, as a boy, I was a bit mischievous and got into trouble a lot. These three parts of me, moving around a lot, my dyslexic curious brain, and getting in trouble all meant that I often had to explain myself. I had lots going on in my head and had to figure out a way to distill it down and communicate it in a way so that people understood. Storytelling is really a key part of who I am.

I’ve also had a lot of practice in the written form. In 1987, I was given a journal by my mother to keep my writing up in the summer. In 1990, I got serious, doing it year round and have now been writing every day for over 27 years.

I have always been telling stories. I blog. I write science fiction novels and so on. I chose to go into high-tech marketing because it was the place where I could use my left brain and right brain at the same time. Stories have since became an integral part of how to communicate about these complicated products. And so now, I help other people distill complex business ideas and aspirations into simple clear master narratives that can be the filters and guardrails for their stories. I then help them capture, tell, and scale those stories to increase customer engagement, retention, and lifetime value—to turn their customers into raging lifetime advocates for their brands.

How have you used storytelling in your career?

I’ve found that when I’m trying to convince someone of some interesting new idea or technology, I always go back to using a story. When I was launching Microsoft Lync product (now Skype for Business), I was using a story to describe the product to a friend who immediately guessed it was “Skype For Business” without hearing that it was powered by Skype. I was actively trying to not say Skype for Business, but the story made something fairly complicated easy to understand. In this case, he was coming up with his own shorthand or story. Metaphors are a very tight, discrete form of story. I’ve found storytelling is a way to communicate complicated ideas in a way that is easy to understand and relate to.

A final word from Matthew—on authenticity.

The most effective types of stories are authentic. And your most authentic story is your story. So start thinking about your story. Start telling your story to your friends and loved ones. Think about how it feels. Think about how your business can benefit from that kind of authentic storytelling. How do you think about your story in a business context? What will resonate with your customers?

What matters now isn’t storytelling; what matters is telling a true story well.
— Ann Handley, Marketingprofs

Tell Your Story

Matthew and I could have talked for days about narrative, storytelling, and how humans are wired to find motivation by a well-crafted yarn. As we compared our combined 40+ years of experience marketing and evangelizing technology products, we agreed that while we’ve often told stories with our marketing, we haven’t always been supported by management or our colleagues.

Many companies are quick to discount storytelling in lieu of the latest digital marketing fad –optimizing their social media platforms as opposed to going back to basics and improving the product positioning or brand story. Another mistake we both recounted is how CEOs and business leaders reduce storytelling to being just some copy on their website. They incorrectly assume their story can be changed anytime it suits them. This is dangerous as it assumes the public or their customers aren’t paying attention. As discussed, we can’t help but care; it is how we make meaning in the world. Stories help us relate on a personal level to abstract and complex products, or at the very least help us get the children to bed. Adding the power of narrative, with master guardrails and proven storytelling methods are an essential part of any business's go-to-market mix.

About Matthew's Company Go Narrative:

A company who specializes in storytelling and improving companies narrative. If you or your colleagues talk about "our story" or "our customers' story" yet are busy with the pressures of running a business we can help you harvest and infuse strategy and materials with stories. We work with you to put people, places, and transformation at the core of what you say and do. Likewise, if you are involved with upcoming events and need a storytelling track or workshops we can support you. Let's put your narrative to work.

About Matthew Woodget:

Matthew Woodget has comprehensive experience across customer storytelling and case studies, transmedia, video, brand development, channel marketing, competitive marketing, product marketing, value propositions, positioning and messaging frameworks. Tours of duty across hi-tech (Microsoft, Intel), agency and non-profit worlds.

If you are really ready to go, book 30 minutes with Matthew. He’s ready to chat.