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The rationale good firms inform boring tales

13, 2020

5 min read

The opinions expressed by the entrepreneur's contributors are their own.

"Ultramarathon Man" Dean Karnazes is an idiot. I'm joking because the year I ran my first marathon, he ran 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days. He has also written several bestsellers about his exams and successes as an ultra marathon fanatic.

A business trip, like a marathon, can get pretty wild, but you can turn it into exciting, vivid stories. The key – and this is something people get terribly wrong every day – is to respect the difference between a story and a narrative.

The good news is you don't have to be a creative genius to tell a story that will get people to work with you. Simply understanding the distinction between a story and a narrative will make it easier for you to create higher quality stories. And that will help you grow your business.

Marathons as narratives

A marathon is rarely a great story. In fact, running 50 marathons could be the fodder for 50 really bad stories. But Karnazes didn't do that, which begs the question: how do you talk about running a marathon, be it a literal marathon or a "marathon" as an analogy, in a way that engages the audience? Because if running a marathon is both a joy and a shame, it's just a shame to listen to someone whine about how it ends from start to finish.

Imagine a marathon from a narrative point of view. It may be strenuous, but it follows a predictable course and ends at a specific point after 42 km (assuming you've trained well and aren't injured). The potential to add endless, worldly detail is limitless, just like the stories you fake on your business trip.

The reasons this doesn't work are similar to the reasons companies are so bad at telling their stories, telling their customers' stories, presenting interesting case studies, and communicating the purpose. The following storytelling principles give you clear directions on what to emphasize, what to include, and what to leave out.

Related: Communication purpose can create a boom in business


In the excellent book Storynomics: Story-Driven Marketing in the Post-Advertising World, authors Robert McKee and Thomas Gerace discuss the difference between stories and other forms of narration. To put it simply: “Stories develop with emotional dynamics. Stories repeat unemotional facts. "

McKee, who has coached and mentored hundreds of award-winning screenwriters, directors, and writers, says, "All stories are narratives, but not all narratives are stories." In Storynomics, he defines "story" as "the dynamic escalation of conflict-related events that make a meaningful change effect in a character's life ".

Most people mistakenly use the terms "story" and "narrative" interchangeably.

Conveying credibility is important, but creds won't get you anywhere if you can't grab someone's attention. To do this successfully, we need to come back to these two elements – emotional dynamics and conflict.

Put your conceptual hat aside for a moment and think about it like this:

If you've ever thought about setting off a fire alarm to get out of a bad conversation at a cocktail party, you've probably been caught up in someone else's narration. If you've ever held onto every word from someone whose company you normally don't like that person told a story. If you can add the phrase “and then” to the beginning of almost every sentence in a “story” without messing up grammatical logic, that is a narrative, not a story.

As you tell your story, keep in mind that no one wants to know about your IP strategy, your move to headquarters, or your pet policy in the workplace – unless there is a specific practical reason pertaining to them.

Related: 4 Reasons Empathy Is Good For Business

With every story you tell, ask yourself these two questions:

Is it clear what this is about? Am I communicating a common purpose that evokes emotion?

Case in point: Bad story | Good story

This story is based on an actual company and its founder, but I've changed any information that could be used to identify it. This is the narrative version of its origin:

Bart Bartlebee, the founder of Bartlebee Household Products LLC, understood that when you are proud of your work and show that you are proud of it, good things will naturally follow. With 13 patents and counts, Bartlebee has become a trusted industry leader (blah blah blah) …

Interested? Neither do I. Here is the same company:

Bart Bartlebee had an independent series that not everyone valued early in his career … like the time he fired his boss's mistress. He was always tinkering and looking for different ways to do things. This restless, proactive, and resourceful nature fueled the vision for Bartlebee Household Products.

While Bart was a capable and popular founder, our early years were a roller coaster ride …

This is a decent hook with a sense of humor and a somewhat empathetic character. It suggests conflict without being cinematic, which is unnecessary.

Not all narratives are stories. Respect this distinction and you will tell good stories that will contribute to an authentic, memorable brand. Ignore it and you will alienate people or put them to sleep.

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