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  • More than marketing fluff. Why your business story is a touchstone for the whole organisation.

    A good story well told stays with us. It fires our imagination, gets us emotionally engaged, it makes an impact.

    Stories have the same value in business.

    But if I walk into some offices or boardrooms and talk about ‘storytelling’, I might get some odd looks. There’s a fair bit of cynicism around it.

    The Financial Times’ management columnist Andrew Hill is one commentator who has expressed his concern over storytelling. He wrote,

    “...there is a risk that corporate storytellers start to believe their own stories. To make a business narrative stick, leaders have to repeat it, reinforcing the story for themselves. What starts as a way for chief executives to guide and motivate staff, investors, customers and boards, becomes a plot from which they cannot extricate themselves”.

    I agree it’s a problem if a business’s story gets divorced from reality. If a business leader’s story is bullshit, then it should be treated with the disdain it deserves.

    But when told honestly, a business story becomes so much more than a marketing tool, it’s a cultural touchstone that gets all parts of the organisation aligned.

    So how to steer clear of creating works of fiction? Business storytelling is not about the Disneyfication of a business’s purpose and it’s not about mythmaking. It’s about holding up a mirror. When I work with organisations I often spot a disconnect between what a business says it is, and what it really is. Crafting an authentic story can help bridge that gap. It can help the organisation find its essence: who it is, what it stands for, where it’s come from and where it’s headed.

    Organisations are always changing and growing, but often they don’t update their stories. They tell an outdated story that’s not relevant anymore. Standing back, getting an outside perspective to help capture and craft the real story is a great way to bridge that disconnect. In my experience it’s hard to manufacture a story when you apply an external journalistic rigour to tell it like it is. A business’s story has to be sustainable, it has to be believable. If the story isn’t credible or authentic, then someone will blow the whistle sooner rather than later.

    By telling its true story a business can emphasise its ‘why’, its purpose. A story gives a business the tools to compete in a crowded or abundant market. Brands such as TOMS Shoes, Sugru and Hiut Denim  have achieved commercial success not only because their products are good, but also because they tell a good story: one which aligns with their values and mission. It applies in the same way in B2B, where customers choose companies such as Mailchimp or Basecamp  because they demonstrate their personality via the stories they tell. The stories those businesses tell about themselves - and their customers - helps them stand out. These stories make the customer the hero, shining the light on how their products help small businesses and entrepreneurs grow.

    Getting an honest evaluation from objective outsiders will help craft a story full of fact, not fiction, and will help the business leaders be sensible and honest enough to reframe when they need to.  So let's not dismiss storytelling as just another business fad. A business story told well is a powerful touchstone.

    What’s your business story? If you need help, hire me to tell your business or brand story. Make 2017 the year to tell your story! Get in touch hello@iansanders.com


    Watch my video: Make the customer the hero. How to use storytelling in B2B.

  • Turning it inside out: extracting the real story

    As a storyteller-for-hire, brands and organisations ask me to capture and craft their story, whether it’s an external marketing piece, or internally helping employees and new hires understand what the organisation is and where it’s headed.

    I sometimes think about this process as ‘turning it inside out’. It’s my job to look under the bonnet, to be curious, to ask questions and to turn the spotlight on those hidden corners that haven’t been exposed before.

    Sometimes in those hidden corners lie difficult parts of the story: perhaps the first iteration of the product fell flat on its face or the co-founders fell out. I have learned that capturing and sharing these imperfections is an essential part of the process. These imperfections are what gives a brand its purpose but also its personality.

    The same applies to individuals. Over the last few weeks I’ve guest lectured at universities, my advice to students is to put themselves at the heart of their career and business plans. “Don’t let anyone knock the You out of You,” I told them. Part of that is being honest about your real story. And just like those brand stories, it is the imperfections that might make their offering more distinctive and allow them to stand out from the crowd.

    Whether you’re a student, an executive, an entrepreneur, a startup or a big business, telling your real story is rarely easy. Sharing everything - including the ups and downs - means you can emotionally engage with your audience.

    I’ve just been through this process myself. Last year I was asked to speak at The Do Lectures. The brief was to tell a story I hadn’t previously told, to tell the truth and to be vulnerable. The talk went online this week (you can watch it below. If you'd rather listen to the audio podcast, here's the version on SoundCloud).

    It’s a very personal - and sometimes raw - story, but it’s a reflection of who I am and what makes me tick. Like the best stories, it’s a reflection of the truth: I turned myself inside out.

     

  • Get clarity, re-ignite your passion and shape your story!

    “I came to Ian frustrated and ready to pack it all in because no-one seemed to get my idea. Ian synthesised a clear message from the jumbled thoughts in my head that will instantly resonate with potential stakeholders. More importantly he did not fail to deliver on his lofty promise to reignite the passion in my own project.”

    Niels Bischoff, founder of Flowcus

     

    You’re an early stage entrepreneur. You’ve been living and breathing your startup idea for a while. But before you take your idea to market, you need a fresh perspective on it. Are you communicating your idea most effectively? Is your story fit for purpose? Do you still get fired up about it?

    My 'Fuel Up' package will get you back on track. It’s a rapid, affordable service to reinvigorate you and your business idea, giving you the tools and confidence to sell your idea. Whether your audience is investors, new recruits, partners or journalists, I’ll bring clarity to your business idea, reconnecting you with your purpose and re-crafting a fit-for-purpose story. And I’ll get you fired up about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it.

    The package costs just £950 (plus VAT; discounts may be available for non-VAT registered entrepreneurs).  Here’s how it works:

    1. we have an initial meeting (in London or via Skype);
    2. you then complete a questionnaire via email;  
    3. I’ll create two deliverables for you based on the meeting and questionnaire: i) a crib sheet - a why, who, what, how one-pager that will both help you communicate your idea and also be a touchstone for you internally; ii) your simple and gettable startup story in less than 300 words.
    4. we’ll have a second meeting (in London or via Skype) where I present my work to you and you can ask questions.


    Why work with me? I bring my twenty five years’ experience to every project I touch: I have run businesses, advised startups & entrepreneurs, and written about startups for the Financial Times and British Airways Business life magazine. I’m good at bringing clarity to business ideas.

    Want to talk? Get in touch: hello@iansanders.com.

  • “TeuxDeux Tales”: shining the light on people not products

    When I’m advising businesses on how to tell their story, I always say shine the light on people, not products. Your audience probably won’t care about the functionality of your product, but they might be interested in how it changes the lives of your customers.

    That’s how I approached a project for TeuxDeux . TeuxDeux is the to-do list app started by Tina Roth Eisenberg. What I love about the app is its simplicity. It replicates how I’ve been keeping pen-and-paper to-do lists for years. I rely it on every single day.

    So I was interested in what other users liked about TeuxDeux, and what difference it makes to their lives. The result is a short series of stories called ‘TeuxDeux Tales.’ I’ve really enjoyed capturing and telling these stories of working lives. Here are the links to the three stories:

    1. Toronto based illustrator Lichia Liu 
    2. London web designer Dan Howells
    3. Sugru founder Jane Ni Dhulchaointigh

     

  • Three storytelling tips for business leaders

    I just got asked what is an effective storytelling technique or mindset I would recommend for business leaders. Here’s my answer:

    Three things.

    First, make sure that the story you are telling your organisation fires YOU up. Because if it doesn’t get your fist-pumped, how on earth do you expect it to inspire others?

    Second, make your story simple. Don’t reach for the dictionary just because you’re telling a story in a business context. Speak in the same way you’d speak to your friends or family.

    Third, keep it human. Your story should be about people, not products. If you want to change hearts and minds, make sure your audience can relate with the people in your story.

     

    If you want some more tips, check out my two minute video ‘The importance of storytelling: How to tell a better story’:

     

     

  • Your story is your lifebelt

    I know an organisation that grew rapidly from having a single entrepreneurial founder with a handful of staff and a single product, to a multiple management team, tens of people and a portfolio of products and services. When it was small, everyone had a clear idea of what the business stood for: telling the story was simply a case of retelling what they’d heard at the job interview and company meetings. Everyone understood the business: staff knew why they were passionate about working there, clients saw the story as a point of difference. The story worked. But then something changed. Staff numbers grew, new managers were hired, new departments started up. But the management team forgot to change the story. Executives would go out and pitch the business but tell the ‘old’ story. It didn’t fit. The organisation lost its magic touch because the story was neglected.

    So shaping and telling your business story is more than just marketing. It’s a touchstone for what the business stands for, it’s a tool to get your team motivated and understand where you’re headed.

    In my business I help clients tell their story - communicating it is often the easier bit; crafting it can be more complicated. But once you nail it, a story can reinvigorate an organisation with focus and clarity, engaging staff and clients alike.

    So don’t dismiss storytelling as a marketing activity; your story can act as your organisation’s lifebelt - when conditions gets rough, grab hold of it to stay afloat...

  • Are You Telling Your Story?

    Increasingly I find myself in the storytelling business. It’s the unifier that ties in my client work, writing my books and writing for the Financial Times. Rewind a few years, executives and entrepreneurs may have scratched their heads about the relevance of storytelling to their business life - now many recognise that marketing is about competing on their story. A great story can make the difference between visibility and invisibility; it can make a business gettable and memorable.

    For example, Ruark Audio is a British business making digital radios and music systems; they started out making hifi loudspeakers founded by a father (a cabinet maker) and his son (an engineer). Sure, they can compete on their award winning design but it’s their simple story of a father and son collaboration that makes Ruark different from competitors. Gettable? Yep. Memorable? Hopefully.

    Of course your story is not just valuable externally; it also helps people inside an organisation understand the vision and culture, so they ‘get’ what the company stands for.

    Yesterday I met with Bobette Buster, a storytelling expert who works with the major film studios in Hollywood and lectures on how to tell great stories well. Bobette’s experience is that many people over-complicate a story and therefore lose any emotional engagement. All this was brought home to me when I read my two young sons last night’s bedtime story. They’re a demanding audience (and I’m a choosy reader) so one author we constantly reach for is Oliver Jeffers, whose simple imaginative books delight both Dad and sons. Last night’s read - ‘The Way Back Home’ - has all the ingredients of a simple gettable story.

    I’m not going to make some clumsy analogy taking businesses lessons from a kid’s book, instead I’ll leave you with some advice from Bobette. When shaping your business story, ask yourself: “Will the audience have an emotional attachment to that story that will move them to take an action?”

    [The End]

  • Stop hiding your people away

    A business started following me on Twitter. They looked interesting so I clicked through to their site. I scanned ‘About Us’ to read their story: lots of ‘we’ this and ‘we’ that, but no namechecks, no names anywhere on the site. They were faceless and this lack of people left me unsatisfied. The business felt too clinical. I exited.

    It’s no surprise that clients like working with your business because they like working with *you*. They like Sam’s attention to detail; Liz is great at understanding their needs; Emily, Jess, Matt and Kish are a great bunch of people to go for an after-meeting beer with. So why hide your people away?

    Hiding your people away means you can’t communicate your personality, you’re missing the human element of your story that makes your business or brand distinctive. I know some small businesses remain faceless because they want to appear bigger than they really are. They might be a three-person businesses but they want to sound bigger to get taken seriously. They should just be honest and tell it like it is.

    ‘About Us’ may be the most important page on your website, so make it personal.