Story is the greatest tool we have to counter noise — we use it to filter what we see and hear, and organizations can use it to zero into what will make their customers' lives better. Our filters let only what we think or believe is important through. This drives what we notice.
The language of story connects our identity, what we value, with our goals, where we want to go. This connection between who we are and what we want explains why we pay attention to stories with emotional appeal.
How we get there is filled with stories.
Stories are us
Storytelling is an old as human kind. We use stories to explain things and make sense of the world — what is — and what could be. If the ancient Greeks explored morality and different aspects of their mind and thinking with myths, our novels and fictional stories give us a glimpse of the future.
“The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed,” said William Gibson (Fresh Air, 1993), an American-Canadian speculative fiction writer and essayist. A realistic vision of the future is an incentive to inhabit the story and make it happen. Our stories change us, because they create the necessary transitions from where we are to where we want to be.
When we want something, we need to take action, and typically this involves a choice and a transition of some kind. We're the hero of our stories, and to get what we want we often wade into unfamiliar territory. As we do that, we anchor on our beliefs, values, and past experience about how the world works.
An external event or trigger may prompt us to take action. But our stronger motivation comes from the inside — an inner desire to solve a problem or do something about a latent issue that bothers us.
For example, when a service provider changes fee structure, that may prompt shopping around for other options, especially if we don't feel an affiliation to the brand or its people, or if we've had poor experiences. At that point, we have enough of an incentive to make a change.
Customer is the hero, and this is how actions are bigger than words in practice. A sum of even small interactions that did not satisfy are fertile ground for making a conscious transition.
As buyers, customers, protagonists of our own lives we encounter three types of problems on the path to what we want — external, internal, and philosophical. The problem, an unfamiliar situation that needs solving, creates an opening for taking action.
Experienced fiction writers understand that the problem or inciting incident is what hooks us to keep reading. To illustrate the difference between a situation and a story, British author John Le, “'The cat sat on the mat' is not a story. 'The cat sat on the dog's mat is a story'.”
The dog is just what we need to create tension, the latent part of what makes a situation a story. Without a problem, there would be no action, or promise of action. We're engineered to conserve energy and status quo... until we're compelled to make a change. What's going to happen to the cat?
Author Steve Pressfield says every story needs a villain. The villain creates the situation that requires action. To overcome it, we/the hero need to deal with an issue, obstacle, thing that could go wrong if the villain had their way. The issue is the external problem, what could go wrong is our inner conflict.
Organizations often overlook the internal problem at their peril. A great customer experience often goes undetected because nothing bad happens. That is the point. Instead of taking energy out of the relationship bank, we conserve it when we don't have to complain to make things right again.
For example, a gate attendant who asks passengers to select new seats (choice/internal) after giving theirs away to a family rather than assigning them arbitrarily (logistics/external) avoids the problem altogether.
Organizations can design a culture to dissolve problems — signaling empathy puts all people on the same side. Giving customers more control shows them they're the hero. Actions are bigger than words in our mental accounting.
People who say something was easy, fun, that it worked out are having a good experience. We just never thing of that as evidence we can use to go back and analyze how things worked to do more of it. That's where the real action is.
How we can change the stories
Stories can turn around an organization and breathe new life on its products. In 1988 there was a clear alternative to the confusion and headache-inducing list of commands by DOS PCs — the Apple Macintosh. An intuitive display meant we could get started doing what we wanted right away, before looking at the manual.
Steve Jobs understood that the medium was as important as its usefulness and ease of use. Think different was the result, and it spoke directly to the creators, the crazy ones. Behind the message was a brand with a pulse of what was going on in the internal conversation.
There's a reason for the popular saying, “get your story together,” it works. To break down the elements of a story:
- who we're speaking with — mystery writers use the conventions of this form of storytelling to appeal to mystery readers, they use external situations to address the internal conversation known to fans of this form of storytelling
- what they want to do — that we also want. This is our why they care. Our product or service exists because it addresses a specific problem and creates opportunity to free up energy for something else. When customers say things like, “I would rather do xyz right now” we know we're not doing well.
- how they get there — this is the path or journey from where they are to where they want to be. If working with us or using our product makes people better, gets them on their way to mastery, we become guides worthy of trust.
Why we do what we do is important, but the problem we solve comes first. Like Apple, many other successful technology companies start there. Innovative organizations take action at product and service level as well. That's how they find new problems to solve. Innovation by its very definition needs exploring to work.
Exploration also helps us find better ideas on how to connect with our customers' internal problem. A true product benefit brings customer along on a journey where they may experience pleasure, relief, or both. We're good on our word when it reflects their story consistently.
Good guides for a complex product anticipate the steps and take customers through them, preparing, educating, and inspiring. An understanding of scope is critical. This also means the story evolves with the need. In Jeff Bezos' words, customers are delightfully unhappy.
Story is a form of currency. How we tell a story is important. The customer is the hero. Brands and organizations are the guides.