Take Control of Your Story

October 8, 2013

Stories You Like

I got my biggest lesson in storytelling during a visit to San Quentin State Prison in San Rafael, CA.

I had walked through the prison yard and into a classroom to see how volunteers with nonprofit The Last Mile (TLM) teach entrepreneurship, social media, and professional development to inmates. These volunteers, many of them Silicon Valley professionals, come to San Quentin because research shows that prison education can significantly lower the chances of recidivism. This translates into reduced public expenditures on prisons, and more men returning to society as productive citizens.

On the first day of TLM’s semester, the 15 eager students were learning about personal branding. This is the foundational lesson because on the outside, former inmates often struggle against a popular narrative that says they lack marketable skills or the character necessary to contribute to their communities. In effect, most former inmates are held back by someone else’s story.

By learning how to take control of their own stories, the men of TLM are taking control of their lives. Today, TLM guarantees every graduate a paid internship upon release from prison, an opportunity that alumni are converting to full-time careers and startup ventures of their own.

My experience with storytelling at San Quentin might seem exceptional, but what I learned there is fundamental: story is paramount to all professional relationships and endeavors. It lies at the heart of everything we do.

How does your company tap into the power of story, as the men of TLM are doing?

“We can walk away from our books and our screens, but we can never walk away from story,” writes Jonathan Gotschall, a researcher and author of The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. “For humans, story is like gravity: an inescapable field of force that influences everything, but is so omnipresent that we hardly notice it.”

For companies, those that tell their stories through compelling content improve their chances of success. For example, 88% of B2B buyers say online content has either a major or moderate influence on vendor selection. These numbers appear in a 2013 study from the CMO Council and NetLine.

If your company targets professionals, your stories should take the form of insights that align with their career aspirations and sense of purpose. And you should act early: Business decision-makers often make it 60% of the way through the buying journey before ever making contact with a vendor. They’re seeking information that can help them choose the right vendor and eliminate options. If you reach these buyers early with helpful content, your company is more likely to remain in their consideration set.

What kinds of stories should companies tell to connect with their audiences? Global research that LinkedIn conducted with more than 6,000 social network users revealed that members of professional networks want content that helps them improve professionally, make tough business decisions, and gain advice or recommendations relevant to their careers.

For example, technology manufacturer Lenovo posted LinkedIn Sponsored Updates aimed at an audience of professionals. Each update linked to best practices and discussions about leadership, business travel, product design, and other topics relevant to the Lenovo customer.

The campaign reflected Lenovo’s story that positions the brand as a resource for customers seeking to become more productive and successful. By creating useful content backed by compelling story, Lenovo achieved a 17% lift in brand favorability among members who saw the campaign. What’s more, the Sponsored Updates earned four times the average engagement of standard display advertising.

The bottom line is that we all need to tell clear, powerful stories if we hope to make meaningful connections with our audience. This is as true for marketers as it is for inmates at San Quentin. If you’re not taking control of your story, then who is?

Note: Originally posted on the Spredfast blog.