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Articles filed in: Storytelling

How Much Information Is Enough?

When do we know it’s safe to cross the road? How much information do we need about how far away that truck is and how fast it’s going to decide whether to step off the pavement?

How much information does your customer need before deciding she trusts you?

As people who sell things or ideas, our challenge is twofold. We must understand what information our prospective customers want as well as how much information is enough. All the while remembering that the same information doesn’t work for everyone and we can only ‘know’ with hindsight what messages worked.

Researchers in university departments around the world spend years, sometimes decades, attempting to answer similar questions. Unlike scientists, we don’t have years to discover what’s working. But just like the scientist we must try and test. We must begin with the posture of empathy for the people we want to reach and resonate with. The question about what we should say then becomes about what the person we’re speaking to is ready to hear.

Image by Garry Knight

Fact Or Fiction?

The bookstore in Albert Park had just opened when Thomas, dressed as Batman, and his mum walked in. They headed straight to the children’s section at the back.  They were shopping for a present for Ben, who was having a superhero birthday party that afternoon.

‘Let’s get Ben this book about Brazil. Then he can learn all about the people in Brazil,’ Mum said.
‘No! I want to get him a book about Batman,’ Thomas shot back, bottom lip out and cape askew.

In the end, they bought both books, but you can guess which one Ben loved.

It’s obvious that Thomas will be the best judge of what Ben likes. But his mum still has an opinion, based on her assumption about what’s better for Ben in the long run.

We sometimes make assumptions based on our opinions about a customer’s wants and needs. It’s hard to be objective about our ideas when we are invested in the outcome. But that shouldn’t stop us trying to stand in our customer’s shoes for long enough to understand how he feels. Our opinion is immaterial if it doesn’t align with the story the customer believes.

Image by Jonnie Anderson

Tell Me About Your Company

If you were asked to describe a friend in three words you’d have no problem. Maybe you’d say he was fun or kind, perhaps you see him as loyal or generous. But if I asked you to tell me about your company’s attributes or brand’s characteristics you’d probably struggle. We invest a lot of time and resources in becoming known without clarifying what we want to be known for.

If we want to have a say in how our brand is perceived, then we need to be intentional about creating that perception. As the saying goes, if you don’t tell your story someone else will.

Questions For You

Can you describe your company in three words?
Are those the three words you aspire to be known for?
Are those three words how your customers already describe you?
If so, how can you continue to tell that story?
If not, what needs to change for you to become the company you want to be?

The goal isn’t to manipulate the message—it’s to amplify the truth.

Image by Garry Knight

The Brand Awareness Conundrum

Every few months another new restaurant on Bourke Street closes its doors for the last time. Sometimes it’s like watching a car crash happening in slow motion right in front of your eyes. The events leading up to the closure follow a familiar pattern.

There’s the launch day fanfare, accompanied by balloons, the menu reveal and opening offers. The staff member stationed out front hands out leaflets to the hundreds of passers-by trying to entice them in. Many put their head around the restaurant door. Most don’t go inside. A few promise to come back but never do. The sandwich board on the pavement advertising discounted ‘specials’ get bigger and brighter as the days turn into weeks, then months, where too few lunches have been served. Those adverts are a sure sign that the lease won’t be renewed.

Bourke Street is one of the busiest streets in the heart of Melbourne—a place thousands of potential customers walk up and down each day. But setting up shop there does not guarantee that the right customers will come and keep coming. We have come to believe that being known is the key to being successful. That’s not always the case. The people and companies that succeed are not just visible to everyone—they’re resonant with the particular group of people that they have optimised their business to serve.

Back to Bourke Street. There’s a new restaurant that’s quickly become a favourite with busy office workers and weekend shoppers, looking for a quick pit stop and a healthy bite to eat. The first thing the owners did was to design the entrance with empathy. They didn’t want people to feel intimidated to step over the threshold. They wanted to avoid people feeling that they had to commit to sitting down if they walked in—which they believed would stop them coming in at all. They removed the door and left the restaurant completely open to the street.  They’re giving people the opportunity to see straight away if this is their kind of place.

Being known by everyone isn’t going to get us to where we want to go. Being right for the right people is where we start. And understanding how to show and tell those customers that we’re right for them is the way we build a sustainable, successful business. We don’t need to find more ways to make everyone see us. We need to find more ways to make the right people sure of us.

Image by Garry Knight

Do You Have A Customer Awareness Strategy?

The Friday evening tram was jam-packed with commuters, our bodies so closely pressed together you could feel the heat from the passenger standing next to you. As the tram made its way up Collins Street, the people travelling alone avoided eye contact.  Two women next to me were chatting about the black jacket the younger one was wearing.

She mentioned the brand name and the store where she’d bought it, then went on to describe why it was ‘worth the investment’. ‘I’m a junior lawyer. I work long hours. I always feel put together when I’m wearing this jacket, even when I’m leaving the office after a twelve-hour-day.’ Sold.

If only the brand’s designer and marketing team had been there to overhear the conversation.

Of course, it’s not always possible to be in the room or on the tram, when our customers have something valuable to share. But it is possible to create a mechanism for hearing and acting on what they tell us. The stories our customers tell—the words they use and the feelings they express are part of our story. We should know and use them. What’s your customer awareness strategy?

Image by Matthew Henry

Why Do Customers Choose You?

What are the top three reasons customers choose you? What story are you giving those customers to tell—not just to recommend you, but to trust and value, prefer and remain loyal to you or your company?

You can make assumptions and best guesses about what’s motivating the people you serve, or you can ask for reasons they will happily share. The stories your customers tell themselves are part of the story you need to tell.

Image by Garry Knight

How To Tell A Story Using The Story Scaffold

There’s no question that stories are the best way to engage and persuade people. We have good scientific evidence to prove it. According to neuroeconomist, Professor Paul Zak, ‘Narratives that cause us to pay attention and also involve us emotionally are the stories that move us to action.’ It’s our very makeup, our physiology, that enables us to empathise and to be persuaded by stories. This physiological connection between head and heart is the reason stories work.

Zak goes on to say, ‘Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered than simply stating a set of facts.’  All compelling stories follow a simple three-act structure, with a beginning, where the scene is set. A middle where something happens. And an ending where we find out what happens as a result of what happened. The sequence of events—what we reveal to the audience, when, is what makes stories work. The goal is to keep the audience wondering what’s going to happen next all the way to the end. When you can’t put a book down, it’s because the author nailed the story structure. The author’s goal is to keep you turning the pages.

Philosophers and scholars like Aristotle, Freytag and Campbell, analysed dramatic structure and gave us story formulas like the hero’s journey to help us become better storytellers. Every successful movie follows these formulas. But they are overly complex for stories we tell every day.

At its simplest, the sequence of events in a story happens in five stages.


The 5C’s of The Story Scaffold

The Backstory
Introduction to the hero’s or heroine’s world.

The Event
Something changes in the hero’s or heroine’s world.

The Obstacle
The hero or heroine is faced with a problem and a choice.

The Transformation
The hero or heroine decides on a path and a plan to overcome the obstacle.

The Resolution
The hero’s or heroine’s character, fate, world and worldview are altered.

You can test this structure by mapping it onto any memorable story from Cinderella to Toy Story. Think about what happens in Toy Story when Woody, Andy’s favourite toy is confronted with the arrival of Buzz Lightyear and how he changes throughout the story as a result.

You can use The Story Scaffold to become a better storyteller, not only when you’re marketing but in everyday conversations. Sometimes you will be the hero of the story. But more often when you write persuasive sales and marketing copy, pitch a winning presentation or create great customer experiences, it’s the customer’s or client’s story you’re telling.

Storytelling isn’t just the best way to be seen and heard in a meeting or on a stage. It’s how we engage with people every day by showing that we see them.

If you’d like to practice using The Story Scaffold to tell better stories, consider The Story Skills Workshop.

Image by Carmelody


According to the Collins English Dictionary, a signal ‘is a gesture, sound, or action which is intended to give a particular message to the person who sees or hears it.’

We are sending signals to our clients and customers whenever they come into contact with our business or brand—even when we’re not face-to-face. Words, images, dress, titles, tone, body language, location, prices, packaging, decor and design give people clues about who we are, what we stand for and what we’re worth. The flipside is that when we allocate resources, we’re also sending a signal to ourselves about what we’re worthy of.

Customers are making decisions based on our signals, so it pays to be intentional about every signal we send. When I get an email, like the one I got yesterday from an insurance company assuring me that my query is important to them ‘and will be replied to within three business days,’ I’m forming an opinion about what it would be like to be a paying customer with an urgent request.

Of course, in the days of online customer reviews, we can’t always control the message—which is all the more reason to make sure that the story we tell when we can is sending the signal we intended to send.

Image by Garry Knight

What The Best Communicators Do

Professor Daniel Kahneman has spent a lifetime researching why and how humans make decisions. His decades of work focused on the two ways we think and decide using one of two modes of thought, System 1 and System 2. System 1 makes fast, instinctive and emotional judgements and System 2 operates at a slower more logical level. Kahneman wrote a five hundred page book on the subject titled Thinking Fast and Slow.

Of course, just like us, even Nobel prizewinning researchers don’t usually have a lifetime or five hundred pages to explain the impact of their work. We often only have someone’s attention for seconds, let alone minutes. The mistake we make as communicators, marketers and salespeople is believing that we need to give people all the information while we have their attention—that’s what we were taught at school. We were not penalised for writing down everything we knew in an exam. The best way to win at exams was to write down everything we knew. But this doesn’t work when we’re face-to-face with people.

The goal isn’t just to deliver the information—it’s to capture the imagination. This is how we communicated as children—in stories, not facts. But over the years we’ve unlearned all of that. If we’re serious about making an impact, we need to start reclaiming those innate storytelling skills we once had.

When Professor Kahneman describes how System 1 works, he tells the story about calling his wife Anne on the phone and knowing immediately what kind of mood she’s in just by hearing her tone of voice when she picks up. Whenever he tells that story, the audience laughs, they nod their heads, they immediately get it.

The next time you’re asked a question about what you do or why it works, don’t go into a long explanation. Just start with the words, ‘let me tell you a story’.

Image by Garry Knight

The Immeasurable Benefits Of The Immeasurable

Joanne has no idea what the return on investment of sweeping her bakery floor is. And yet she does it first thing each morning before the first customer arrives.

Harry has no way of knowing if the three hours he spends cleaning his taxi inside and out at the weekend makes a difference to passengers. But he makes the effort all the same.

Sean will never meet the diners who sit admiring the view from the restaurant windows he cleans. That doesn’t stop him polishing out every single smudge and smear.

We underestimate the value of the things we cannot quantify or track—not only to our customers, colleagues or companies but for the joy and fulfilment they bring us in the doing of them. The way we do the work, not just the work itself, is how we own our story.

Image by Udo Geisler