Blog in 02 2014.
Pretty much every food and drink brand worth its chips has a story to tell these days.
Peruse the websites of giants like Bacardi, Innocent and Jack Daniel’s, or relative small-fry like Brew Dog, Higgidy and London Pride, and you’ll come across the tale of how they came to be. Here’s another one you might recognise:
Back in ’66, in a school gym class, Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield were brought together by a special bond... they both hated running but loved food. Years later in ’78, Ben had been fired from a series of McJobs while Jerry had failed for the second time to get into medical school. So, armed with a $5 correspondence course in ice cream making, they opened their very first scoop shop in a dilapidated gas station in downtown Burlington, Vermont.
If you take a closer look at the food and drink stories, they’ve all got two basic things in common.
1. Their story tells us why they are the way they are.
Take Jack Daniel’s, for example. They’ve put Mr Jack at the heart of their brand – and it’s his old-time values that direct how they do business: making whiskey in the same buildings, by the same method, as they did 150 years ago.
2. Their story tells us something tangible about what they make, or how they do it, that shows their values in action.
Like independent pie-makers Higgidy. Founder Camilla is a pie evangelist, and her word is gospel.
You cannot make a perfect pie with a machine. Everybody who truly loves pies knows that. So no matter how many people want their pies they still just make them by hand – even if it means staying up all-night.
It’s a structure that serves these firms well. We’re increasingly concerned about where our food comes from (what with the horsemeat scandal, worries about the environmental cost of long-distance haulage, and so on). So if you can show you make things the right way – as opposed to mass-produced, battery-farmed, GM-infused stuff – we’re more likely to feel good about it, and trust that you’re not topping up the vino with antifreeze.
But this storytelling trend doesn’t stretch to, say, financial firms. Or tech brands. Why not? What’s stopping those kinds of companies from using the power of stories to tell us about themselves? Well, nothing really.
At heart these are all stories about the people behind the business, and why they do what they do. That’s something every company has in common. And as professional storyteller Nick Hennessey told us, the stories of real people in your organisations are the ones we want to hear – and the ones we trust.
In a small corner of networking giant Cisco’s website, for example, there’s a story about how Cisco started in part because a husband and wife wanted to keep in touch in different parts of Stanford University campus, but didn’t have the technology to do it. For a company that’s all about connecting people with technology, what better story to show their values in action? Why not put that front and centre?
General Electric has a history full of fascinating people and world-changing inventions. They tell the story of founder Thomas Edison, but end up talking about ‘a stream of powerful company-wide initiatives that drive growth and reduce cost’. That feels like a missed opportunity to link Edison’s philosophy to GE’s culture of innovation.
You don’t have to hand-bake pies to have a personal touch to the way you do business. And you don’t have to have been in the same building for 150 years to still be guided by your founding values. Just find the stories of your people’s failures and successes, their passions and pet peeves. And tell them.
How do you get people to read your stuff when there are a gazillion other things they could be looking at? Link-sharing site Upworthy has some answers. Their brand of quirky headlines has won them more than ten million readers. And it’s increasingly hard to ignore. Here are a few of their biggest click-grabbing hits:
This slideshow outlines the Upworthy masterplan. And we particularly like their advice to force yourself to write 25 headlines for every article, before choosing the most eye-catching one. Because a killer headline can be the difference between someone clicking on your link or dumping it in the trash.
Or, as co-founder Eli Pariser put it in a Business Insider interview: ‘The ethos behind the 25 headlines is this: you can have the best piece of content and make the best point ever. But if no one looks at it, the article is a waste. A headline is all about getting the article in front of people.’
Every time you write a title, you have a chance grab the attention of the people you want to reach. Does the word policy make your heart sink? Then don’t put it at the top of anything you want your colleagues or customers to look at. One of Upworthy’s biggest stories was about media consolidation. The headline? The Real Reason They Still Play ‘Mrs. Robinson’ On The Radio.
We’re not suggesting you copy Upworthy’s tone. But there’s always an interesting angle to get someone hooked – and churning out 25 headlines makes you more likely to find it. Ditch drab titles and don’t be scared to have an opinion. As our Padders says, they get people engaged. Whether they agree with you or not, if you spend a bit more time on your headlines and titles to make them eye-catching, people will be more likely to read what you’ve got to say.
You might have seen Upworthy in the news recently. There was some suggestion that Facebook changed their newsfeed algorithm to slash Upworthy’s traffic. But according to the Huffington Post that doesn’t look likely. Instead, Upworthy got a couple of huge viral hits in a row – thanks in no small part to their killer headlines – and then dipped back to more regular figures. Either way, they seem to be doing something right.
This story about highstreet bath-bomb purveyors Lush and their naming spat with Amazon has caught our eye. Apparently, Amazon were using a version of Lush’s name to flog their own cosmetic lines, until a High Court judge stepped in this week.
Now naughty old Lush have trademarked the name of the UK managing director of Amazon, Christopher North, and named a shower gel after him. With the strapline ‘rich, thick and full of it’.
They’re having fun with the product description, too. ‘Kindle a new love for your skin: it’s not taxing to take care of your skin with this product packed with Amazon Prime ingredients.’
Lush clearly understand the power of a David and Goliath story. We have to say, we can’t wait to hear how this one turns out.
National Storytelling Week might be over, but we’re not closing the book on it just yet. Nick Hennessey is an academic, performer and professional storyteller (not to mention a star of our recent storytelling event). We asked him some questions about what stories can do for business, and here’s what he told us.
What is it about telling stories that makes it such an effective way to communicate?
Storytelling isn’t voodoo, and it isn’t rocket science. It’s simple and natural. It’s what we do all of the time, because a story is just a coherent ordering of information. And because there’s so much information flung at us these days, we crave them. They make an ‘us’ out of ‘it’. They make us feel at home.
What can businesses learn about how to talk to their customers (and their own people) from the way we respond to stories?
Authenticity is the greatest challenge to any business. To be honest and open. To be human. This is a challenge because a lot of businesses spend their time trying not to be human, and so when they talk they sound mechanical and lifeless. For communication to be authentic there has to be respect and trust between speaker and listener. Honesty is the key.
Are there any companies you’ve seen doing it really well?
I’m not sure I’m immersed enough in brands to comment. And anyway, the stories that interest me the most are beneath the polished, public surface; the stories of everyday lives being lived. I find them to be the most extraordinary. If a company can communicate that, then I’m hooked.
If you could give one bit of storytelling advice to businesses, what would it be?
Don’t be afraid to show your humanity. In the battle between the humans and the machines, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against us, but our flaws are our greatest strengths. What are the stories in your organisation? Not the ones you wish for – the ones you make up – but the real ones. They are the ones we want to hear, they are the ones we trust.
Now, in a language consultancy run by writers, you’d expect there to be more than a few authors knocking about. So to celebrate National Storytelling Week, here are a few (non-businessy) tales told by Writer folk past and present.
Jamie Jauncey’s The Witness – a tale of bloody conflict in the Scottish highlands – was called a ‘page-turner ... well-written ... and bursting with ideas’ by the Scotsman. (Check out his other book The Reckoning too.)
If short stories are more your thing, then Nick Parker’s collection, The Exploding Boy and Other Tiny Tales, could be right up your street. The Guardian said it was ‘impertinent, unlikely and astonishing’. Which was nice. (You can read one of them for nowt here.)
And watch this space:
Here’s Darragh McKeon talking about his first novel, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. It’s set against the backdrop of a collapsing Soviet Union and the Chernobyl disaster, and it’s due out on 6th March.
And last but by no means least, our friends at creative writing collective Dark Angels have penned a collaborative novel – get a peek at an excerpt here. Keeping Mum isn’t out yet – but keep an eye out for the latest news.