By Alex Parkinson, Associate Director, Society for New Communications Research of The Conference Board, and Kathy Klotz-Guest, Business Story Strategist, Speaker, Author, and CEO, Keeping it Human
Last week, we shared part 1 of an edited transcript of my conversation with Kathy Klotz-Guest, CEO of Keeping it Human (and a founding fellow of the Society for New Communications Research of The Conference Board). In today’s post, we share part 2 of our conversation, in which Kathy shares her thoughts on leading corporate storytellers. Click here to read part 1.
Alex Parkinson (AP): The idea of storytelling is still dismissed by many corporate leaders. How do you get past that?Kathy Klotz-Guest (KKG): I might have said that seven or eight years ago, but I’ve seen so many companies take a different approach that I don’t think it’s necessarily true anymore. Are there some stalwart holdouts? Sure, but ignore storytelling at your own risk. Take GE, for example—who would have thought that GE, six or seven years ago, would be as good at consumer storytelling as they are today. They have an old industrial business legacy, but they have done a ton with great storytelling to make their brand relevant today and tomorrow. Why is that possible? Because the leaders know that without storytelling, you don’t stay relevant to a whole new generation of business decision-makers and consumers.
You can pooh-pooh [laughs—OK—I haven’t used that word in a while!] storytelling all you want, but you’ve got a whole new generation of people who don’t know your legacy and you have to reinvent yourself. How do you do that? With great stories that show how your company is shaping the future. So, I’ve seen more and more that the resistance against storytelling is coming down. Are there pockets of resistance? Yes. However, nothing persuades like a story. And even stubborn leaders can’t deny that!
AP: How do storytellers report on performance?KKG: That’s a big one, because there are a lot of ways to measure storytelling and there are different levels to think about. There’s big strategic storytelling about who you are in the world, and then there’s tactical storytelling when you’re talking about campaigns. There are two ways that I approach this when advising companies. You’ve got to think short term—think about whether your stories that you’re telling for certain campaigns are successful and are they generating revenue, because, let’s face it, if you’re not making revenue or getting good leads, something’s not right. So you have to be very pragmatic about it.
But there is also this larger, more strategic storytelling that every company must do. Here’s how you go about measuring that: We’re telling better stories about customer service and our customer service numbers are better; we’re telling better stories to millennials and now we’re recruiting the best talent; our employees are all happy and morale has gone up. And our employees feel connected to our mission. Those are strategic measures over the long haul and they become just as important as the bottom line measures like revenue. We all know that if your company doesn’t have a good mission or story, employees don’t perform, customer service will suffer and down the road that revenue number will go down. A company without a solid strategic story—and that is the price of admission to being in the game—is rudderless. Consider the case of Yahoo! I have written and talked about this extensively because it’s so important.
So, I always encourage companies to look at both the strategic and tactical. But if you don’t have the strategic in place, the tactical won’t matter. I know this from all the years I have been doing it!
AP: What makes a good storyteller and who are they at companies?KKG: I like to joke that the worst thing to happen to social media marketing are social media marketers. I think they get in their own way. What happens is that marketers become so obsessed with talking points and messages and what they can and can’t do, that they forget the most fundamental thing, which is to emotionally connect with audiences. That’s what matters.
Certainly there are organizations that have fabulous marketing storytellers—I see them every day. Yet, I find that the best storytellers are your best employees, wherever they are. If you’ve got passionate people building your products, let them tell their stories to their audience. If you have passionate people in engineering and they want to tell you about a new software tool, let those people tell that story. Whether people are in sales, or customer service (and these people always have great stories—they are your first line of defense), create a way for these amazing stories to surface. Find the best champions and advocates within your company and let them tell their stories. More often than not, these people are not going to be in marketing (or the C-suite for that matter!). I am also a comic improviser, and the best stories are always about the truth. And of course, we need to let customers tell their best stories their way.
AP: Where does that leave marketing?KKG: They’ve got to listen to the market and feed that information back into the business so that the stories that come out resonate with the market. They’ve got to listen to salespeople and customer service folks, and what they’re telling you from the great conversations they have every day, and reflect that back into the organization.
AP: Which other companies are great storytellers and why?KKG: Well, I am seeing some interesting storytelling in the big corporate space. Microsoft is getting better. They’re realizing that their role in technology is about making people’s lives better, so they’re starting to tell better stories there. Marriott invested in studio production and they do these amazing videos in which a Marriott hotel is sort of a character in the background, but they tell the story of a person visiting a city—and by the way they stay at a Marriott—but it’s in the background and those work very well.
JetBlue did a great job of putting the humanity in storytelling and when they had all those problems with not enough planes to feed the demand in the growth of their airline, they owned it. They got in front of it and created the first bill of rights for a passenger airline and turned it around by being on the leading end. They are having new issues; however, their story of humanity in travel has to be in their stories. It’s their promise.
I’m disappointed in the way Chipotle handled the food crisis. I think they could have done that better and I think a lot of storytellers would likely agree with that. Part of the problem is that when a crisis happens, people go into information mode—and some of that is doing research and mitigating liability, of course—and they kind of went dark for a long time, until they had their facts. Here’s the thing: silence is the only fact people recognize. They could have said, “We don’t have our arms around the scope of what’s going on here, but we are investigating, we care, this is not who we are, we are doing everything we can.” When they did finally come out with the story of what happened, they started blaming suppliers etc. They never really owned it.
AP: In what way can companies be out front with storytelling, so that they’re not responding to crises, but being out front of issues?KKG: Content marketing goes wrong when companies want to be the storytellers or the focus, but if they can start telling stories about successful customers or how customers are using their products, when you have a crisis, you have more latitude and leeway because you’ve built up trust, and we’re more willing to cut companies slack when we trust them. If all along you’re telling success stories from your customers, when issues arise, people will wait to hear what you have to say because you have built up credibility. You can also blow that credibility easily, though. That is tricky.
AP: What are the pitfalls to avoid with storytelling?KKG: Ha! That is a big question. You’ve got to make sure that you’re focusing on your business partner and their stories, customer stories and employee stories and putting a lens on those. Earned media is more believable, typically yields greater results, and has more longevity. Too many companies forget to include their best employees on any storytelling. That is a big mistake.
The other thing is that if you have strong brand and when things go wrong, you have to own it and get in front of it as quickly as you can as we talked about. But don’t forget to let others tell their own stories. Too many companies want to write a script and hand it to the customer. Don’t do that—let the customer be genuine and honest in the way they’ve experienced you. That goes for employees as well.
About the guest:Kathy Klotz-Guest, MA, MBA, MLA, is a business storytelling strategist, marketing idea facilitator, author, and speaker. Founder of Keeping it Human, her mission is to help organizations turn jargon-monoxide into compelling stories and uncover boldly creative ideas for marketing content, storytelling, products, customer service, branding and more. She has worked with companies including Cisco Systems, Stanford University, Delphon, and Kaiser Permanente to name a few organizations. A podcaster and comic improviser, Kathy has written two other short books on content and storytelling (The Executive’s Bedtime Guide series) in addition to her latest book, Stop Boring Me! Creating Kick-Ass Marketing Content, Products and Ideas Through the Power of Improv. Her work has been published in Convince and Convert, Business of Story, Marketing Profs, Ragan.com, PR Daily, Business2Community, and Customer Think. She was a Founding Board Member and Research Fellow for the Society for New Communications Research and a market analyst at Dataquest /GG many years ago. She loves using both her left and right “brains” and her 7-year-old is still her favorite audience to make laugh.
Alex Parkinson is Principal of Parky Communications, a communications agency specializing in sustainability and CSR reporting and communications. He serves as the Co-Leader of The Conference Board Cor…