May 2016

Who is your Chief Storyteller?


Among the emerging titles for executives in the C-Suite, Chief Storyteller rarely makes the cut. However, successful, KPI-driven companies like SAP, IBM, and Microsoft all have Chief Storytellers. If you look on LinkedIn, you can find them.

So, why do these companies place such importance on an activity that feels like a lost art?

Searching for ROI

Content Marketing, on the other hand, drives more urgency on executive teams. Content is king (old news) and measurable content (via Content Marketing) is a King with tangible ROI. But what makes for great content? Is it the length? Is it the format? Is it how much money you spend? No, no, and no.

An episode of House of Cards can garner as much reach as a Facebook post. How can that be? One costs millions of dollars to produce, the other is generally considered to be “free”.

Most will credit authenticity. Both House of Cards and a Facebook post, to at least a degree, feel authentic. So what makes them authentic? Yes, you guessed it: a strong, relatable story. We are suckers for story.

The amazing thing is that we are all storytellers. We have our own personal stories and we have the stories of the organizations we are a part of. So to a degree, we are all qualified to be storytellers, if not Chief Storytellers.

However, our almost exclusive focus on KPI’s to lead us to success is blinding us from what makes truly great brands. Great brands are about crafting a compelling story and telling it repeatedly through many channels. So of course, we want to track KPI’s to ensure that we’re telling the story efficiently and in the right channels. Unfortunately, we don’t have KPI’s for the quality of the story itself.

This leads me back to the title of the posting, “Who is your Chief Storyteller?” If you’re like 99.9% of organizations that are not SAP, IBM, or Microsoft, you may never officially delegate one. At the same time, taking ownership of story in our sales & marketing endeavors is one of the most powerful things that we can do to boost effectiveness. The Advertising Research Foundation notes that “75% of advertising return on investment comes from creative quality, not media placement.” In other words, you can monitor and tinker with KPI’s all day long, but you’ll cap out at a 25% improvement on your ROI.

Now, most people say they aren’t creative or don’t have the ability to be creative. “That’s why we hire you” is what I often hear from our clients at Marching Penguin. That’s fair enough and flattering, but by the same token, as a creative partner, we’re only one part of the storytelling equation. The real stories come from inside an organization, and executives are best equipped to tell them. Coincidentally, that’s why a lot of executive teams turn to “talking heads” videos to tell stories about their companies.

However, “talking heads” are often an introductory foray into storytelling. You don’t see Nike, McDonald’s or Walmart running 30 second talking heads videos as advertisements.

Next Steps

I have yet to work with a client that has a Chief Storyteller. I may never. However, my hope is that anyone reading this can set up a structure and process for great storytelling. Here are 3 tactics that can get you moving:

1. Keep a Story Bank – Assign someone to be accountable for taking down all the stories about the company. Keep these summaries short. A log line and a brief description are more than enough. As your story bank grows, rank order the stories and ensure that they tie to the company’s brand and core values. Finally, incorporate the Story Bank into the ideation process with your internal stakeholders and external partners.

2. Use Outlines Religiously – Your high school English teacher taught you how to write an effective outline, and that may very well have been the last time you wrote one. In seriousness, I’ve witnessed many clients skip this step. “Oh, we know what we’re talking about.” “We’ll figure it out at the shoot.” They do know what they’re talking about. It’s just that figuring it out at the shoot is a recipe for disaster.

The reality is that not every piece of creative requires a full script and storyboards. However, every piece should have a story outline. Otherwise, there is no point of reference for developing the creative. It’s just words and design.

3. Put every piece of marketing communications through the story test – In other words, does your website, banner ad, and/or video, tell a clear and compelling story or is it just a mashup of internal thinking and brand promises? And perhaps more importantly, do people outside your internal stakeholder group actually get the story you are trying to tell? I’ve witnessed executive teams get so attached to brand promises, that they lose sight of how these promises are communicated.

Bringing it home.

KPI’s are great for tracking certain elements of progress. Yet ultimately, if 3/4 of our effectiveness in communications comes from creative quality, then it’s imperative that we build an engine for great storytelling. You may not have the budget to assign a Chief Storyteller, but you can take baby steps to making storytelling part of your organizational DNA.