Marketers are buzzing about “story.” Ten years ago, we were frothing about “branding.” Like “branding,” I’m concerned that the term “story” is being applied too liberally, and will lose its credibility. To avoid this, we need to be precise when referring to “story.” Story has a definite structure. By learning this timeless structure, all AEC marketers can better tell stories to win new business.
Robert McKee, a Fulbright Scholar praised in Hollywood for his consulting on narrative structure defines story as “the expression of how and why life changes. A story begins with balance, then something throws life out of balance, then a story goes in to describe how balance is restored.”
In previous posts, I shared why AEC Marketers should use story (the why), and the three stories we must master (the what). Now, I’ll recommend how to craft your stories (the how). Story structure will make your stories, and firm, more memorable. Stories move a prospect along the continuum of getting to know, like, and trust you, and your firm. Well constructed stories filled with emotion and vulnerability build relationships. As you know well, relationships win new business.
Story Structure 101
After reading a gripping novel or seeing a moving film, have you ever wondered if there is a secret formula for story success? There is, and it’s no secret. You may have heard of the famous 3 act play: Introduction, Rising Action, Resolution. I prefer the structure below from What Great Salespeople Do: The Science of Selling Through Emotional Connection and the Power of Story by Mike Bosworth and Ben Zoldan. These 5 stages are the “secret sauce” for all great stories. I’ll use an example of an AEC “Who We’ve Helped Story” to illustrate these 5 stages.
- Setup – This is where you drop your listener into your story. Quickly ntroduce your characters, location, and any relevant background information. To make your protagonists likable, share what makes them human (dreams, fears, desires, etc.). The audience needs to connect with your project team and want them to succeed.
- Conflict – If there is no struggle, there is no plot. It just isn’t interesting. There needs to be something formidable that stands in the way of your project team’s success. In the AEC world, this could be timing, personalities, budget, politics, or physical constraints.
- Turning Point – Stories are explanations of how and why life changes. This is the aha moment that changes your team. This could be some new insight that alters how your team solves problems on the job site, or the reason why you entered a new market. The turning point could even be an epiphany that changed the strategic direction of your firm.
- Outcome – This is an untangling of events in your story. Think of movie credits rolling where we learn what your favorite characters are doing with their lives today. The resolution explains how your story ends and what effect the experience has had on your team.
- Your Point – In this stage, you reinforce your theme or point of your story. This is often a core belief or value that your firm holds. If your firm has a new way of delivering projects, this is where you would share that process. It might sound something like this, “as a result of what we learned by continuously overcoming X, our firm believes that Y not only is the best way to deliver projects, but it also separates us from our competition.
Recommended Story Development Process
The way in which you develop a good marketing story is not the order in which you ultimately write or tell that story. Because clarity and brevity are so important in marketing stories, write or tell the story in chronological order (stages 1 thru 5 above). Develop the story in this order:
- Your Point – Ask yourself, “why am I/we telling this story?” Possible answers may be to share your impressive safety record, demonstrate your creativity, or persuade that your project delivery method saves money. Always start with why.
- Outcome – To make sure your story ends in a way that supports your point.
- Turning Point
Now you have the key elements, practice writing or telling the story in chronological order.
Great story structure without emotion is like a jumpy house before it’s been inflated. Emotion gives it life, makes it interesting, and ultimately memorable. There are 6000 words in English to communicate emotion. Use them to describe how your main characters feel, not just what happened. If you just recount the facts, expect to put your audience to sleep. Consistently ask yourself, how did your protagonist feel at each stage of the story. Feelings are the glue that constructs real and likable characters. Emotional connection is also what makes your story, and your firm memorable.
This is the hardest thing to do for AEC firms. Our work is so highly technical, and we are consistently asserting our expertise, that to reveal vulnerability seems weak. But we actually gain power when revealing vulnerability. Try this with a friend. Reveal something you may be struggling with, or a mistake you’ve made and watch what happens. Because of what neuroscientists call mirror neurons, your friend will most likely share something vulnerable in return. In simple terms, this “monkey see, monkey do” behavior is a mutual exchange of emotion. This is the definition of a relationship. By telling your story, your prospect may tell you their story. This is where you learn what your prospect’s pain points are, and what you can do to solve them. It takes courage, but going first in revealing vulnerability, is critical. You establish that it’s safe to be real, that your prospect can trust you with their authentic story. It’s counterintuitive, but vulnerability makes you more likable, not less. Perfection is boring, stiff, and lifeless. It’s our imperfections, that make us likable. Stories about when your firm made a mistake, what you did to correct that error, and what you learned, are incredibly powerful relationship builders.
Nothing is more intimidating to a writer than a blank sheet of paper. My intention is that this post serves as a template for you to jump-start your stories. By utilizing a proven story structure, and integrating emotion and vulnerability, you will create stories that elevate your firm’s proposals, presentation interviews, and websites to win new business.
What Do You Think?
Does having a structure constrain or enhance your creative storytelling?
Any examples of where you’ve revealed vulnerability, and it’s helped or hurt you?
Recommended Books on The Power of Story To Win New Business
What Great Salespeople Do: The Science of Selling Through Emotional Connection and the Power of Story by Mike Bosworth, Ben Zoldan
The Story Factor by Annette Simmons
Tell to Win: Connect, Persuade, and Triumph w/ Hidden Power of Story by Peter Guber
resonate: Present Visual Stories that Transform Audiences by Nancy Duarte
Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Dan and Chip Heath
A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Dan Pink