What is a Strategic Story?

What is a Strategic Story?

“Why do we tell stories?” I always pose this question at the very beginning of my business storytelling workshop.

Instantly, the room comes to life with answers. “Stories create connection.” “Stories are more memorable.” “Stories are engaging.” “Stories help you and your ideas stand out.”

It’s no surprise that, in a world steeped in stories, that everyone in the room already understands the value of strategic storytelling. (It definitely makes my marketing easier as well.)

But then I ask the question that stops the room cold. “What is a story?”. And… crickets. For some reason, this question is perplexing. Maybe it’s because, in the digital world, our definition of  story has been challenged. Yesterday, a story was something you read in a newspaper, magazine or a book, or an engaging anecdote someone shared over coffee. Today, there are so many more ways to tell, share and consume stories that it’s no longer fair to reduce a story to something that has a beginning, middle and end.

Yes, stories help you and your ideas stand out. But in order to understand how to use storytelling effectively and strategically, you need to disrupt the way you think about it.

So let’s answer this question: “What is a strategic story?”

Two Functions of Strategic Storytelling

Back in 2010, Australian Simon Griffiths and his leadership team were ready to launch their new start-up. Though their team included engineers and designers, the start-up wasn’t focused on building a new tech product. They were focused on a much simpler, much less sexy product: toilet paper.

When the time came to raise funds for their first bulk order, Simon and his team chose to go a non-traditional route: crowdfunding. Way back in 2010, crowdfunding was still a foreign concept to most of us — well before campaigns for medical expenses began filling up our Facebooks. 

On July 10, Simon’s team launched this video: 

Can you guess how long it took them to reach their fundraising goal?

50 hours, 16 minutes and 34 seconds.

Simon’s video is a great example of the two functions of Strategic Storytelling. On one hand, the video itself is engaging and memorable from start to finish. The puns and toilet humour create a strong emotional relationship with the audience. Simon’s rapport builds trust and credibility. And the “I’m sitting down for what I believe in” line at the end gives us the call to action we’re looking for. It’s a clear, engaging pitch perfectly in line with the goal of their social enterprise. It’s a great story.

But there’s another, bigger story that’s being communicated. As we watch the video, we start to understand that this bigger story is about something more than toilet paper. It’s really about how individual people have the power to change the world. It’s this bigger story of changing the world that truly engages the target audience, because it creates cohesion between their hopes and dreams and the actions being taken by the Who Gives a Crap team.

This element raises the scale of the pitch. Even though they’re selling toilet paper, it’s clear that they’re doing more than just selling toilet paper. 

This crowdfunding campaign is a great example of the two functions of Strategic Storytelling. I refer to these functions as Small-S Storytelling and Big-S Storytelling.

Small-S Storytelling

A small-s story is a story the way you’d conventionally think about it. It’s one particular piece of content. For example, a newspaper article, a blog, a social media post, or an anecdote you tell about your company or yourself are all small-s stories. When you say, “let me tell you a story”, what you’re announcing is you’re about to deliver one of these.

Small-s stories are structured and discrete. In this case, Who Gives a Crap’s small-s story is the video you just watched.

Big-S Storytelling

A Big-S Story, on the other hand, is an answer to the question: what’s this story really about? It’s the deeper elements at play within the small-s story. For example, in business environments, we’ve traditionally called these elements the mission, vision and values. In his popular TED talk, Simon Sinek calls this the “why” of what we do.

Every small-s story is related with a Big-S story, even if it’s hidden. These Big-S stories refer to the major strategic narratives of our life. Subjects like religion, politics, psychology, economics all refer to the big strategic narratives that frame meaning in our life. Every small-s story we tell either conforms or confronts these grander narratives.

For example, hidden in the Who Gives a Crap video is a clear, Big-S story that says “we don’t need to wait for other people’s permission to make the world a better place”. This is a value judgement that is probably shared by the members of their target audience. In fact, it’s likely that this value judgment is the reason why funders decide to act.

The motivation to act comes from alignment with this deeper Big-S story.

Today’s Strategic Stories “Enroll” Us in the Big-S Narrative

Imagine that you saw the Who Gives a Crap video on your Facebook feed. You laughed at the jokes. At the end, you thought, “ok, I’ll give these guys some money.”

What would you have done next? Do you think you’d have entered your credit card information, and then totally forgot about it until the toilet paper showed up at your door, 6 or 8 months later?

Of course not. You’d probably have connected with the company on every social platform. You might have shared the video on your timeline, or told friends about it over dinner. You probably checked in with the company several times over the ensuing few months, excited to see what the creators of this video might do next.

This demonstrates another fundamental difference between small-s and Big-S stories. Big-S stories create engagement over time. They are the stories that make us want to follow and participate. They are the stories that we continually watch unfold, in individual “episodes” that pass us by each day.

Each one of Who Gives a Crap’s updates was like a small episode in the bigger story. The “journey” began with the crowdfunding pitch and continues on well into the future.

In this light, we can see that a strategic story is more than “telling the right story at the right time”. It’s not about having an elevator pitch or another scripted story you tell frequently. Instead, it’s about “enrolling” people in the bigger narrative that keeps them coming back for more. This bigger sense of engagement creates intrigue, participation and suspense. These Big-S stories truly catalyze action.

So how do you make these kinds of stories?

  • Start by considering the dilemmas that your company and culture face. What motivates you? Why are you doing what you do?
  • Relate these dilemmas to genuine human needs, like safety and security, esteem, belonging and self-actualization. How does your story connect to the universal human needs that compel all of us?
  • Test heavily. This is not a simple process.
  • Be open to the unknown. You can’t enroll us into a journey unless you’ve walked it.