“Do the stories I tell at work have to be true?”

As a storytelling coach, I’m often asked, “Do my leadership or sales stories have to be true?”

My perhaps surprising answer is, “No, they don’t. You can completely make up a story you tell at work, but only under one condition. And that condition is that you tell your audience you made it up. Otherwise, you’re just a liar and you’ll eventually get caught. But a well-crafted fictional story, just like myths and folktales, can be a very powerful way to teach an important lesson, even though the audience knows the story is fictional.

Now, I don’t recommend making stories up a lot. In fact, I think you do yourself, your message, and your audience a disservice if you don’t first try to find a true story to make the point you want to make. But if you completely strike out, it’s okay to make one up, again, as long as you tell your audience you made it up. And for me, I resort to fictional stories less than 5% of the time. (95% of the time they’re true.) And for those 5% of made-up stories, I make it very clear up front that the story is fictional.

Here’s an example. I often had young research managers ask me the difference between being a good researcher and great one. I’d tried for months simply giving a list of traits they should nurture to be a great researcher. But most people simply assumed they already had all those traits. And when I tried giving an example of what a great researcher did on a recent project, most people’s high opinion of themselves made them assume that they would have done the same thing.

What I needed was a story to show how a good researcher and a great researcher would both handle the exact same project. But that never happens in real life. So, I made up a situation where it did. Here’s what I came up with consumer researchers. But I think you can apply the same lesson to a lot of roles in the business world. . .

ONCE THERE WAS a market research manager who had three bright young researchers working for her, but was able to promote only one of them. To determine which it would be, she gave each of them this challenge. “The one who best helps the next brand manager who comes through our door will win the promotion.”

Soon an eager brand manager came to the research department with this request,

I have several new ideas for my brand, and need someone to place a concept test to pick the best one.”

The research manager explained the competition and asked that the brand manager meet with each of her researchers separately.

At the end of the week, the manager called all three researchers in to present their recommended plan.

The first researcher had designed the perfect concept test—a survey where different groups of consumers each evaluate one of the test concepts. It included a separate test leg for each of the brand manager’s new ideas, plus one for the current concept to compare against. The test called for just the right number of respondents in each leg to be statistically reliable. The demographic profile of the respondents was perfectly representative of the country’s population. And he had included every conceivable question in the survey to help pick the winning concept.

“Well done,” said the research manager.

When the second researcher stepped up to make her presentation, she proposed an entirely different test.

But the brand manager asked for a concept test. Why are you recommending something different?”, asked the boss.

She responded, “Well, when I looked at the new concepts, I realized they were all very similar. In fact, I don’t believe them to be testably different. They all describe the same product benefit as the brand currently offers, with only minor differences in the words used to explain how it works. I know he asked for a concept test, but I didn’t think that would answer the question he came in with, which was, ‘Which one is the best concept?’

Asking different people to assess each concept will result in scores that are all about the same. My test will show all the concepts to the same group of people and ask them to pick the one with the most convincing wording. It should be easier to find a winner, and much cheaper to execute.”

“Excellent,” said the research manager.

Then she asked the third researcher to present his plan.

“Actually, I don’t have one,” he said sheepishly.

“What? You’ve had an entire week. I thought you wanted this promotion as much as the others.”

Oh, I do,” replied the third researcher. “I just don’t believe this brand needs any more research.”

“I’m listening,” responded the very curious boss.

“Well, I understand the brand manager’s question was which of his new concepts was the best. But after talking to him about his business, and looking at the research we already have on that brand, I realized that wasn’t the right question to ask. The current concept scored great when it was first tested last year. And the television commercials developed off that concept are doing really well in market. Awareness is at an all-time high, and consumers are playing back exactly the concept we hoped they would. The problem with the brand isn’t the concept. The problem is price. Our value ratings have been dropping all year because our competitors have been running more coupons and sale prices in the Sunday paper.

“So the right question to ask would have been ‘What price do we need to have to be competitive?’ But we already know the answer to that question, because we conducted a pricing study 18 months ago. We know exactly how much we need to reduce our price. We’ve never done it because we couldn’t do that and afford the increase in our advertising budget that was already approved.

“So I checked our media schedules and found out we’re now advertising well beyond the saturation point for our category. In fact, about 10 percent of our ad budget is completely wasted. If we cut that wasted ad spending, we’d have just enough to reduce our price back to competitive levels. And that’s exactly what I recommend we do.”

It should be no surprise that researcher number three got the promotion.

The lesson of the story, of course, is teaching the value of asking the right question. Researchers are sometimes treated like “test waiters.” Business partners come in and attempt to order up a specific type of consumer test. “I’ll take two product tests and a brand equity study to go, please.” The conclusion is that:

  • good researcher can design, execute, and analyze the test asked for,
  • A better researcher would first make sure it’s the right test to answer the business question asked, but
  • The best researcher will make sure the right business question is being asked in the first place

Telling a young researcher to make sure the right question is being asked isn’t good enough. A story like this—real or imaginary—makes the point far better.
. . .

Action item: The next time you need to make a point, but don’t have exactly the right true story to illustrate it, consider inventing one. As long as it’s a plausible story—one that could happen even if it hasn’t happened—and as long as your audience knows you made it up, it will still be more effective than the boring memo or bullet-point-laden slides you were going to use.

And for an example of the disaster that can happen when you make up a story and don’t tell your audience that you made it up, see here.

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Source: Lead with a Story: How to Craft Business Narratives that Captivate, Convince, and Inspire, by Paul Smith.

Paul Smith is one of the world’s leading experts on business storytelling. He’s a keynote speaker, storytelling coach, and bestselling author of the books Lead with a StoryParenting with a Story, and Sell with a Story.

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