Story and Strategy Blog

Why are so many corporate narratives so boring?

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bored execs (2)Five mistakes that kill engagement in corporate narratives

We all know the power of a good story. Instinctively, we like to tell and hear stories. They are our most natural way of sharing information, of entertaining and being entertained. And most of use are actually pretty good at telling stories. We all know people who have real flair, who can captivate a room, inject real drama or use comedy to win us over – but most of us are pretty good in our own ways at sharing our experiences with friends and family, around kitchen tables, watercoolers and bars. So, why is it that when people try to create corporate stories they so often get it wrong?  

Too many corporate stories become turgid, undifferentiated and dull. Certainly, the stakes are often higher; it’s not just the opinion of your mates that could be impacted, but share prices, reputation and sales. Corporate communicators have to take care in communicating precisely, honestly and with authority – but that does not mean they can’t tell a good story that really engages the audience. In fact, I’d argue that unless they are doing so they are still risking share price, reputation and sales. To succeed in today’s noisy and contested communications environment demands a great story and a great story teller.

So, what lets intelligent and capable individuals down when they are creating corporate stories? There are a range of mistakes that I have seen again and again even from very senior spokespeople. These mistakes undercut stories and prevent people from creating engagement with an audience. The top five mistakes I see again and again are;

  • too much jargon;
  • inward-focus;
  • complexity;
  • lack of structure
  • and too much information.

Jargon – As is often noted, but worth reiterating, technology business in particular use far too much jargon. Company or industry shorthand, acronyms and technical terms are really useful for internal conversation when all parties have a shared understanding of their meaning. But they are poison to a good story. At best audiences are confused or distracted as they try to work out what you mean. At worst they think they do know what you mean and take entirely the wrong information away from the story.

Inward focus – In some ways related to jargon; if your story is too heavily focused on your experiences, your thought-processes and decision making it will seem distant, irrelevant, cold and potentially self-serving. Remember, most people will not care about your business in the way that you do. Assuming that the audiences understands or cares about the problems and challenges that you believe you are solving is also dangerous. It may be fundamentally important to you to provide home owners with one-click access to insurance (for example) – but your audience has not been on that journey with you and may not agree.

Complexity – The average reading age of the UK population is 9 years – that is to say they understand the words, phrases and constructions commonly understood by a nine-year-old child. You might believe that your audience will to be above average – at least when you are speaking to investors, partners and other business people – but keeping language simple benefits all audiences. The UK’s best-selling newspaper – The Sun –writes for a reading age of 8, and even the Guardian pitches its articles at a reading age of 14. Too many corporate narratives lose their audience to fancy words and clever phrasing.

No structure – Audiences need structure and signposts. They like to know where they are and what to expect. Too often corporate presentations become laundry-lists of features or streams of consciousness that are really hard to follow and have no obvious direction. At their worst they become completely unstructured jumbles of opinion, facts, solutions and features thrown in as they occur to the spokesperson. Knowing from the outset what you are going to say – and ensuring that the audiences has this signposted to them, can help even the most wide-ranging narrative.

Too much information – This may sound counter-intuitive, but I think perhaps the most common cause of failure in corporate narratives is simply trying to say too much in one go. We only have capacity to remember so much at one time. Providing too much information at once risks overwhelming the audience and forcing it to make its own decision as to what to take away.

You need to be especially careful with figures. Most people find it harder to remember figures without context, so too many charts, graphs and numbers can end up confusing people. Some facts and figures, presented well and linked to specific parts of a story, can add a great deal, but too many quickly drown and audience and obscure the key messages you want to share.

There is also a danger in ‘kitchen-sinking’ presentations – throwing in every last fact or story. Not only does this create overly-long presentations, but there is always the risk that it all becomes a bit undifferentiated and detracts from the core messages you want to share.

Being aware of these pitfalls is the first step in avoiding them. Properly planning corporate narratives as engaging stories with drama, character and resolution will have a huge positive impact and significantly improve engagement with your story and recall of your messages. Finally, adequate preparation is crucial. Ensuring that your spokespeople are familiar and confident with the material so that they feel comfortable will help them deliver it as a human rather than a stilted corporate drone.

So try to remember the joy of storytelling and bring some of it to your next corporate presentation.


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