Storytelling is a marketing leader’s most important skill

Thomas Barta TryThisBlog
By Thomas Barta
Last updated: July 18, 2017
Marketing is only one piece of the customer experience puzzle. To create a truly remarkable experience, other departments must also be heavily involved. The challenge is that colleagues in these other departments don’t perhaps report directly to you. You must find ways to mobilize them, starting with sharing your vision through a powerful story (from my column).

It’s no secret: powerful words help leaders to mobilize their people. Dusty McCoy, CEO of marine, fitness and billiards company Brunswick, for example, tells his staff, “We do what we say, and we say what we do.” Microsoft’s Satya Nadella used “Mobile first, cloud first” to describe his new company direction. And most of you will remember Apples’ “Think Different,” which has served as both external and internal aspiration for years.

In our recent global The Marketer’s DNA study, Patrick Barwise and I could prove for the first time that visioning and storytelling are sizable factors in marketers’ business impacts, especially for career success. Ford’s former CMO, Jim Farley, even told me, “Storytelling is your most important skill as a marketing leader.”

Of course, you don’t have to be the marketing super-hero of a Fortune 500 company to use stories effectively. Consider the example of Jaime , a marketing manager whose customer vision helped transform an ailing door handle business. In a speech delivered to his staff, he said something like: “For generations, our products have been used by millions. Let’s become the number one choice again. We can’t compete on price. But customers have told us how to win: let’s make quality our hallmark, but let design be our new signature. Because when we do, customers will say: ‘I want this one exactly—this feels great, and it looks great.’ Let’s all write history together. I need your ideas for how to make the best and the most attractive products again. Let’s put our door handles back in people’s hands.”

So, how can you write a story that captures people’s imagination? Make sure that you include three essential elements: heart, head, and how-to.

1. Heart: An inspiring vision

A great story has a big aspiration that people can sign up for. In the door handle case, this was “becoming the preferred choice again,” and “writing history.” Stories like these can get people’s imaginations going, but craft them cautiously; people can quickly turn cynical if your ideas are too far-fetched (e.g., take over the whole market, change everything we do). Unrealistic stories also hit the heart–just in a way you don’t want. The best stories are simple and paint hopeful, yet realistic, pictures of the future. Try to find memorable phrases for your story. Jaime’s “Let’s put our door handles back in people’s hands” or Dusty McCoy’s “We do what we say, and say what we do” are words that people can easily recall.

2. Head: Credible evidence

People may disagree with a leader–but nobody can really disagree with the customers (at least not for long). Make sure you include credible evidence, ideally from customers. The marketer at the door handle company used the customer response in the product test to make his case for design: “I want this one exactly.” To make your story believable, include evidence and ways for the company to achieve its dream.

3. How-to: Personal relevance

Suppose you’re a staff member listening to your leader’s vision. Immediately you ask: “How does this affect me? What do I need to do?” Make sure your story answers questions like these. Jamie stated directly, “I need your ideas for how to make the best and the most attractive products again.” He invited his colleagues to act.

Napoleon Bonaparte once said: “A leader is a dealer in hope.” As a senior marketer, to give colleagues hope and to mobilize the organization in the customer’s interests, you need a powerful story. What’s yours?