What is storytelling, and why is it an important tool to have in your CX Toolbox?

In a post I wrote several months ago, I outlined the 5 Rules for Turning Data into Action for a Better Customer Experience: Centralize, Analyze, Socialize, Strategize, and Operationalize. I have since pulled out details from Analyze and Socialize to create a sixth rule: Synthesize (or Contextualize).

What does that mean?

Synthesize is really the opposite of analyze. Once data have been broken down and analyzed for better understanding, they are most useful for the end user when they are transformed into insights; those insights are best ingested/digested in the form of a story. That means putting all the pieces of the analysis together to tell a story, putting them into context for those who need to act on it — a story that can be easily understood and translated into a better customer experience. Here’s where we tell the audience what a great experience looks like.

The example I like to give is one of a client of mine that was offering repair service in their stores. We listened to customers about the experience and uncovered that there are three activities that had to happen for the customer to leave completely satisfied and likely to recommend (a Promoter). We spun those details into a story for the employees so that they could walk in the customer’s shoes, too, to understand what that experience had to be like. The service they provided improved almost immediately. Employees were able to contextualize/visualize what a great experience looked like. So, rather than using metrics and charts to tell employees what customers want, we spun a story for better understanding

Let me take a few steps back and answer some basic questions about storytelling.

What is storytelling?

Storytelling is a communication tool and a teaching tool. It’s a Trojan horse for learning. You can tell stories, and people will listen; they won’t even know that they’re (supposed to be) learning! Stories allow you to deliver a message in a way that engages people, inspires them, and helps them understand a desired or intended outcome as a result of a series of steps or actions taken.

Why use storytelling in your customer experience management strategy?

Quite simply, storytelling is a tool to gain buy-in, whether it’s from executives or from the frontline. Storytelling can facilitate delivering an impact from both the emotional and the rational perspective, capturing both the hearts and minds of the intended audience.

I believe that bombarding the frontline with charts, graphs, metrics, and bullet points is not the way to teach them or to inspire them to deliver a great customer experience. Setting an example or being a role model is probably the best way to teach; absent that, when we tell a story about the intended customer experience, it paints a picture of what is expected; we end up taking employees on a journey, the customer’s journey. And it humanizes the experience.

Stories can also be used to recognize or to reinforce desired behaviors. People connect to stories and, therefore, remember them/the point.

In addition, stories…

  • clarify and help the audience understand
  • give you background information
  • convey what the characters (customers) think, do, feel
  • bring a concept or experience to life
  • engage the audience (employees)
  • explain the ideal customer experience
  • sell (concepts and products)
  • support change
  • reinforce
  • motivate and inspire
  • facilitate empathy and understanding
  • make you want to care
  • help you connect
  • draw the audience into the story, carry you away
  • help the audience relate
  • convey good and bad, successes and failures
  • are memorable

Can anyone be a Customer Experience storyteller? Or must it be taught?

I don’t believe that everyone is a natural born storyteller. I do think some people need to be taught. Can it be taught? Yes. To some degree. It does take creativity, but if we can develop that creativity, we can teach storytelling.

How do you teach storytelling?

I think we need to break it down into bite-sized chunks. Stories have various components to them, so the teaching begins with those components, including…

  • the usual: who, what, when, where, why
  • the business challenge or problem
  • the customer challenge or problem
  • steps to re-create the challenge or problem
  • the thinking, doing, feeling of the participant
  • the desired actions and outcome, the denouement

… and we must also consider…

  • the audience: different audiences require different messages or different levels of detail
  • what’s the message; what are you trying to convey
  • how will you tell it
  • how will the audience participate after you tell it
  • how does participation affect the story or change the outcome in the future

I also think that, for teaching purposes, we need to ensure future storytellers…

  • draw on their own experiences for anecdotes and to help connect with the audience
  • share their own lessons learned
  • stay on point and keep it focused/straightforward

This TED talk from storyteller and filmmaker Andrew Stanton (WALL-E, Toy Story, and more) provides the clues to a great story. It’s worth the watch, if you want to learn how to tell a story.

MoreKnown.com summarizes his seven clues to a great story:

  1. Know your punchline, your ending. Everything in your story is leading to one resolution.
  2. The number one rule of a good story is to make your audience care. All of these rules help to accomplish this.
  3. Make a promise. Promise the reader (or listener, or viewer, or whatever) that the story will be worth their time. This will propel you from the start to the end of the story.
  4. Hide the fact that your reader will have to do some of the work themselves. “Absence of information draws us in.” You will have to choose the order of events and what to include/exclude, but your audience connects to the story when they have to figure things out for themselves.
  5. It’s alright to nod to a grand design. In Lawrence of Arabia, Stanton points out a scene that directly asks the protagonist, “Who are you?” This is the theme of the whole film. Have a theme.
  6. If it’s possible, allow your audience to surrender to wonder. This is the secret sauce of the best stories.
  7. Focus on your personal strengths as you tell your story. Use what you know.

In your organization, do you use stories to teach? How do you tell your customer experience stories?

Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today. -Robert McKee