Hero or Guide? What story are you telling your clients?

15th May 2019

I’m sat at a table, in an impressive restaurant in London, feeling a little intimidated and a lot bemused. I’m here at the request of a friend of mine – a director of a major consultancy – who knows that my weird way of looking at things systemically can often make a difference. He’s trusting me to ‘say something creative’ to help the five C-suite leaders of a client organisation he is working with, win an important bid process in which their company has been shortlisted. The brief is worryingly wide, and I wonder what I have to offer.

I’ve listened over the entrée and main course to them talk about the product, the pricing, the overall company positioning, and I’m struck by two things: the absolute belief these guys have in their company and their technology; and their deadening description of how they can add value. I realise we have to bridge the massive gap between their emotion and their message. But how?

As the waiters bring dessert and more wine, I find myself ruminating on Harry Potter, on Star Wars, and The Game of Thrones… What makes blockbuster stories so compelling? As a leadership team coach and communications consultant who uses film to connect people to organisational change, I am fascinated by stories. I think of strategy as a story about the future. I look at brand as a story about the company. I believe leadership is a process of engaging people through stories that inspire and align. So how can storytelling win business, at this level?

Customers don’t care about your story, they care about their own

In epic stories there is a basic pattern that recurs - it's a formula that really engages audiences and enrols us in the story. Hollywood uses this formula again and again...

  • hero who wants something…
  • encounters a problem (a difficulty and /or a villain) before they can get it…
  • they need to go on a transformational inner journey (as well as an outer journey) to overcome the problem…
  • at the peak of their despair, a guide steps forward…
  • S/he offers a tool or plan that calls the hero to action, and helps avoid failure
  • The hero has an insight and experience that results in transformation and success

Slowly, it dawns on me that this group is making a fundamental error of positioning themselves as the heroes in the story about solving their prospective customer’s problem. Their whole narrative is about their wonderful company, their amazing product, their incredible track record, and this is what is so deadening… I've done the same myself, in my own business. Clients don’t care about our story, they care about their own! To win business, we have to be drop the ‘corporate brag’ and more modestly show clients how to be the heroes of their own story rather than how to play a bit-part in ours! At our best, coaches, consultants and all suppliers are simply guides.

Think of Harry Potter – he needs Dumbledore to help him realise his true identity and conquer Voldemort. Think of Luke Skywalker – he needs Obi Wan Kenobi to help him become a Jedi and win back The Empire. Think of Jon Snow – he needs help (no spoilers here!) to slay the Nightwalkers and unite the Seven Kingdoms. Think of your company – how can you position yourself as a guide on your clients’ journey of heroic transformation?

Every human being is on a transformational journey, and we all need a guide now and again…

Heroes are always assailed by self-doubt and know that they need help to conquer the demons within and outside of themselves. This help is always in the form of reliable guides who can participate in their transformation. The guide’s role is crucial, yet always collaborative and secondary to the heroes’ role. And the main qualities that guides need, is empathy and authority. These qualities come from demonstrating that you, too, have faced the hero’s dilemma in your own backstory and that you have some resources that will help…

My description of these storytelling principles helps them to reframe their whole approach. They see their client’s difficulties differently and are suddenly in a far more generative relationship than simply trying to sell them a solution. They are not competing with their client’s story, but inviting themselves in to that story in a way that is far more compelling and collaborative.

Great stories are always about transformation. Stories illuminate how we cope at particular crossroads in our lives, when the way ahead is full of uncertainty. They show how we respond at turning points, when we have to wake up, rise to challenges, face difficulties, and discover the courage to become our best selves in the face of adversity. Great stories are about how we change, and in the telling, our stories have the potential to change others.

In this age of content creation, we swim in stories like never before. Some of the best contemporary storytellers who use social media remind us of what is important and of what is possible; they help us to learn and to grow; and they connect us – even Twitter and Instagram bring us together in a similar way that our ancestors gathered around campfires. We need stories today, just as we always have...

For more information about the place of storytelling in winning business, read Building a StoryBrand.

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