Story: An Overlooked Area for Business Improvement

In theory, a business is a simple thing. There are only two ways to make one better. Increase revenues or decrease costs. But that’s exactly like saying that the secret to successful investing is to ‘buy low’ and ’sell high’ While both statements are perfectly true, neither of them are particularly helpful.

Most of the time when we think about increasing revenue/ decreasing costs, we think about changes to process and changes to people. Questions like: Can we be faster and more efficient with fewer people? Can we hire better people, or train our people to be better? If we change the process by which we handle our cash flow, can we obtain a better rate on our bonds and expand faster?

There is a third source of real business improvement that people often overlook. I will argue that, in a reasonably well-functioning business, story becomes at least as important as process and people, if not more so.

Imagine two companies in the same industry. Assume everybody involved in both companies, more or less, knows how to do their job. Assume that the product or service being offered is, more or less, the same. Congratulations, you’ve envisioned most of our economy. What will make the difference between company A and company B are the human connections each firm and every individual can bring to bear. The most powerful way to make and strengthen human connections is through story.

The most important stories are the biggest

The most important stories are the biggest. They answer questions like: What does our work mean to us and why? Where are we going and why? Why should be expect tomorrow to be better than today? Why should I buy your thing, rather than the other company’s thing? 

If your answer to any of these questions are merely facts and statistics, you may be right, but you won’t be convincing. Frustratingly, this is true even when the facts of the matter are overwhelmingly, undeniably and convincingly in your favor. Unless you encode the facts in a good story, it’s going to take a lot of attention and brainpower for the people you are trying to reach to get your message. And nobody who buys anything has much attention to spare.

Even in highly technical sales, the story is the thing that gives people — even the most seemingly emotionless, numbers-oriented of people — permission to buy. Even the shrewdest people buy the story, then check the data to make sure that the story hasn’t tripped them up.

The more powerful the story of a company is, the more powerful each interaction with that company will be. So while we should always be thinking about improving people and process, it is also wise to think about the stories we tell. Are they simple, relatable, shareable, emotional as well as logical and — most of all — do they work fast enough?

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