Storytelling, Sales, and Harold

So I had an interesting experience that illustrated to me the importance of structure in storytelling.

We had a sales meeting this morning that we knew would be a little rushed, and in the interest of getting through everything we wanted to get through, we shortened our pitch. But we did it the wrong way – we cut out parts of our story.

Here’s the thing: You can compress parts of a story, but you can’t skip any parts. An illustration:

A family friend, Harold, had a very successful career. He worked his way up the ladder (this was 50 years ago) and went on to become Chairman of the Board of a major steel company. Then he gave away most of his fortune upon his death, leaving only a tiny fraction to his family.

Huh. OK, that’s sort of interesting. But I can’t tell if I should like him because he worked hard, or dislike him because he left little to his family. Regardless of the details, the basics of that story leave a lot of uncertainty and I can tell you, don’t do justice to Harold.

Now the story with all of it’s parts:

Harold grew up in the depression – dirt poor. He worked hard and was given a scholarship to Washington University. It helped, but he had to work all through college to make ends meet. He worked at a major steel company as a janitor. He never worked for another company in his life, and went on to become Chairman of the Board. He decided upon his death that he would have amounted to nothing if not for the scholarship, and that he owed it to others to afford them the same opportunity. So he gave almost his entire fortune to scholarships, leaving his family enough to be comfortable, but no more.

That’s a very different story, and not a whole lot longer. But knowing the whole story makes a huge difference, doesn’t it? Harold seems like quite a guy now, no? I like Harold when I know that. I like him a lot.

If Harold was a company or a product, I would be much more inclined to buy him, even though the deliverables are the same. Because the story helps me understand what I will ultimately get.

This morning, in the interests of shortening we skipped where we came from, why we evolved the way we did, and many of the processes that make us unique. We delved right into benefits and deliverables, and while they are very good, they don’t tell the whole story.

So back to what I learned. When you have to shorten a story, DON’T cut parts
out. Compress parts. I could write 3 paragraphs about
Harold growing up in the depression. But just knowing he grew up in the
depression is enough in a pinch. It puts everything that comes after it
into context. And without context, you have no story.

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