I love a good story well told - stories that move me to re-think my opinions, consider a new course of action, or break down long-held beliefs and judgements, stories that make me feel something. I want the stories I share to cause a stir and make things happen (in a good way, of course). As marketers and insights professionals, we aspire to create stories that change behavior and build relationships. We need our brand stories to connect, to find a common ground and resonate with our target audience.
But, where do we find inspiration to tell the stories which will move people to think differently and do differently? Personally, I’m over the typical dry, paint-by-numbers corporate PowerPoint. We all need help in the story department and sometimes this help and fresh ideas are found in the least obvious moments and places, like 30,000 feet up above the clouds.
On a recent cross-country flight heading home from a business trip I pulled out my iPad to watch an episode of a favorite Netflix series, A Chef’s Table. My flight had been delayed. It was Friday night and work, for the moment, was set aside. I was ready to kick back, chill out, enjoy and escape. The episode I chose from season 6 featured Savannah, GA based chef, Mashama Bailey. Bailey is the acclaimed chef behind The Grey, a restaurant located inside an old Greyhound bus station where the waiting rooms and bathrooms were once segregated. Bailey, African American and a Savannah native, draws her culinary influences from Southern, African and New American cuisines. In her approach to food, she hits the reset button on what Southern cooking is and can be.
I was engrossed. The story presented the protagonist, Bailey, striving and searching for her own identity within the food she creates. A voice told through the backdrop of the South, its ingredients, its people, its culture, its rich yet troubled history. The story connected me to this chef and this world in a way I would not have imagined. It made me want to visit this place to see it and taste it with a new sense of its history and its people. As the audience of this story, I was motivated to somehow be a part of it. Time flew by and the story drew me in.
Escapism fully achieved and about 20 minutes into the episode, it suddenly struck me … this is how we want the consumers of our business stories to feel and be moved. This is how I want my clients and their organizations to feel and act differently by my insight stories so they, in turn, can create brand, product or service experiences that prompt growth and customer engagement. I realized my experience with A Chef’s Table was not isolated to a killing time moment set apart from my professional life. Instead it revealed to me the nature of what a powerful story can and must do to be effective in business. So, while it may seem unconventional to find lessons of successful business storytelling in an episode of A Chef’s Table, that is exactly what I did. I’d like to share a few of those key lessons with you now:
A successful story MUST have an undeniable yet not overbearing point of view. Context is critical to supporting your POV.
Done well, a story seeks to unfold the past to help guide a revelation of the now. How does it do this? One technique is to go back in time and describe how you got to the present day. In business we look at past performance and trend lines to understand today’s landscape. In A Chef’s Table perspective is gleaned through a biographical picture of the chef protagonist in formation, their childhood, their connection to food and cooking. The past portends the future. Where are we headed? As a storyteller, grounding the audience in this context makes your case for the future more understood and more compelling.
Drive empathy through characters.
A story, even in a business setting, should not be a series of data points and dry headlines. How do you connect with people? One way is to include people, real people, in your story. These are the subjects who bring your story to life and provide deeper meaning and emotion. Stories must spend some measure of time and attention on the “who.” Illuminate their points of tension. Highlight their hopes and their challenges. Your underserved customers’ voices, your sales team struggling to close the deal, your retailer partners in need of basket building disruptive innovation, your investors impatient for a return. How are you telling their side of the story? How are you making their needs and desires known and felt?
Create a strong sense of place using as many of the five senses as possible.
The best stories are multi-layered. Visuals, descriptive language, auditory elements to bring sound and create mood, video … these elements, well, they give your story flavor, heat and texture. In A Chef’s Table, the scene smoothly shifts from the low country rice paddies where Bailey sources her authentic ingredients to the high-energy and hard-driving island of Manhattan where Bailey once lived and developed her culinary chops. Bailey moves in-between these spaces with relative ease yet, slowly, the country scenes and accompanying music overtake the urban landscape to highlight the pull of Bailey’s roots and desire to create something new in Southern cooking. Even the pace becomes more drawn out and slow as Bailey becomes more and more settled in her rediscovered home of Savannah.
Does your story have a backdrop? Maybe your backdrop is that transaction moment where customer and front-line employee make contact? Or, perhaps it is the moment where the consumer unboxes your product in preparation to use it for the very first time. Painting a picture will help bring this moment, this scene, to life. Think about the tone you set with your word choice and the images you use. Is your call to action aggressive and bold? Is it a soft sell? Do your visuals, language and design suit and support your tone?
Leave a purposeful trail so your audience can follow your story and get rewarded in the end.
This is one of the most brilliant tactics of A Chef’s Table. Throughout the episode, Bailey is shown in her element of the kitchen working with her staff to prepare her menu and meals. It appears to be painstaking and detailed work. The audience catches glimpses of this process, the ingredients, the effort yet the director doesn’t give it all away. We don’t see the finished product, in its full glory, until the very end. The wrap up of each episode are the final dishes, names now attached, presented one after another in full technicolor beauty. If it’s possible for a dish of food to have a personality, well, then these do. As I watch this string of dishes appear, I hear triumphant music and nothing else. No people. No talking. Just the food. In each dish, I recognize the process, the effort, the trial and error and, as the watcher, I am rewarded with that final “oh my” as it all comes together … story, character, context and history. When you craft your own story, drop in seeds or clues for your audience to help them get to that final moment of recognition and the “ah-ha.” It could be a trail of insights that are then tied together at the end with the overarching meaning and implication you finally choose to reveal. Be purposeful in taking your audience on that journey with you.
So, the next time you find yourself stuck, I suggest you take a short break and cue up a story for inspiration. Give a documentary or docu-series a spin and watch with new eyes. It gives new meaning to Netflix and chill. If you want some suggestions, here is a list of some of my favorites:
My Netflix Story Inspiration Hit List:
Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (seasons 7 – 11)
A Chef’s Table
Anything by Ken Burns -- The Civil War, Baseball, National Parks … it’s all good
Ugly Delicious … yep, another food docu-series
True crime thrillers like The Staircase, An Innocent Man and Making a Murderer
Wild Wild Country
Happy story watching and story crafting!
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