Adri Bruckner, Anjana Menon, and Marybeth Sandell are the co-authors of What’s Your Story? The Essential Business Storytelling Handbook (see my book review here). The book presents a wide range of frameworks, examples, and tips for business communication.
Now based in Barcelona, Adri Bruckner is a creative communications professional with experience in journalism and PR. Anjana Menon is founder-editor of Mint and runs content strategy consultancy Content Pixies. Marybeth Sandell is co-author of Introduction to Data Visualisation and Storytelling.
Adri, Anjana and Marybeth join us in this four-way conversation on trends, impacts, and best practices in the field of business storytelling.
YS [YS]: How did the three of you meet?
Adri, Anjana, Marybeth: We worked together in Bloomberg News in Europe and knew each other from our days as journalists writing about everything from the dotcom boom/bust to technology takeovers and the financial markets.
We kept in contact as our lives took us to different jobs – from building newsrooms, launching newspapers to teaching at universities – and through many countries, including the Netherlands, the UK, Hungary, Singapore, Switzerland, India, USA, Sweden and Spain.
YS: How was your book received? What were some of the unusual responses and reactions you got?
Adri, Anjana, Marybeth: It became a bestseller in the first week of its launch in its category on Amazon in India, so that’s very heartening. Mostly, people have been telling us that it’s comprehensive and easy to read.
One marketing expert with decades of experience said it’s a great “refresher course” and especially liked the real-life, current examples, both good and bad. People who aren’t in communications told us it’s “essential” indeed, a great resource.
We look forward to the physical book being released in the rest of the world in December. The Kindle version is available but dozens of people have said they would rather wait for the actual book.
YS: What is your current field of research in storytelling?
Anjana: Content strategy, thought leadership, storytelling in public policy and not-for-profit, and constantly evolving channels of storytelling.
Marybeth: I work with leadership communication and employee communications. I am currently working on projects that include setting up a new data analysis team for content engagement measurement and a new team for in-house studio video production.
Adri: Creating engaging content for corporate intranet and websites. I currently do a lot of work adjusting content for different audiences and helping companies decide what format to use for what they want to say — video, podcast, text, images, presentations, and even GIFs.
YS: What role does storytelling play in the pandemic era? What are some outstanding practices or examples you have seen in this regard?
Anjana: The pandemic has isolated people in their bubbles so the content needs to be more connected, fill that void of loneliness, and evoke the emotions of joy that we would experience with our loved ones. The biggest trend we have seen is the rise of individual creators on social media channels. We’ve seen an explosion of social media stars from octogenarians to toddlers.
Adri: The pandemic has indeed turned the focus on us as people, which means people stories are more important than ever.
Marybeth: For corporate communications, it has become more important than ever to show emotion, compassion, and human connection. This means connecting to the employee, future employees, and their communities. The acronyms CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) and ESG (Environmental Social Governance) represent key areas.
YS: In the time since your book was published, what are some notable new examples or techniques/companies you have come across that would extend the material in the book?
Anjana: There are quite a few, but one of the areas I’m watching is the rise of Substack and other platforms where subscribers pay reviewers, and take away the power of influence from brands. Several reviewers get paid thousands of dollars a month to do genuine reviews for their subscribers. That’s an interesting trend to watch, and it will have implications for influencer marketing that is so popular.
Marybeth: Given what we have been seeing in the pandemic, I would add more about crisis communications, corporate social responsibility, and employer-of-choice positioning for corporations. Also, leadership communication tips are always in demand.
Adri: I would emphasise that the social media landscape has permanently blurred or nearly erased the line between internal and external communication. Companies need to learn how to tailor messages to each of their audiences, but now the core information they are conveying may be similar for all.
YS: How can a business case be made to include storytelling as a communication or research practice? What are some ‘return on investment’ metrics that can be used here, based on your client experiences?
Anjana: The value of storytelling was established when Red Bull pulled the stunt of dropping a man from the stratosphere which was live streamed. Red Bull went on to develop one of the strongest content platforms in the world. Today it’s a media giant synonymous with extreme sports and sporting events which helps it retain its top spot as an energy drinks company.
Marybeth: To measure the ROI of communications, we need to gather data on engagement, changes in sentiment, and the effectiveness of any calls to action (CTAs) used in the communication.
The challenge is to make sure you are capturing these things across all the channels used to communicate. For a company, the channels change depending on the audience. And the audiences are constantly changing channels. It’s a challenge, but manageable with good analytics.
YS: There is a lot of use of automation and artificial intelligence these days in communication. When do you think a machine will be able to tell a story as good as a human? What is the best way humans and machines can work together in storytelling?
Anjana: During the Rio Olympics, the most prolific writer was an AI machine. It wrote more than 40 articles a day for a Chinese publication. So fact-based information can always be delivered by machines.
What a machine may not be able to do is capture the nuances, the emotions, the human element in storytelling. What connects us all is our ability to communicate at an emotional level. We have a line in our book – people love stories about people. That’s where our storytelling skills will always remain more valuable than that of machines.
Marybeth: It depends on how one defines “good”. For the financial world, for example, it is already happening. Press releases are automatically turned into sentence format for traders and investors who need fast news. It has been happening for years.
Can AI produce a general novel that is readable? Probably. Can it replicate the humor of someone like Mark Twain? That will take more time. Personally, I hope it will never happen.
YS: What are some challenges in telling and sharing ‘failure stories’? How can individuals and organisations nurture this important capability?
Anjana: In India particularly, failure is seen as bad, unlike in many other parts of the world. Recently, Prashnat Desai wrote a book The Biography of a Failed Venture : Decoding Success Secrets from the Blackbox of a Dead Start-Up. It’s very important to highlight failures so we can avoid repeating mistakes. It’s ok to fail as long as we learn from our mistakes, and companies must talk about this more because there are valuable lessons hidden in these failures.
Adri: On LinkedIn, I find people are becoming more honest about their failures, more willing to show their imperfections and vulnerability. That’s an encouraging trend on a platform that was once all about self-promotion. I would hope that this represents a permanent shift toward learning from failures and learning from others in general.
I would advise people and organisations to go ahead and tell the story of things that went wrong, and most importantly, what they learned from it.
Marybeth: Failures and successes are both excellent anecdotes for memorable storytelling. If you only have successes, you lose credibility and engagement. Memorable, impactful communication needs both.
YS: From your diverse international experiences, what are some interesting differences you observe in storytelling practices and acceptance in different cultures? What can we learn from them?
Anjana: People everywhere want stories that are authentic and believable. And they want to be respected for their individuality. There is an incredible rise in people claiming their uniqueness with pride. We no longer want to be stereotyped. Of course, what’s acceptable in one culture may not be in another and that is something successful content creators are mindful of.
Marybeth: I work in a company with 48,000 employees. In the Stockholm headquarters alone, there are more than 50 nationalities working in one building. Understanding your audience, getting your message clear is a great place to start. Our book applies to universal storytelling practices.
Maybe it is easier to turn the question around and ask What doesn’t work? One example would be using sarcasm. It doesn’t always go over well in some cultures.
Adri: I would like to think that a story told well is a good story around the world. I recently scripted a video featuring six people in five countries, many of whom were not native English speakers. I made sure to avoid any idioms they may not know or feel comfortable using.
I helped them with their intonation and pronunciation but encouraged them to speak as naturally as possible. I think their personalities and cultural backgrounds come through this way, making them authentic storytellers.
YS: What is your parting message to the startups and aspiring innovators in our audience?
Anjana: Know where your audience is and focus on building those channels for storytelling. Don’t try to be on all platforms because of FOMO. Once you have identified the channel that works for you, be consistent. Patience is key and responsiveness is essential. All the best.
Marybeth: Spend time working on your mission and message. It’s a good investment early as you build a solid foundation that will scale. And it is essential for successful pitching to investors. If you struggle to bring clarity, it might be a signal of an underlying challenge with your business idea. If you have to go back to the drawing board, better to do it early in the process. Having discipline in your narrative will help guide you. Good luck!
Adri: I agree with Marybeth. Take the time to create your story. We hope our book will help. Best of luck on your journey!
YS has also published the pocketbook ‘Proverbs and Quotes for Entrepreneurs: A World of Inspiration for Startups’ as a creative and motivational guide for innovators (downloadable as apps here: Apple, Android).