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A sound business plan isn't enough. Winning takes a great story that defines and differentiates your organization.

"Help Me Hire a Hit Man..."

Reads the sign of a panhandler outside a subway station in San Francisco. Apparently, she does quite well.

In Olympia, Washington, a guy gets similar results with motorists by holding up a placard that says: "Why lie? I need a beer."

A man in Times Square offers this only-in-New-York service: "Tell me off. One dollar."*

These three entrepreneurial panhandlers succeed (in their own way) because they know something many business people have yet to discover: Nothing's more powerful than a good story.

Of course these stories rely on humor to succeed, but there's much more to them than that.

They grab and hold your attention — motivating "customers" to "buy" — because they're personal, credible, compelling, and delivered with commitment and consistency.

Grounded in a big idea

"In business," says Cary Brazeman, principal of The Corporate Storyteller, "an effective corporate story usually begins with an idea, the same idea that is the basis of the business plan. What's the company's raison d'etre... its promise to business customers or consumers? That big idea should be the basis of the corporate story."

Great business performances often elude otherwise strong organizations because their stories are poorly conceived or inadequately told.

"In most markets," Brazeman says, "saying your company provides 'exceptional customer service' or makes 'value-added' products doesn't inspire a prospect, because your competitors either do the same things or say they do. Corporate storytelling digs deeper and reflects on the core principles that define a company and its personality."

As important as language is to effective corporate storytelling, it alone is insufficient. "The KitchenAid blender on my kitchen counter is there as much because its design captured my imagination as it is for its functionality. That's part of KitchenAid’s story, and part of their sell," Brazeman says.

"Likewise, the American Express card in my wallet is a true testament to the benefits of 'membership.' I like the fact that they track my purchasing habits and call if I buy something that doesn't fit my profile to be sure the card wasn't stolen. That kind of service is part of the American Express story."

The challenge for public companies

For public companies, effective corporate storytelling is especially important. Investors put a price tag on them every day, and so goes their cost of capital, investment return and growth.

"The stock market can be brutal and unforgiving," Brazeman says. "It minces no words. But it's arguably the most honest barometer of a company's future prospects. For listed companies, corporate storytelling is about showing investors why they should bet on you."

Brazeman adds that the best corporate stories often are powerful in their simplicity.

"They need not begin with 'Once upon a time,' but they dramatically improve the odds of happy endings."

 

* Excerpted from "Cash Values," Worth, July/August 2000 (Capital Publishing)