The marketing pundit machine has been extolling the virtues of brand storytelling for some time now. Media outlets across the web have touted the idea of using of storytelling techniques to improve marketing content’s ability to forge an emotional connection with readers and stick in their minds.
As I read these articles, I wondered what marketers meant when they spoke about using storytelling for technology marketing. So I posed the question to a number of marketers who, in their LinkedIn profiles, trumpeted their embrace of the concept. I got answers ranging from websites that provide content that solves customers’ problems to case studies that describe outcomes rather than features.
None of these examples incorporated any of the concepts that make stories memorable, as described in that bible of storytelling, Made to Stick.
But after much searching, I finally found an example of a technology marketer that uses storytelling techniques to tell customer success stories. These stories go far beyond your standard success story in forging an emotional connection with readers. That Marketer is Microsoft. It used a host of tried-and-true storytelling techniques to draw in the reader and linger in their mind long after they’d finished reading the stories.
The following discusses the storytelling elements that Microsoft used in a profile it wrote about Steve Gleason, a former NFL star who is now struggling with ALS. If you want to follow along, you can find the story at: https://news.microsoft.com/stories/people/steve-gleason.html
Most customer success stories for technology companies talk about how a customer company used the vendor’s products to solve a particular challenge. My views on using a company as a protagonist mirrors those of progressives’ views on the Citizen’s United supreme court ruling that said campaign spending is speech and gives corporations the first amendment rights of a person. In a customer success story, a company is not a good stand-in for a person. A good story leads the reader to empathize with the protagonist. It’s about transmitting emotions. You simply can’t do that when you’re talking about a company. A company is an abstract entity, not a living, breathing human being.
In contrast, the Microsoft story has a real, live protagonist—Steve Gleason. By featuring a real person, the Microsoft piece is able to use the storytelling techniques of “Show, don’t tell.” At the beginning of the piece, you see Gleason surrounded by childhood friends, close family members, and the mayor of Spokane—all of which tells you a lot about what kind of a person he is and what he values.
You also hear his words. “It’s all about camaraderie. It’s about friends and family and music.”
Made to Stick lists a number of story plots that have been proven time and again to stick in people’s minds. The plot most commonly used in business storytelling is the so called “challenge” plot. In this story line, the protagonist overcomes a formidable obstacle and succeeds.
Most technology case studies follow this plot to the extent that the customer faces, and ultimately, triumphs over some obstacle—with the help of the vendor’s solution.
While these stories don’t necessarily have to be about life and death issues to be effective, the Steve Gleason story ratchets up the drama several orders of magnitude. Gleason isn’t facing the trauma of manually entering data into a spreadsheet. He’s literally fighting for his life. Gleason is battling ALS. And although no one has ever vanquished this disease, Gleason can and is fighting to help himself and others with the disease have as meaningful and productive a life as possible.
The way you tell a story is just as important as the plot.
Most technology case studies start in a formulaic way with a brief description of the customer’s business with an immediate deep dive into the challenge they faced that led them to search for the vendor’s solution.
The Gleason story draws the reader in with a number of techniques more commonly found in mainstream books, magazines or newspaper articles.
First, it starts in media res (in the middle of things). Rather than start by describing the challenge, the piece describes a scene.
“Spokane’s 3rd annual Gleason Fest was billed as a ‘grassroots, indie music festival,’ but everyone there knew something more profound was afoot.
As I watched the sun set over the outdoor stage at Division and Main Street, Lukas Nelson (yes, Willy’s son) played to the crowd like a man possessed. He sweated out every note of his new songs and blues-tinged renditions of Paul Simon and Tom Petty classics.
Steve Gleason—the Spokane-born NFL cult hero and festival namesake—sat onstage in his wheelchair, a few feet to Nelson’s left.”
Additionally, because it’s written in first person, you identify with the writer. You feel like you’re there at the festival.
Even more important, this lead incites curiosity. My immediate reaction was to ask myself, “Why was this festival with this big name performer named after Steve Gleason? Why is Gleason sitting in a wheelchair if he’s a NFL cult hero? What happened?
My one criticism of this lead is that could have included more sensory perceptions—how did things sound, smell, taste—to draw me in even more.
While most technology customer success stories are strictly utilitarian, the writer here is not afraid to evoke emotion. In the same opening scene, the writer says, “I saw numerous parents introduce their toddlers to each other. I saw people who have been friends for over 30 years toast with Gleason-themed beer cans. I saw former Divison 1 football players cry.”
The Microsoft Connection
Of course, unlike most magazine articles, this one was designed to promote Microsoft. Like all other customer case studies for technology companies, this story explicitly discusses how Microsoft is helping Gleason meet his goal of improving life for people with ALS. Nonetheless, even in this, the story strives to connect with readers. The story uses several techniques to do this. It:
- Talks about the Microsoft connection in a very personal way. The article describes the person at Microsoft who first approached Gleason (Yvonne Thomas), the connection she had to Gleason (attended the same college), and what prompted her to contact him. (She knew that Gleason and Microsoft together could make a tangible difference for people with ALS).
- Increases the stakes. Microsoft worked with Gleason to develop products that would allow him to control his wheelchair with eye movements and thus gain greater independence. The story talks not only about the development process, but about how the development team entered this product into the Microsoft Hackathon contest. They competed against 3,000 other entrants, all trying to create something innovative using existing Microsoft products.
- Steps us through the development of the entry. A key storytelling technique is walking the reader through the steps the protagonist takes to overcome his or her challenge. This allows the reader to empathize with the protagonist and see themselves in that person’s shoes. This story thus walked us through the process of how the team developed the eye-controlled wheelchair.
- Ends in success. The team won the contest, beating out thousands of other participants.
One Last Emotional Hurrah
Unlike a standard case story that ends by enumerating the successes the customer has achieved by using the vendor’s product to solve the problem, this one goes for one last emotional connection.
“I wondered if I was also falling under the spell of Gleason. I thought about volunteering to write for Team Gleason and becoming part of this movement but this is so much more important than any one individual.
Ramirez (Gleason’s close friend) looked me I the eyes, “You don’t feel like you’re writing just any story, do you? I can tell, Steve’s gotten to you too.”