The Most Ignored Storytelling Tool in Technology
[A version of this article was recently published in Fast Company]
I was recently talking to the CEO of a business intelligence company, a rather hot start-up in a hot space, who was bemoaning the lack of original marketing in his category.
“You could put your hand over the logo of any business intelligence web site and they all sound exactly the same. And I include us in that. It drives me nuts. We’re doing something different here. I want it to sound that way.”
It’s a common complaint in technology. But why is that? One reason is because technology marketers have ignored what storytellers have relied upon for centuries as a critical shaping force in creation of their story: genre. Aristotle’s Poetics is perhaps the oldest study of dramatic theory (335 B.C.) and in it, he defines the genres and sub-genres of poetry including the epic, the comedy, and the tragedy.
Since then, authors, playwrights and screenwriters have understood the value of applying certain conventions to their stories in order to guide storytelling decisions and assist the audience with familiarity. Because what’s the first question you ask when talking about going to a film: what are you in the mood for? You never enter a theater blindly, take your seat, cross your fingers, and…damn…it’s a horror film. If you’re prepared for the type of story you’re going to hear, you’re better able to appreciate it.
A quick view of how technology companies talk about themselves would make you think there was one but one genre: innovation. I spent several months looking at hundreds of companies and I believe there are six. Deciding which genre your company belongs to is a critical step in developing an original voice. The genres are:
Convention: Truly game-changing technology present, but not felt; simplicity leads.
Apple and Google live here. Netflix and Amazon as well with their brilliant recommendation engines. But this is a high-risk, high-reward genre. It MUST be simple. If you’ve made a phone that my mother needed no help to start using, then you’re good. But anything less and your voice will be riddled with clichés or lies.
Convention: An existing experience vastly improved; productivity and efficiency reign.
Dropbox is the classic example, solving the pain of storing and sharing files when we didn’t even know it existed. But would you believe Uber belongs here too? At least with their original ambition of improving city travel through a better taxi experience.
Convention: Experiences outweigh features; the group IS the product.
Most social networks (Facebook) and enthusiast communities (Houzz) belong here, but so too does GoPro. What makes them so effective is that while other camera companies drone on about specs, they talk only about what you can experience with their product.
Convention: Technology embraced in a way that builds value and trust; expertise is king.
These companies don’t hide their technical skills, they celebrate them so customers and partners pay highly for them. Dolby has built decades of value out of their acoustic engineering excellence, while Adobe products are revered by the creative community.
Convention: Breakthrough technology still very present, but design and image are the drivers.
Like all others, these are technology companies at their core, but they recognized early that design would be essential to their product category or competitive advantage. Jawbone. FitBit (it’s a vanity product, people, not a fitness product). Even Tesla.
Convention: The engine under a business’s hood, it’s all about return and results.
Just about every B2B infrastructure company resides here, especially the global leaders. IBM. SAP. Cisco. But that doesn’t mean they all have to sound the same. IBM has done an excellent job of separating from the pack with their “Smarter Planet” campaign. They emphasize societal impact over technical performance. Brilliant.
At this point, I expect the reaction of Tesla employees to be, “we’re a vanity product?! We are revolutionizing the automotive category!” And that brings up the beautiful thing about genres: they are fluid, constantly evolving and combining to create subgenres. Just about every company will combine aspects of multiple genres. Tesla definitely has elements of Accessible Innovation and Technical Excellence in their story. But just as in film, there needs to be a dominant genre. And today, most people I know buy a Tesla for its status, not its braking system.
So back to our business intelligence CEO. He’s right. There is no excuse for all BI companies to sound the same. I could make a case for all six genres existing in the BI category. Does your intelligence come from a crowdsourcing approach? Then think Tribal Strength. Is your product aimed primarily at the data scientist? Technical Excellence likely leads. Or are you trying to democratize BI so all employees can use it themselves? Then the simplicity of Accessible Innovation must drive.
Once you identify your genre, you realize that it not only reveals your company voice, but your strategy, and binds the two together. And then, just like it does for the screenwriter, it provides helpful guardrails letting you know what belongs in your story and what does not.