What do Mitt Romney, Big Oil and Nintendo have in common?
Each is trying to sell a story that few seem willing to buy.
Former Massachusetts governor Romney wants you to believe his universal healthcare program isn't like President Obama's. Big oil wants to convince you that government subsidies are needed despite record profits. And Nintendo wants you to believe that games developed for social media and mobile devices are ruinous to the entertainment industry.
It's worth pondering these efforts for a moment because everyone has a story to tell -- about our products, people or potential. The better you are at telling your story, the more customers, partners and shareholders are likely to believe in you. Their faith can translate into profits, market share and influence.
This is why it's important to get your story right. So have you? Before answering, think about the narrative that you provide -- both intentionally and unintentionally. Let's start with the intentional one.
For your story to resonate, it must be several things at once. Above all else, it must be unique, sincere and memorable. Consider your uniqueness: Have you looked deep within your walls and zeroed in on that which separates you from the rest? It could be almost anything, including your ingenuity, location, pricing, quality, access or trustworthiness. Surely something about you distinguishes you from your competitors. If you are McDonalds, it's your value and consistency. If you're Ritz Carlton, it's your commitment to customer service. And if you're Apple, it's your innovation and execution.
No matter who you are, you no doubt have something distinct or compelling about you. If you are not telling the world what it is, then you are likely under-valuing your story. This is a costly mistake few can afford. Ditto for your sincerity.
For a company narrative to connect, it has to ring true and complete. There should be no lapses, omissions or inconsistencies. Not mentioning the elephant in the room may serve you well at Thanksgiving, but not in business. Your story must take into account your past shortcomings, but it need not dwell on them. Nor should it lean too heavily on previous accomplishments, especially if they have not been repeated or leveraged in any meaningful way.
When it comes to sincerity, a narrative should not be transparently self-serving or fatuous in any way. If it is, it will invite scorn or derision. When Philip Morris CEO Louis Camilleri recently said that tobacco was "not that hard to quit," he not only insulted the intelligence of his customers, he also raised the ire of health professionals, too. "Appalling," summed Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society, afterwards.
Hard to argue with that story.
In addition to uniqueness and sincerity, a business narrative must be memorable. It's preposterous, for example, to claim to be the world's finest restaurant or best retailer. But a memorable one? That's certainly doable. Think about the organizations you engage. If you go out of your way or pay a premium to patronize any company, it's probably because they provided something that resonated with you. If any of your customers feel similarly, then make this an important part of your story.
But don't stop there. In addition to the intentional messages you communicate, consider the ones you unintentionally broadcast. They are as much a part of your story as your advertising or public relations. Just ask any frequent business traveler. They'll tell you that no benefit lavished upon them or commercial targeted at them will erase the memory of negative experiences endured in the air or on the ground.
When it comes to storytelling, almost anything you do can become a part of your narrative.
If you want to succeed in business, you are going to need a strategy to help you achieve your objectives. But you won't be able to create that strategy until you get your story down. Who you are and where you are going are the essence of what sets you apart.
When you can share that with the world in unique, sincere and memorable way, your chance for success increases immeasurably.
Inder Sidhu is the Senior Vice President of Strategy & Planning for Worldwide Operations at Cisco, and the author of Doing Both: Capturing Today's Profits and Driving Tomorrow's Growth. Author proceeds from sales of Doing Both go to charity. Follow Inder on Twitter at @indersidhu.