Insights | By Howard Tiersky

Digital Strategy Fails Without Story

It is more important to be able to effectively communicate and "sell" your digital strategy than it is to actually have the best possible digital plan.

How can this be? There are many roads to success — many strategies that can make a company successful in any given circumstance.  Furthermore, most strategies are iterated as they are being implemented so if you start with something that's at least vaguely going in the direction along one of the infinite roads to success, and if you have an engaged team executing, likely they will course correct along the way. So you should be set up for success. On the other hand, if you create the truly perfect, absolutely optimal, can't beat digital strategy, but fail to bring people on board, you are doomed to fail because nothing will be executed.

So how do you bring people along?  Your strategy must be a story.  Think of the speeches that inspired people over the years. The Gettysburg Address, the battle speech from BraveHeart, MLK's I Have  A Dream speech. These were all stories.

Why are stories so effective? Extensive research has been done on this topic, but at its core, the human brain is wired to pay close attention to stories because that was how ancient man learned things. When a hunter came back and told how he managed to successfully hunt down a bison, or escape from an enemy, or protect himself when caught in a storm, listening closely to the details of these recountings was a way to gain knowledge that could save your life in the future. We got genetically wired to seek out stories and listen to the details all the way through to the end (after all that's where the lesson is). Today that human drive yields billions of dollars for the media industry in the form of movies, television, novels and other storytelling media designed to scratch that genetic itch.  So use stories when you want people to pay attention, and not just pay attention, but really be listening with the readiness to change what they are are doing based on what they learn. This is exactly what we want from the audiences of our strategy stories, for them to hear a story that makes them say "I need to do something different; I need to take action based on that story."

So what is a story, and how can a strategy be a story?

Well first let's be clear about what is not a story — a list of things you are going to do is not a story.  A resource plan or budget is not, in itself, a story.  A brilliant vision for an app including its beautiful screen design and list of features is not a story.

So what is a story? A story is a series of incidents, usually told in chronological order. They can be in the past or the future, real or invented.  But that's not enough for something to be a story. A story has a framework around it that makes those incidents meaningful in relationship to each other. That frame has three key components:

A Goal: To free the galaxy from the tyranny of The Empire; To be the first woman to pilot a trans-continental flight; to win the world heavyweight championship. Stories always have a desired goal.

An Enemy and/or a substantial challenge to overcome:  None of the goals above are easy. Good stories do not come from goals easily attained; they come from some kind of battle.

A Lesson — all stories have a meaning, intentional or unintentional. Our minds will create a meaning if needed because that's why we are listening to the story in the first place. What can we learn? You generally have to get to the ending to understand the meaning (did the plan work? Or did it fail?). That's good because it keeps the audience engaged to the end. The best stories don't outright tell you the lesson, but you can infer it from the story, and that's where the psychological change comes from. Did you ever watch a movie and feel changed by it?

So how do we build these elements into our strategy presentation?

In a prior article we talked about an optimal structure for a strategy document or presentation so we won't go here into everything to put into a strategy, but here's how you shape it into a compelling story.

  1. Establish the world of the story. That generally means describing the current situation. "We have an audience of committed customers, however over the last few years that audience has gotten smaller, and our revenues have suffered."

  2. Establish the problem and the villain.  "Digital Disruptors like Google (or insert your industry's example) are offering our customers a more innovative experience." Show examples. "And they show no sign of stopping, in fact, it's increasing." Share competitive intelligence.

  3. Summarize the burning platform, "If we don't do something substantially different, we will continue to lose market share to these competitors. While we have brought some new products to market with incremental improvements, they do not appear to be enough to fight off these disruptors of our industry." Share stats.

At this point you want the audience to be uncomfortable, the same way they are when The Empire starts firing up their planet-destroyer. The situation looks bleak. What will the rebellion do? They need… what?  A PLAN!  You want your audience asking-- so what can we do? This is the optimal tee-up to the details of your strategy.

  1. The Secret Plan. Once past this setup, we get to the actual strategy. What is a strategy? A strategy is a plan to get from point A to Point B.  In Star Wars the plan is for a squadron of X Wing fighters to distract the death star while Luke and Han use the code they have stolen to get past the force field so they can go in and destroy the reactor. You need a plan like that. Your actual strategy may involve a new CMS, an update to the App, more personalization, increased spend on SEM, whatever it is, you are laying it out. 

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  1. Proof-Show Causality and Necessity. A key aspect of a good story is causality. Have you ever been watching a film and all of the sudden it gets boring and you start to wonder "what does this scene have to do with whats going on in this film?"  The mind of the story listener wants to understand how each step connects to the next. Customer Journey Mapping can be a helpful way of articulating the components of the activities in your strategy in a way that shows how they connect or have causality.  If you just describe your plans for email, and then for the website, and then for the app, and then for other touch points it might not be clear how all these connect in a story. It’s just a bunch of "stuff" you are going to do; basically a "to do" list, which is not a story. But if you explain how a user starts with a certain goal and we send him an email which causes him to go to the website which then gets him to download the app which then sends him a text message that gets him to drive to your store, now you are laying out a chain of causality in story form. By the way, this is not just a presentation technique this is a good discipline to craft strategies that are optimized. After all, the vast majority of digital strategies are, in the end, trying to drive customer behavior, so your story is very likely going to be a series of ways we influence the customer which leads them down a path to buying,  viewing more ads, or becoming more loyal or whichever of the many business models your strategy is based on.

  1. Now, once you lay out the plan to stop the deadly threat you set up, will everyone be on board. Not necessarily because there will be open questions with primary one — will the plan work? In the video above, everyone in the room is risking their lives if they carry out the plan. Similarly, for large-scale digital transformations, many people feel as if they are risking their jobs or careers if they "go for" an ambitious plan. So it's natural to question the plan. Furthermore, every aspect of the plan costs time and money which therefore increases the risk, so some may ask, why do we need this part or that part? Can't we be successful without those components?  These are good questions, and before you are in the hot seat, you want to have asked them already and made sure your strategy is optimized and defensible for both causality and necessity. Let's look at each.

    1. Causality. If we do X, will Y occur?  If we approach the death star with an X-wing fighter, will they really let us through or will they shoot us down? If we shoot the ventilation shaft, will we really blow up the death star? How do we know that? What makes us think that? In Star Wars we have some inside intelligence and blueprints of the Death Star that give confidence in the latter, and we have a sort of vague belief that the Death Star won't see one small ship as a threat to address the former.  This highlights a good point. Your strategy may not be ironclad. Clearly where you have solid data and evidence to support the causality, then that will be more persuasive. In other cases, it may be more of a belief which still needs to be tested.

    2. Necessity — This connects to our second aspect of proof. Think of a strategy as a set of dominos. If do A and that causes B then B causes C and C cause the stock price to rise and so on...  Any activity that is not part of that flow of dominoes is probably not necessary and should be removed, that is the test of necessity.   However, there are several reasons why you might be able to defend elements of your plan that are not strictly necessary for success if they provide redundancy that increases the likelihood or speed of success or provide security that reduces risk.  Why does the rebellion need an entire squadron to attack the death star when only one ship is actually going to go inside and destroy the reactor? One, it reduces the risk of that ship being stopped by distracting them, it also provides a back up if the first ship doesn't make it. It's not necessary but its part of a smart plan.  In your digital plan, you may have several tactics all of which are designed to increase the size of your mailing list. Strictly speaking, you could use fewer methods to simplify the plan, but if one of the methods fails your domino chain could break. Furthermore, if all approaches are successful you potentially reach your goal faster, so this is sensible.

  1. A satisfying ending — end your strategy not with the budget, but by reminding the listener what it's all about. What is the definition of victory, both at a company level and at a personal level? Yes, Rocky won the title and got lots of money and fame, but he also proved to himself and to Adrienne that he had it in him. Inspire people on both levels because any strategy has risks, just like the Star Wars clip, and people need not just to see but feel the victory on the other side of that risk to sign up and to wake up every day committed to making the story real.