Story vs. Assertion: Which Is Better For Your Brand?

One of the first things we do in our Business Storytelling Workshops is give respondents a mini-quiz to see if they can tell the difference between a story and an assertion. It is rare indeed when anyone gets all or even most of the answers correct. Albeit a common mistake, I’d like to show you why this mistake can have negative consequences for your company and, by extension, its brand.

First, and especially in a business setting, assertions and stories are tools used to make a point. The difference is in how the point gets made. An assertion makes the point through a statement of opinion or belief. A story makes the point through the description of an event that has already happened or will happen sometime in the future.

Consider these two examples:

First the assertion:

“Introducing New Coke was an egregious error in judgement made by negligent management. They should have taken into consideration that emotional bonds people have with brands can be very strong.”

Personally, upon hearing this at a meeting I once attended, I was turned off by the speaker. Based on my studying the New Coke failure, I thought that referring to the failure as “an egregious error in judgment” was an ill-informed oversimplification. Additionally, I didn’t like the insinuation that knowing about the strength of any brand’s emotional attachment should just be thought of as common sense.

You may disagree with the reasons for my strong reaction. That’s not the point. The point is that assertions always present the risk of disagreement. To assume that everyone is going to agree with you can backfire. Especially when the risk of disagreement is high, it is better to rely on a story leading up to your point.

Contrast the above assertion with this story used to make a point:

When Coke saw that New Coke performed better in taste tests than the current Coke, they confidently introduced it with a great deal of fanfare. Yet, Coke drinkers didn’t just reject New Coke. They revolted against it. They told Coke it was destroying something they had grown up with. Can you imagine how baffled Coke must have been when they found this out? Clearly, this points to the strength of the emotional bond that consumers can have with a brand.  It can be so strong that it outweighs rational considerations given to taste or other attributes.

And yes, it took a little longer to get to the point.

However, when the point is made about the emotional power of brands, it gets served up as an assertion that is inescapable.  This is one of the reasons it has been said that stories persuade without getting in their own way.

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The challenge and how to meet it:

Again, the challenge is to become aware of whether you are asserting something or telling a story.  Stories come in a number of different forms. But if you were to take any story apart, you would generally find these elements:

Time markings:  Stories imply or directly state that something happened in time. eg. In 2001…,” “Just the other day” “Last Tuesday …” “When we last spoke to the CEO …” The archetypal time marking is, of course, “Once upon a time” but that’s not one you want to use in a business setting.

Place markings:  Just stories imply or state that something happened in time, the same is true for place. eg.“We were outside his office …” “At the basketball tournament…” However, sometimes the place is nondescript. “Our representative met with their President, ” could suggest that a meeting took place at the  President’s office or possibly by telephone.  Either way, the meeting occurred at a place.

Characters: Stories:  Stories feature a “personified it.” eg.  Besides being a person, the “personified it” could be a company, an animal – anything that performs an action. “The brand died an ignominious death.”, “The tree lost its leaves early this Fall.”.

Events:  The biggest signal that a story is being told is when an event is described as in all of the examples above.

Click here to learn all there is to know about telling your brand’s story.

elicit your prospect's business story

How To Elicit Your Prospect’s Business Story

Much has been written about storytelling as a business tool. And for good reason. Storytelling can be an extremely powerful way to influence, motivate and inspire others. However, it is common for storytelling trainers to err by disregarding differences between business storytelling and recital storytelling.

Stylistically, business storytelling should be more casual than careful.  Indeed, like recital storytelling, business storytelling is used to engage listeners, facilitate interest, and gain emotional reactions. However, when telling a story in a business setting, you should not try to become the next Mark Twain. As a business tool, storytelling should be more  “informance” than performance.  Otherwise, it will do more harm than good.

There are other differences, as well. For instance, recital storytelling travels from the speaker’s mouth to the listener’s ears.  By contrast, in a business setting,  storytelling can and should be a two-way street.  In fact, one can benefit as much from eliciting as they can from telling stories.

Consider, for instance, the salesperson interviewing a prospect who is considering a change in vendors. Typical questions that the salesperson might ask are, “Why are you considering a change in vendors?” or “What are you looking for that you are not receiving from your current supplier?” Using questions like these will likely yield a direct answer and provide some understanding of what the prospect is looking for.  However, by eliciting a story, additional insights can be gained.

Instead of asking for reasons why, consider what would happen with quesitons like, ” When did you decide to change vendors?” or “ What happened to cause you to reconsider your current arrangement?”  By asking for the event or events leading up to the reason,  a story would be elicited.  And, instead of receiving a direct answer like, “We are looking for someone who can provide faster responses to our requests,” it’s more likely that prospect would say something like,”When we first started working with them they were Johnny-on-the-spot.  But now it takes 5 or 6 phone calls before anyone gets back to us. Last  year, they were acquired by a bigger company.  And following that acquisition, we got lost in the shuffle.  Being one of their smaller accounts, we just didn’t seem as important anymore.”   As the story unfolds, the emotional component of the problem rises to the surface. Besides the directly stated more rational reason why behind the considered switch, we also learn that the prospect has been feeling left out in the cold and wants to feel important regardless of the size of his business.

This is but one example of how eliciting stories can be more helpful than just the fact gathering. It takes some practice.  But here are some things to consider when developing your ability to elicit stories:

  1. Go for the “time stamp.”   Stories, by definition describe events that occurred at one time or another.   Be mindful of this as you ask questions.  Always ask for the “when” or  “what happened” instead of asking for a direct reason why.
  2. Learn about the setting.    When describing where something happened, you are likely to elicit a story, as well.  i.e “where did the process start falling apart?” or  “where did you first start to see changes occur?”
  3. Avoid “why” questions if you can.  Certainly knowing why someone believes the way they do is important.  But, again, “why,” more often than not, will yield opinions or theories that are often rational in natural.  Stories generally reveal the emotions that underly the facts.
  4. Be aware of assertion or opinion cues.  Whenever someone says or implies what they think, you should know you are not being told a story.
  5. If you get an assertion, go for the underlying story.   Instead of asking, “why do you believe that to be true?” ask, “Did something occur to cause you to feel that way?”   This will inevitably yield far more useful information than the assertion alone. Just remember, a story is not a story unless an event is described.

Learn more about brand storytelling here!

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