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The three essentials of storytelling

Without risk, there is no story.

In the winter of 2009, Domino’s Pizza CEO Patrick Doyle took up some expensive commercial airtime during the NFL playoffs to make this startling on-camera admission: Domino's research showed that the company's own customers didn’t think its pizza was very good. “There comes a time," Doyle said into the camera, "when you know you've got to make a change.”

Domino's began its year-long "Pizza Turnaround" campaign with this humble admission, that customer complaints about cardboard crusts and ketchup-flavored sauce were absolutely valid. It was risky to introduce a a new pizza recipe this way, but it was also attention-getting, and it worked magnificently. As told in The Human Brand, by Chris Malone and Susan T. Fiske, the ads created such a stir that in early 2010, Domino's enjoyed the highest rate of single-quarter sales growth in the history of fast food!

There are three simple elements that made the Domino’s campaign such an irresistible story, and those same three elements are present in just about every good story you know: There was an interesting choice, it was made in the face of great risk, and it yielded a great reward.

That’s it. Choice, risk, reward. Get those three essential elements right, and you will have a story worth sharing.

Choice, risk and reward are strong elements in every story that ranks among our most time-honored cultural touchstones: Columbus’s first voyage, Revere’s midnight ride, Franklin’s kite and key. The best-known fairy tales and fables are also stories of choice, risk and reward, from Cinderella to Goldilocks to The Three Little Pigs. In every case, our best-loved stories involve interesting or unusual choices that place the hero in situations where clear risks and rewards hang in the balance.

Why is this? It's in our wiring as human beings. We are innately curious, problem-solving creatures. An interesting choice made in response to a risky challenge or dilemma instantly arouses our natural instincts to engage on an emotional level. The more difficult the challenge, the more interesting the choice, the deeper our emotional involvement and investment in what happens next.

Choice, risk and reward are typically very strong elements in the most memorable type of story that we repeat to each other: the joke. Give a listen to Woody Allen’s classic three-minute “The Moose” bit and you will hear roars of laughter every time someone in this convoluted tale makes a ridiculous choice, hoping desperately for reward, in the face of risk.

​The convoluted storylines in Seinfeld harness these same three elements of choice, risk and reward so skillfully that reruns of Seinfeld rank among the most popular TV shows in more than 100 countries. Sensible Jerry and Elaine usually make clever-sounding choices that promise effortless rewards, only to be comically thwarted by risks they hadn’t foreseen. Kramer and George, on the other hand, are lunatics who make absurdly high-risk choices in pursuit of rewards that are either ridiculously petty or plainly delusional.

So why, if the formula for good storytelling is so simple, do we have so much trouble telling good stories in the business world? The chief obstacle is the prevalent risk-averse bias in corporate culture. Interesting choices engage our emotions precisely because the person making the choice is at risk of looking bad — and few people in business relish the risk of looking bad.

For instance, test audiences gave the Domino's ads rave reviews because the ads showed a CEO doing something most business leaders would never dream of doing. He got on television and told his loyal customers that they were right to be disappointed with his product. That’s a very interesting choice! Patrick Doyle made that choice at great professional risk — which is exactly why the story reaped such great financial rewards for Domino’s and why it eventually earned Doyle a place among the “Top Ten Most Buzzed-About CEOs” of 2011.

The Pirate Shirt: Jerry makes a bad choice.

A related obstacle to good storytelling is that no one in business likes to admit being forced to act under pressure, but stories fall flat in the absence of pressure. While doing research for a book I was ghostwriting, I came across a very interesting quote by the CEO of one my author’s client companies. In the public transcript of a conference call with stock analysts, the CEO stated that the impetus behind one of his company’s more unusual innovations was the urgent need to distinguish its brand amid growing industry commoditization.

That’s a great story for the book, I thought. Every brand-name company suffering from lost market share to generic products could learn from this example. But when my author, as a courtesy, shared the draft text of the book with his client company’s marketing team, they requested that all references to commoditization be taken out of the chapter. The marketing people preferred that their company’s innovation be portrayed as a visionary initiative, unmotivated by marketplace pressures. That's not very interesting. It’s also not true.

The Domino’s story appears in The Human Brand because it illustrates the authors’ premise that customers in today’s social, mobile, global marketplace demand authenticity and transparency from the brands they patronize. Customers feel better about their choices when brand representatives take risks and admit their frailties as they strive to do better. Confessing blame and making amends contributes to good storytelling because it involves an essential human drama that we all can relate to.

Telling better stories that earn the admiration of customers and clients is not that complicated a task. It is a goal within reach of any company whose leaders are ready to risk exposing their humanity. And in that way, telling better stories doesn’t only offer the prospect of greater success. Telling better stories can also make us better people.

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