The sweet smell of a success story

....and how to tell it apart from a case study.

By Claire Cunningham - Director - Rockallwight PR

When I was a teenager at my local secondary school in the 1980s, we had a memorable geography teacher, who was very tall and had a grey handlebar moustache. He wore a checked woollen suit with flares and a kipper tie. I can’t remember whether he had leather patches on his elbows but it’s probable. He looked as though he was from another time. His clipped English accent and expressions were out of the ordinary and he was certainly eccentric. On first sight of him, I think that I did a double take, as it was almost as if he had stepped out of the pages of the Beano.

From the moment he walked into the room, he commanded our attention, even if it was, as somewhat of an oddity. At the start, we delighted ourselves with ironic mock obedience, living up to what seemed to be his very old fashioned and over the top ideas of the way we should conduct ourselves in class. For instance, during one school church service, we thought it would be hilarious to do hammed-up mock choir boy/girl impressions. But much to our distress, he congratulated us on the way back to the classroom for being the pride of the school with our singing!

Our inability to wind him up, meant that he maintained very good command of the lessons and we got our work done. This was usually because, by the time we realised that our attempts at general buffoonery and mockery had backfired, it was too late, and we had learnt something. Maybe, despite the fact that we all initially hoped that we could run rings around him, he knew more than a thing or two about teaching young people, as well as Geography.

It wasn’t until I had the opportunity to enter the business and innovation world, over 20 years later, as a communications professional that I realised, he had taught me some of the most useful things that I learned at school. For example, he made sure that we knew about all of our industry sectors and lots of the manufacturing processes. We knew about extraction, exporting and importing of goods and we understood what was going to happen to cities and people as a result of a growth in the world population.

So, looking back, despite the challenge that he faced, of having to teach a group of ‘incredulous smart alecs’, who thought he was a ‘washed up has-been’, he managed to teach us some really important stuff. This mattered because we then all went out into the world and were hopefully more useful to society, as a result.

He may not be with us anymore, as he was an older chap then, but this is his success story. He walked into a school as an unfamiliar new teacher. A school where teaching styles were very modern and different to his approach, where classes of kids had been known, on occasion, to run weak supply teachers out of town, and he stayed true to himself. He probably knew that he ‘stuck out like a sore thumb’ but he overcame the challenge and actually did what he was meant to do – teach us properly. As an aside, although I ended up as an A student in Geography, due to my teacher's perseverance, I actually went on to study English at university instead.

All of the above explained…

I know this is a blog about success stories, so you may be wondering what all that was about. But I told the story above for two reasons. One was to introduce a story arc to you and give you an example of a success story without you even realising it. The second reason was to introduce the subject of Geography. Read on …it will all become clear…

A case study is something that our teacher asked us to sit quietly and read, on occasion, in our Geography text book. Maybe he did this when we were being particularly tiresome!

There would be a box on one page, perhaps, a photo of on oil refinery and some text in the box describing an event or a method of extraction, or something about the context and the location. When I started working in the business world, I noticed that companies often use this approach too. A title that says, ‘Case Study’, then a picture of a product in a box, with some text describing what the product does and maybe how it has been used by a client. This was all very familiar, just like the old geography text books.

But very early on in my communications career, it struck me that there was something particularly static and dry about the trusty old case study. Yes, it has its place but if the case study approach is all that a business uses to illustrate what it does and even more importantly, WHY it does what it does, is that enough to set a customer’s world on fire? I would say definitely not. I told you a success story because I think they are the antidote to case studies.

Story Power

There’s something about a story that taps into our emotions and helps us to remember information. We engage with stories, share them, enjoy them and really listen when they are being told. Research into the way our brains work has shown that storytelling is a powerful way to communicate. Stories combine factual information with emotions and imagery. Stories have been shown to actually create pathways or connections between the left and right halves of your brain. This makes you remember them. In the age of information overload, if a potential client can remember a success story about your product, that is significant.

 What is a success story?

A business success story follows the archetypal structure of a type of story that has probably been told since we started telling stories. If you are interested in finding out more about why we tell stories then look no further than ‘ The seven basic plots’ by Christopher Booker.

Booker talks about something called the meta-plot. The meta-plot begins with the anticipation stage, in which the hero/heroine is called to the adventure to come. This is followed by a dream stage, in which the adventure begins, the hero/heroine has some success, and has an illusion of invincibility. However, this is then followed by a frustration stage, in which the hero/heroine has his/her first confrontation with the enemy, and the illusion of invincibility is lost. This worsens in the nightmare stage, which is the climax of the plot, where hope is apparently lost. Finally, in the resolution, the hero/heroine overcomes his/her burden against the odds.

The seven basic plots include familiar story structures like rags to riches (Pretty Woman) and overcoming the monster (King Kong). But I think the best pick from the seven plots for a business success story is the quest or hero's journey.

Of course, the quest story has a beginning, a middle and an end. It has a hero/ heroine and key protagonists. In the quest, the hero/ heroine, often accompanied by sidekicks, travels in search of a priceless treasure and must defeat evil and overcome powerful odds. The story ends when s/he gets both the treasure and the girl/ boy. The Odyssey is a classic example of this kind of story.

Often "Quest" stories make our hero/ heroine encounter a variety of challenges that are all seemingly unrelated. In the real world, this is very much the story of every beginning entrepreneurial journey. The challenges that small businesses face and the dreaded ‘ valley of death’ that start-ups encounter, sit comfortably into the quest story structure.

When you tell a success story as a business, your client is the hero/ heroine. You are a wise wizard or fairy godmother, who walks alongside them. Your product or service is the tool that helps them to overcome the odds and get the treasure at the end.

The famous US novelist Kurt Vonnegut, also had some interesting ideas about story structure and archetypal characters. He had a theory that the main character of a story has ups and downs that can be shown in a graph to reveal the story's shape.

If you would like a taste of what it’s possible to do with success stories. Click below to see some of stories that I have helped businesses to tell in the past. This was in one of my previous roles as communications professional for the UK Government:

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