Have you ever met someone so charismatic that you could watch the room light up in response to their presence?
I have, and it was in a pretty unlikely scenario.
My first job was working for a marketing agency for tech firms. One day in the early noughties we went to pitch to take over the PR account of a medium-sized US tech firm. No-one you would have heard of, unless you worked in that area.
It wasn’t the biggest account, but it wasn’t the smallest either. Worth having, so we were well prepared.
I remember there was an unusually large number of people in the room. Normally when we pitched, it was to maybe two or three people from the marketing team. This time it was five or six, plus our team of maybe four, so most seats around the board room table were full. Except for the head of the table, because we were waiting for the MD.
While we waited, we did the usual, slightly forced but nonetheless good-natured, small talk.
Then he walked in, and the effect was dramatic. You could watch the people who worked for him literally light up. It was like flowers turning to face the sun. And the effect was infectious: you couldn’t help but pick up on this incredibly positive vibe that his staff clearly got from working with him.
What he did next gave me some clue as to why people loved working with this guy. In a few sentences he quickly brought the meeting to order and explained why everyone was there. He explained why they were looking for a new agency and enthused about the business with great passion.
When he was done, we really wanted to work with them.
It was an unsexy, medium-sized technology business that most people would never recognise. But when he’d finished telling the story of where they were and where they wanted to be, it felt like we would be working with Apple.
We didn’t win the pitch.
I can’t say I remember many pitches apart from the absolute disasters. The one where I crashed my car on the way over. The one where the client immediately and vocally hated the central theme (my idea). The one where the prospects barely said two words and just stared at us for about 40 minutes.
This one stuck with me. What I learned was not just the power of charisma but one of the tools that underpinned it: great storytelling.
My job? Telling stories
In retrospect, a lot of my work has been about storytelling.
When I worked in marketing it was about taking a product — usually an unsexy tech product — and building a story around it that gave it context and appeal to its target audience. I spent quite a lot of time travelling around Europe helping others to do the same, teaching resellers and systems integrators for one of the largest tech firms to do their own PR.
These days, I help to explain big tech stories to the public for the BBC and others by building a narrative around what has happened. And most importantly, I build stories about the future for clients, whether that’s in reports, consultations, or presentations.
Because I do this a lot, a few years ago I tried to formalise the process. How do you tell a story of tomorrow? I realised there are a few key ingredients to a great story — ingredients that my charismatic tech boss understood very well.
These ingredients have been described so many times in so many ways — perhaps most simply and memorably in Kipling’s Six Honest Serving Men. But I think of them as Audience, Context, Action and Impact.
Stories are different for every audience. The starting point for every story — at least in business — has to be the audience. Who is listening and what will their reactions be? What do they care about?
My old boss described this as the view from your audience’s window. You’re about to tell them that something is happening. Something they don’t know about — maybe shocking. If they’re going to buy what you’re telling them, you need to ground it in their context first.
In PR we used to constantly ask “What has changed?” If nothing changes then there is no story, just a sketch.
Action without impact is an unfinished story. Impact is “What happened next?” Or in my case “What will happen next?”
These are the fundamental components I use when building reports, presentations, articles about the future. They’re all part of the Arcs framework for narrative planning — itself part of the Applied Futurist’s Toolkit. This also includes templates to apply these components, whether you’re writing a report for the board, a piece of content for marketing, or a business strategy.