I have the privilege of regularly hanging out with theme park creators, immersive theatre producers, metaverse-builders, ritual designers and more.
Our conversations invariably turn to the stories they tell.
These can be real or virtual world extensions of stories we know. Think Star Wars at Disney or a live theatre meets VR version of The Tempest I recently experienced. Stories of transformation from Meow Wolf or my friends at Punchdrunk Enrichment. Or stories that are simply fun, like The Girl on the Phone, which make you the protagonist in a journey to save a kidnapped woman from her captors in Caracas.
But while story and narrative structure gets a prime spot in the world of art and entertainment,
it hardly gets a mention in the world of customer, employee and shareholder experience.
Instead, we talk about “multi-channel journey maps in which AI-powered sentiment analysis allows us to predict Net Promoter Scores and proactively implement personalised value proposition enhancements while creating actionable new customer insights of which the ROI can be tracked on our newest 20 KPI dashboard.”
I do it too.
And sure, these buzzwords can add value.
But focusing too much on them makes us forget that experiences are created in the mind.
The stories we tell ourselves about what is happening to us are at least as important as the experience itself. Perhaps even more.
Depending on the context, a simple touch can be a source of comfort, a sign of friendship, or an invasion of privacy.
A loud engine can be annoying. Or, if it’s from a Harley or a Ferrari, an expression of personality.
So in this article I want to encourage you to include the topic of ‘story’ into your next customer, employee or shareholder experience.
But before I do, let’s look at three of many ways in which such stories can add value.
#1. Stories make the ordinary special and the special unique
During a Tarot course I did in London, we were given with a bowl of knickknacks from which we had to pick the least valuable item. We all quickly settled on a cheap pink plastic ring.
Until we heard it was the engagement ring of our instructor’s grandmother. Just before his grandfather was going to propose, her original ring was stolen. The only available alternative was this plastic one. And while a replacement ring was eventually bought, the little pink trinket held tremendous emotional value.
We never discovered whether this story was true or not. But in either case, none of us still considered the piece of plastic to be the least valuable item in the bowl.
A similar thing happened at McLaren Automotive. When talking to the designers, we discovered that various parts of the sporty 650s Spider were inspired by biomimicry. The lights flowed like the wings of a Manta ray, and the overall shape of the car was inspired by the tight skeleton of a cheetah. Simply telling this design story while presenting the car, heightened the emotional connection to it, and thus the value perception.
ACTION ITEM 1: Think about authentic stories you can tell to highlight less visible, but valuable, aspects of your products, services or business. To heighten the experience.
#2. Stories make experiences memorable.
When it comes to memory management, our brain is pretty brutal. If you don’t regularly relive a memory, it fades. I know I drank 100-year-old Armagnac at our wedding, because this story regularly features in my keynote speeches. But beyond this, my only other memories are the fireworks on the sea outside Èze and the smile on my wife’s face. All the rest is a blur.
For smaller-than-life-changing experiences, it gets worse. If there isn’t a personally relevant story, you’re sure to forget about them. Which makes it all the more remarkable that most branded, memorable experiences fail to provide their audience with memory aids and stories to re-tell.
For example, when working on Bordeaux advocacy I learned that, when visiting their chateau, 95% of wine makers only tell three stories. They talk about their soil (terroir), their history (histoire) and their method of wine-making (méthode de vinification).
While this is undoubtedly interesting for wine-geeks, it’s not something that will feature in conversations for the rest of us. Which means that after five enjoyable chateaux, we cannot tell one from the other anymore. Especially if you sampled enough of their product 🍷😉.
ACTION ITEM 2: Can you create experiences that give your customers stories that enrich their lives by retelling them? Because remember, I won’t tell my friends or family a story about your business because I like you. I do it because I like them, and because my story adds to our conversation.
#3. Stories can expand the narrative of ‘what is possible’
We all tell ourselves that we have free will. But many (most?) of our decisions are influenced by our personal history and the stories we tell ourselves. Even if it goes against our own - rational - interests.
While some say this is a fatalist point of view, this realisation is extremely liberating. Like in the Matrix, it means that by simply changing the story we tell, we can expand people’s mind and subsequently change behaviour. Even reality itself.
Too philosophical or sci-fi? Then consider these examples:
ACTION ITEM 3: How can you infuse your customer, employee, shareholder experience with stories of possibility? Elements to inspire and expand the perspective of those you try to affect? Encourage positive action?
There are many other ways that stories can add value to experience.
They can deepen understanding. Blur the boundary between reality and imagination (especially when combined with rituals). Provide structure through beginnings, middles, and endings. They can infuse a sense of fun. Encourage bonding and community. If you’re really good, they can even trigger personal transformation.
But here is my main point.
Next time you start working on experience, transformation or both, also consider the story you’re trying to tell.
For the relationship as a whole, and for every individual journey episode or even touchpoint. Then consider how you will authentically bring this story to life? How will you use it to influence perception? Avoid disappointment? Increase delight? Trigger word-of-mouth? Hey, why not make the world more beautiful, sustainable, fair and inclusive?
If you struggle to formulate this story...
If 99% of your strategy and programme language focuses on complex slides with numbers and processes, then perhaps that’s something to address before further trying to boost those NPS response rates, initiate cross-selling or create another audience persona.
Because no experience management technique can overcome that experiences are created in the mind. By the story, that is told. The stronger this resonates, the better the end result will be.
Try it ... you'll see it works 🙂
Alain Thys is an experience architect who helps organisations drive profit and transformation through experience.