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Karen Dietz, Founder at JustStoryIt – Brand Story – Industry Interview

Home / Industry Interview / Karen Dietz, Founder at JustStoryIt – Brand Story – Industry Interview

Whoever tells the best story wins. Karen Dietz specialises in coaching and training senior executives in transformational leadership, executive presence, and employee engagement using storytelling as a path. Karen also consults with companies who want corporate values & vision embodied and lived in their organisation for improved bottom line results.

This interview ties into the release of Karen Dietz and Lori Silverman book on storytelling for the Dummies series – Business Storytelling For Dummies. A book that I highly recommended. It is full of fantastic examples and approaches for applying storytelling to business needs.

In our brief conversation leading up to the interview Karen mentioned something that is really key for any story practitioner, and it is one of the key takeaways from this conversation.

“Someone will jump into story and it’s apparent that they don’t have the body of knowledge to teach the audience, to articulate what they’re trying to do. There are two sides to the equation: there’s, understanding the Knowledge of the field, like how to structure a story, and then there’s the Delivery of a story. Much like an artist or a painter, one has to gain knowledge of the tools, the canvas, the paints,what brush to use — and then there’s knowing at a deep level the actual process of creation and delivering a story, which is quite different from knowing story structure. Everyone needs mastery in both sides of the same coin.”

Wow, we hadn’t even got into the interview and Karen was sharing great metaphors and insights. That piece of advice should be taken away for those seeking someone to assist in the discovery or application of their story.

This interview ties into the release of Karen Dietz and Lori Silverman book on storytelling for the Dummies series – Business Storytelling For Dummies. A book that I highly recommend. It is full of fantastic examples and approaches for applying storytelling to business needs.

Novel Influence – 1. In your book Business Storytelling For Dummies you talk about story’s role in the new economy. Could you tell us a bit about the new economy and the need for story within it?

Sure. For a while we have been in the experience economy. In the experience economy, consumers and customers are really looking for an experience with your product or service to help them not only engage with what you’re offering, but also to help them in the process of making a decision about purchasing your product or service. It is looking at what we are offering consumers as more like a theatre experience or staged event.

As part of the experience we talk a lot these days about the Customer Journey. The customer goes through a journey or a story as they learn about a product or service and engage with it. But it doesn’t end there because we want our folks to be life long customers. So we want to continue to engage and offer customers more good stories and experiences so they remain loyal.

We can think of Harley Davidson as a good example. They definitely promote a great experience when you’re learning about the motorcycles. Then they have all of these clubs for the customers to join and be a part of in order to continue to share their experiences with each other about their rides and vehicles.

Sharing a personal story can be very powerful in business because that’s the best way to make connections, build relationships, and be memorable. We know about word of mouth marketing and how incredibly important that is and how it can propel growth drive a business forward. Word of mouth marketing is when customers are sharing stories about their experiences with the business, its products or services – hopefully positive ones!

Why is story is so important for the experience economy? When we share a story about a product or a service, the story acts as a mini simulation of the products or service. Trough a story the customer shares an experience of how the product works and how you too could partake.

Novel Influence – 2. How could a experience influence a purchase?

Well, we all have had experiences with companies that weren’t great. We get excited around buying a product. Say I’m buying a new watch. I spend a lot of time researching and investigating the watch. Now I have all the information and data that influence the decision of what kind of watch I will buy. Then when I approach the company, if my experience of the company is not great, then I’m going to be disenchanted. I will most likely not make a purchase, and instead I will search for something else.

What happens with the internet is that we can find out all the information on a product very easily. That means we are approaching companies already, at some level, pre-sold. When that’s the case, then it all shifts over to the quality of the experience we have.

Novel Influence – 3. In the first chapter there are a lot of fantastic references. Could you elaborate on the employee of the future and how they need to interpret and communicate complex information.

We know the world is becoming more and more complex. We can spend a lot of time sharing lots of information on a particular challenge a business is facing.

Or, we have the opportunity of sharing key pieces of data via a story about the data. We want to do this because we need to move away from simple sense making (sharing data) to actual mean making (sharing stories). Now sense making is where you share a lot of data and you go ‘Yeah that makes a lot of sense’. But you might not really know what it means or how to take action on it.

Stories help us make meaning, because once we hear a story we say, “Ah ha! Now I get it!” Or “Now I see what that means and how to take action!” When we share stories to convey meaning we find the key message of the story, we share the story and what it and the data means to us, and we suggest the possible actions we could take.

One of the really great vehicles we have to do that is apart of storytelling is the use of metaphor. Thats a marvellous technique, a tool in our language to help make complex notions simple. For example, in working recently with a client and how the senior leaders worked together, they were very tactical and micromanaged everything. I used the metaphor of “being in the weeds” whenever they got into this behaviour instead of spending time describing what they just said, how they were micromanaging in the specific situation, and pointing out better behaviours.

All anyone in the room had to do was say “We are in the weeds again” and they all knew what was happening and what to do. It became shorthand for describing complex behaviour while also suggesting what needed to change. That’s the power of metaphor, and when combined with a story your get a powerful double-whammy.

We talk about metaphors and other great devices to use in one chapter of the book. And then we also devote another whole chapter to how to do ‘data-storytelling’, which you won’t find anywhere else.

Novel Influence – 4. Your definition of what a story is, is the clearest and best described I’ve seen to date. I think I will be borrowing it! But when you say, we are bombarded by ‘so-called stories’ what do you mean? I understand that most are either poorly crafted or lack ingredients of value or in our area, resonate with a business/brand. But are word of mouth, business/brand experiences that customers share not stories?

“A story provides packets of sensory language presented in a particular way that allows the listener to quickly and easily internalise the material, comprehend it, and create meaning from it.” – Karen Dietz and Lori SIlverman’s – Story Definition 

A few years a go Lori Silverman (Co-Author Business Storytelling for Dummies) and I put a chart together to show people the difference between story and narrative. Thats something else we wanted to do with the book, to explain the differences between story and narrative. We wanted to do this because we want our readers and people working with storytelling in business to be very deliberate and to have mastery over stories and storytelling. The chart shows how narrative and story connect or don’t connect.

A real simple way to explain narrative is, something like this: ‘I went to the store I bought some milk I came home’. That is a chronology of events, but I don’t think anybody would pay money to purchase that. Its not a story, even though it has a beginning, middle and end. But it doesn’t have things like conflict or a problem or a resolution.

So in this tool we call Narrative Forms, we took a full story and then we showed how this story morphs into different narrative forms. You can see how the story shifts and changes from one form the next. We share this in the book, and it is also available as a free download on my website. For example we showed how a story moves into a simple description, which is when you talk about a story instead of sharing the story itself. When you share a story you share your direct personal experience, you are reliving the memory.

Often when I’m working with companies they tell me ABOUT the story, which is a narration of events, but they don’t really share their personal experience of a story.

I think its important for people to understand the difference of a story and different forms of narrative. Sometimes these other forms can be stories but often they are not. And I think that causes a lot of confusion with people cause they think ‘Oh, I’m writing a story’ and slap it on a website. But its a description, or a testimonial or it’s a customer profile instead of a story. And then they wonder why they are not getting the results they want. It’s usually because whatever they’ve written is more like a narrative than a story — it’s boring theres no life left.

Our highest leverage point in business with stories in in story sharing. Every business has stories to share. Ideally we want to share these stories so it sparks a story within our customers.

We talk in stories all the time. When we’re in conversation with Customers, they often share conversational stories like ‘Oh yeah this is what happened’ or ‘I had this interaction with my boss’ or ‘I love this product and this is how it’s changed my life’. These are all conversational stories and we definitely want that to happen. What we do in business by sharing our story and by doing it well, we spark stories in our customers. Thats the secret sauce of storytelling. It’s not about you telling a story — it’s about you sharing a story because when you share a story you get a story back. That’s when you learn what’s really going on in the mind of your customer. That’s where the real gold is.

Novel Influence – 5. As you know I have been exploring the brand story area for a while now. What do you believe the connection is between business & brand storytelling?
Companies are pivoting and realising the way that they have done marketing in the past has been to push messages to people. But storytelling is a pull technology and when we share a story it pulls people into the story. When we talk about creating an experience for people its really great. What most companies don’t yet realise is that when you pull somebody into your world, they want to tell you about their world too. That means you need to be able to be ready to stop and listen.

Brand is a short-hand word that is all about conveying who you are. And story is a very, very powerful way to communicate that, to communicate who you are. Branding and storytelling can be very closely tied and of course as we just mentioned, understanding this push and pull dynamic is really key so that a company can leverage their story work to the max. Its still really early days yet in the field of storytelling and branding. As you say we really don’t have really good measures to understand story and story’s impact. We are still learning how to measure the return on investment (ROI) for stories.

A number of people are working on this to come up with measures that suit the world of story in branding. I really look forward to seeing the measures and formulas being developed so we can get better at seeing what is really happening with storytelling and branding.

Story use, requires marketing and business folks to really up their game and connect emotionally with customers in a different way. I love this little research about the Superbowl Ads. There were predictions to which Ad would be the most popular. Folks thought the cute Ad with the puppies would win. (FastCompany Article) This was based on today’s notion that cute puppies, cats and babies usually go viral. What they discovered however was that the most popular Ad was not the cute puppies Ad, but was instead an Ad that was a story. They determined it was so popular because it had a narrative structure, a story structure to it. So there’s a nice bit of data to know about as we are talking about branding and storytelling.

The downside to using storytelling in branding, is that it’s very easy for customers to figure out when a story you are telling is actually authentic and truthful. It is so easy with the internet to find out what companies are really like and what they are doing internally.

So the work with storytelling in branding and marketing is forcing this whole idea that “If you’re going to share a story it better — in some way — authentically reflect who your company really is”; that what is going on internally must match the message you are sharing externally.

This is where the hardest work is: the inside of a company matching the outside. Yet the companies that are able to do that have a competitive edge over their competition.

Novel Influence – 7. How can business’s share a story around contrast without being too sales-y & inauthentic?

The best way to think about this is your customers are the heroes, not you. What we would typically do when sharing a story around our business is we would say ‘We’re this’ or ‘We’re that’, ‘This is what we do and how we saved the day.’ But doing so can come across too sales-y, like you’re bragging. Yet when customer is the hero, it shifts the whole dynamic and moves out of the land of shifty sales people.

When the customer is the hero, you frame it like this: ‘This is what Mary did, who happens to be our customer, and she saved the day. Oh and by the way she happened to use our product’. The emphasis is all on Mary, what she managed to accomplish, how she overcame an obstacle and her work because she used your product or service. So Mary is the main focus with your product playing second fiddle.

Novel Influence – 8. Brands & Business typically conclude that the word conflict is a negative notion. How can we approach this?

is a negative notion. How can we approach this? Well a story isn’t a story without some conflict in there, otherwise its just boring. Neuroscience continues to tell us that when there is a conflict, a problem, or a struggle or trouble the brain knows when to pay attention.

So if you don’t want to be boring then in your story you will need to have a problem, a conflict or struggle that you’re facing. Because we want to know “how did you over come that, how was the conflict resolved?” The story doesn’t stop by just saying we had some conflict. The story must continue because we want to know what happened next, and what happened to get you to the other side.

For all those companies that are hesitant to talk about conflict I say Bring It On.

Novel Influence – 9. You & Lori Silverman dedicate two chapters on creating an authentic, emotionally engaging stories that don’t sound scripted.
Why do business struggle with this?

When we wrote the book, it was hard to find good examples of companies doing a really good job at storytelling. It’s so much easier to find companies that are doing it poorly. So there is a lot of work to get done to help companies tell their stories better.

I think why this situation exists is because as I said earlier; we think in stories, we talk in stories and we think ‘Oh Yeah I Know How To Tell A Story. Let Me Whip One Out’.

We can all write, but to write really well we take writing classes. There are creative writing classes that exist all across the world because it has been recognised that; sure we can write, but can we write really well? Can we write engaging stories?

It’s like we all have the capacity to sing, but can we sing really well? It’s why we take singing lessons.

Story mastery is really all about getting trained in both the knowledge of a story (what are story structures, what makes a good story, what are the elements of a compelling story) and its the delivery, how you tell a good story. Just knowing about what makes a good story doesn’t mean you can deliver a good story really well. So theres the process of delivery that has to be learned. When you combine the two together thats when you have a real extra advantage. It’s in the process of delivery — the writing, or telling a good story, wether its in a digital format or orally. That’s where the work is required, because it takes training and practice.

So I think that’s why business’ struggle with this, because it looks deceptively easy. You know what the wonderful thing about storytelling is? It’s that there are always things to learn. I think its important to keep my skills really sharp to benefit my clients the best. Storytelling isn’t just something you master and put away in the draw, it’s an ongoing activity.

Novel Influence – 10. What’s next for JustStoryIt and Karen Dietz?

What I’ve been doing for awhile now is working in the area of transformational leadership. I see story as a very powerful path to deliver transformational leadership, which is all about understanding the self, plus gaining an understanding and knowledge of others as a way to create connection, engagement, empower, influence and executive presence. These are all the things leaders need to master if they want to make any kind of difference in the world.

I think that the story path to transformational leadership is very significant. So thats one area that is expanding for me.

The other area that I am having a lot of fun with is, I am a silk artist. I hand dye silk and the last two years I have been hand dying silk and building wall panels, These are representative of the principles I work with in my business story engagements. I have one whole panel of a field of fiddlehead ferns, that are unfolding, that panel is titled ‘The Art of the Question’ because figuring out the right questions to ask to evoke a story is really really critical. It’s a foundation story and communication skill and a really important principle in my work.

My idea is, if I can leave behind a visual memory for you through these panels, ten you can remember the principles and what to pay attention to when I’m not there. So I have a series of panels I have been working on to bring into work with my clients.

Theres a lot of talk about visual storytelling and thats kind of what these panels are. It’s using an image to spark conversations, to spark stories, and to help people remember what’s important.

Its always great to have a conversation with Karen Dietz. I wish her and Lori Silverman continued success with Business Storytelling For Dummies. Keep your eyes peeled as I will be doing a review very soon, as it will be joining my digital bookshelf of noteworthy books on storytelling.

For more information and to keep up to date with Karen Dietz be sure to visit the Just Story It website, Twitter account and one of the best curation profiles out there on ScoopIt.

Dan Ball
Dan Ball
Brand Narrative Designer at Novel Influence. Dan decided to set up Novel Influence to help brands navigate the multi-platform and provide a new age approach to effectively connect brands with an audience. The approach was telling and sharing brand stories. This approach use a framework that assists brand creating ecosystems, authentic social good and authentic stories around the brand. Dan Ball on Google
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