In the epic classic “One Thousand and One Nights,” a young woman named Scheherazade devises a brilliant plan to save her life. Each night, she tells the Sasanian king a story so enthralling that he must postpone her execution another night to hear the ending. So it goes for 1,001 nights — until the king decides he cannot execute Scheherazade.
The power of storytelling is more than a fairy tale, though, and businesses could learn a lot from Scheherazade.
Related: The Secret of Story Telling
Nest proved this during the 2016 holiday season when it produced a masterful set of ads promoting its smart home products. Instead of bombarding consumers with confusing tech specs, the company focused on telling stories about how these products improved families’ lives. This approach paid off handsomely: In the first quarter of 2017, Nest “smashed” its earnings estimate.
Avoid the tech talk
It’s easy for companies — tech companies, in particular — to talk about their products to consumers the way they talk about them internally. Engineers and analysts think their hallway talk about widgets and features will be just as fascinating to their audience.
But in reality, consumers may not be ready to hear this tech talk. First, they need to warm up to the overarching concept of your product. Some of the best advertising of emerging technology doesn’t tell consumers anything about how the tech works; it just tells them what the product can do for them.
Take this Motorola print ad from the early 2000s, for instance. On one side of the page, there’s a photo of a milk carton with the caption “I’m spoiled.” On the other side is a photo of a refrigerator responding, “I know.” In two pictures and four words, Motorola told the story of the Internet of Things before people even knew what it was. Notice that the ad doesn’t reflect on sensor technology; it focuses on a real-world problem that the new fridge would solve.
This is what will resonate outside the hallways of your company. Real consumers — the kids, teachers, lawyers and soccer dads of the world — are much more easily captivated by a good story.
Here are three tips that will help you tell better stories about your tech:
1. Give the gift of simplicity.
You could summarize the plot of most classic fairytales in one sentence, and this simplicity is what makes them so well-loved and sharable. The same can be said for advertisements.
One of my early mentors was Chris Wall, who became one of the most successful, well-respected creative directors of the modern era. He dreamed up countless award-winning campaigns for blue-chip companies such as IBM, Apple and Microsoft. He was a Silicon Valley Scheherazade who told at least 1,001 tech product stories. I will never forget his advice on storytelling: When confronting consumers with unfathomable technology, it’s better to talk about sandwiches or penguins.
When Apple introduced the first iPhone, no one really knew what a smartphone was. In that time and place, phones didn’t think — they just dialed. So instead of dropping a metric ton of details about apps and design on consumers, Apple launched the iPhone with a clean, clear, almost mysterious message: This thing is going to change your life. The television spots and simple packaging were purposefully vague.
Apple sowed the seeds of the smartphone revolution by sparking curiosity in its customer base. The moral of the story: Keep your stories simple, relatable and whimsical. Don’t talk about your technology at all. Instead, build anticipation for the revolution you intend to spark.
2. Position yourself as a problem solver.
While the iPhone may have taken the idea of simplicity to new heights, that campaign also illustrated that ads for new tech products have to focus on “why,” not “how.” An explanation of how your product solves a particular problem doesn’t usually make for an enthralling ad. But a story that tells target users why they should care about having this problem solved can capture hearts and minds.
In the late ’90s, my company’s co-founder Justin Gignac helped create an ad campaign for IBM with Chris Wall that epitomized the “why” storytelling approach to tech products. At the time, IBM was coming out with words like “cloud computing,” “infrastructure” and “supply chain management,” yet the world was struggling to fully grasp why it should care about these newfangled concepts.
But instead of creating campaigns that tried to explain them, Wall took a humorous route with ads such as “Reality Detector” that said nothing specific whatsoever. It simply showed consumers — in an artful, abstract way — that IBM could help them solve the confusion surrounding the next era of technology. The “Reality Detector” ad answered that “why” question: You should care about IBM because even if no one else gets these new concepts, IBM does.
3. Phone a qualified friend.
You and your colleagues already have the story of your product memorized. You need to tell your story to a new audience and see how it reacts.
Get an outside opinion — but not from a focus group. Focus group participants will tell you exactly what they think you want to hear because it puts $ 100 and a Chipotle burrito in their hands more quickly. In fact, in his book “How Customers Think,” Gerald Zaltman notes that focus groups provide no verifiable impact on the success or failure of a given product. He asserts that 80 percent of new products and services vetted via focus groups fail within half a year.
So take the burrito lunch out of your budget, and, instead, tell your story to other expert storytellers. Get feedback from third-party experts who have told similar stories about tech products through advertising and know what it takes to connect with an audience. This could mean hiring a marketing agency or bringing on a freelance creative consultant for a few weeks.
You’re paying these entities to play the part of the consumer and argue with you. They won’t hesitate to say, “I have no idea what you’re talking about” when you propose an idea — and they’ll make you keep telling them more until they understand it. Third-party experts will cost more than focus groups, but they’ll provide relevant action items and help you craft your story.
Unlike Scheherazade, your life likely doesn’t depend on the quality of your story, but the strength of your product story certainly determines its future position in the market. The brand that tells the best tale will win, so flex your storytelling muscles, and get to work.