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  • Writer's pictureSimon Boardman

What "The Fonz" Can Teach us About Tall Stories in Business

Updated: Oct 18, 2020

Jumping the shark is an idiom used to describe when something (or someone) makes a misguided attempt at generating publicity which backfires, serving instead only to highlight its (or their) irrelevance or desperation (thanks Wiki). This is an excellent definition of the expression that originated when Happy Days finally lost the plot. Without going into all the gory details, the phrase jump the shark is based on a episode in the fifth season of the 1970s American TV series, which aired on September 20, 1977. In the episode, the central characters visit Los Angeles, where a water-skiing Fonzie (Henry Winkler) answers a challenge to his bravery by wearing swim trunks and his trademark leather jacket while jumping over a confined shark. We're not sure which was the more significant challenge to Fonzie's bravery, wearing the swim trunks or leaping over the shark! Even though Happy Days continued for another seven years, the phrase has become synonymous with reference to unsuccessful gimmicks or attempts at promotion and publicity-seeking. While we all loved the Fonz and know he was (still is) supercool, you may not be, So don’t let gratuitous, clumsy storytelling be your “Jumping the Shark” moment, ‘cos while the Fonz just about recovered from this…you might not. Right Mrs. C?

Storytelling might not be a fad, and while it does play a role in business; we're beginning to see the dark side of it more and more often these days, while simultaneously, even more people tout it as the (not so) shiny, new thing. Back in March of 2019, I wrote about storytelling contrasting it to the previous trend in B2B sales and marketing, which was (and still is) based more on science and process. Numbers appeal was (is) based around measurement; for example, Return on Investment, Key Performance Indicators, ROMI, Engagement, and other Leading Indicators, the basic idea being if you can't measure it absolutely, then it's absolutely irrelevant.

According to HubSpot, these measurements are also yesterday's news. The new measurements that CEO's are apparently wetting themselves about are.

  • Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC)

  • Marketing Percentage of Customer Acquisition Cost (M%-CAC)

  • The ratio of Customer Lifetime Value to CAC (LTV: CAC)

  • Time to Payback CAC

  • Marketing-Originated Customer Percentage (MOCP)

  • Marketing Influenced Customer Percentage (MICP)

Seems like an awful lot of CAC to me. Storytelling is a different beast, but many will argue that it can and should be used in its various forms to help deliver for some of the CAC listed out above. So what are stories, why are they important, and where can they play a role? And of course, how do guard against "jumping the shark" as well as avoiding them getting hi-jacked when they get turned into a "tall" story?

The Story So Far

Our love affair with stories has been around for 60,000 years, pretty much since we learned to communicate via speech. Yuval Noah Harari, the author of Sapiens, Homo Deus, and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, emphasizes the importance of stories in man's crawl out of the swamp and to become the supreme species of the planet. Harari maintains that humans are unique precisely because of our capacity to relate to one another through storytelling, which promoted cooperation, the determining factor in the struggle for supremacy. He writes: "Sapiens rule the world because we are the only animal that can cooperate flexibly in large numbers. We can create mass cooperation networks, in which thousands and millions of complete strangers work together towards a common goal. The real difference between chimpanzees and us is the mysterious glue that enables millions of humans to cooperate effectively. This mysterious glue is made of stories, not genes." Sapiens achieved supremacy through collaboration. Our ability to collaborate across more considerable distances and growing numbers of people was built on stories. There are many forms of stories. Eric Barker's "Barking Up The Wrong Tree" points out that "Jews and Christians have parables. Hindus and Buddhists have sutras. Nearly all religious leaders give sermons.” In other words, as peoples, tribes, creeds, and cultures grew, we used a variety of stories to establish commonality and ritual, to remind us how to behave and help us persist.

Real Storytelling

Storytelling has a role in business, but people need to practice some control. Real stories are reserved for real storytellers. People who are ambitious enough to take on the tough subjects. Those that deal with the critical questions we ask about life, love, and the meaning of it all. Great storytellers (and they are few and far between) have the talent for examining real issues, enduring foundational questions concerning the very basics of existence and meaning and life and death and everything in between. They are able to explore these subjects and questions in imaginative ways. Ways that force us to reflect and think.

Storytelling is not reserved for the written form either, and we examine some of those different forms later on. That said, if you want to see great storytelling in action, watch the movie Arrival. Arrival is a 2016 American science fiction film directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Eric Heisserer. Based on the 1998 short story "Story of Your Life" by Ted Chiang, it stars Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, and Forest Whitaker. The film follows a linguist and a physicist enlisted by the United States Army to discover how to communicate with extraterrestrial aliens who have arrived on Earth, or at least that’s the “story.” Arrival really deals with a couple of more interesting human imponderables. First, the linguistic and neurological question of whether language determines how we think. In other words, if you emigrated to France and learned the language to the point of fluency (it becoming your primary language and second nature) do you start to “think” in French? In Arrival, the aliens communicate in a language that requires a relationship with time that humans are not familiar with. As Amy Adam’s character learns the language, she develops that “different” relationship with “time” that the aliens are used to, but that humans are not. Given this relationship with time, the movie also asks the question that given the opportunity, how willing would we be to go back in time and change certain things, knowing that while different outcomes might happen, better outcomes are never guaranteed.

That same conundrum is explored in the 2002 remake of H.G. Wells’ Time Machine. This is a science fiction film adapted from the Wells’ 1895 novel and the screenplay of the 1960 film of the same name by David Duncan. In 1899, Dr. Alexander Hartdegen (who was a real person, by the way) was an inventor teaching at Columbia University and researching quantum mechanics. He invents the time machine after his beloved fiancée, Emma, is tragically killed. He creates the time machine so he can go back in time and change the sequence of events, thereby averting her death. Unfortunately, he finds that while he is successful at being able to travel back in time and change the circumstances, Emma continues to suffer the same tragic fate, just in different circumstances. Alexander is reminded in the future that he built the time machine precisely because of Emma’s death, thereby trapping him in a temporal paradox. This particular story arc is entertaining the notion of Determinism Vs. Freewill.

All that brings us to the third and final example – the JK Simmons' show called Counterpart. Immersed in a story about parallel universes, Counterpart explores the same subject of Determinism Vs. Free will, the notion that we cannot change who we are, fundamentally contrasted with the idea that tiny changes in circumstances change the outcomes of our lives. Finally, Counterpart also explores the idea that no matter how long we've spent with someone and how much time we've been around them, it asks the question of whether we can ever really know them. It is asking the same question of ourselves, which brings it full circle with the opening questions of Determinism Vs. Free will, and to a degree, heredity versus environment. These ideas are all explored against a story of a Cold War discovery, or creation, of a parallel universe where we all have our physically identical counterparts.

Phhhheeww – that’s a lot (of albeit related) stuff. The somewhat labored point is that all three of these shows or movies – Arrival, The Time Machine, and Counterpart are examples of great (really great) storytelling used to explore enduring and significant ideas. While these ideas may not be original, man has pondered these subjects for thousands of years, these storytellers revisit them with substantial effect. Yes, the stories (movies, serials) are entertaining, but they are so much more as well.

That’s a Stretch

This is where we begin to diverge with the modern religion of storytelling in marketing. The point is that most companies just don't do anything remotely as impressive as the examples we just explored and consequently don't have anything that interesting to "storify." Composing stories around them begins to look like a stretch. That's not to say that there aren't some stories that serve some useful purposes and some companies that are doing things both fascinating and potentially transformative. I know you might say, "well, that's what good storytellers do!" but it’s when we have to reach for subject matter that we can get into the darker side of storytelling.

There’s no shortage of examples of people and companies weaving fictional tales. The WSJ reporter John Carreyrou, tells the story of Theranos, the blood-testing company, in his book "Bad Blood.” The founder Elizabeth Holmes and her sidekick Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani weaved a web of lies and deceit that rivals some of the most fantastic whoppers all time. Theirs is a story of how their technology was capable (not) of revolutionizing the blood-testing business. Lots of supposedly smart people bought into it, former presidents, then-current presidents, statesmen, billionaires, academics, even medical and healthcare "experts." Billions of dollars were lost, and at least two people will (and should) go to jail. Among those who won’t go to jail, however, will be the marketing and PR experts (mainly from the firm TBWA-Chiat-Day) who composed the stories they felt needed to be told to project the image they felt Theranos required to cast. While some appeared to develop reservations, as the evidence of Holmes' deceit mounted, none of them reached a level significant enough to prevent the Chiat-Day “storytellers” from actually cashing the checks. Quite a story.

WeWork’s Adam Neuman had everyone fooled with his story that WeWork was not a real estate company but was a technology company that was going to revolutionize the office and workspace business. Neuman said that “As far as WeWork is concerned, we're not competing with co-working spaces; we're not competing with office suites. We're competing with work.” I have no idea what that means. The fact that it is nonsense didn’t seem to dissuade people from also buying into it. He also said, "Success is not just making money. Success is happiness. Success is fulfillment; it's the ability to give." That’s a bit rich coming from a guy that found money important enough to sidestep corporate rules, and governance borrowing millions of dollars from a company that was losing billions and then dumping hundreds of millions in stock before it hit the fan. This behavior was overlooked or tolerated by those who “bought into” the idea partly because they are greedy and partly because they wanted to believe the story that had been told.

More recently, the cloud BI and data warehousing company Palantir’s going for some new and improved version of an IPO that will enable its founders to make a fortune and retain control of the company. While there's no inference of any financial shenanigans (yet), the creative approach to tapping into public markets doesn't really pass the sniff test, and that creative thinking makes one wonder where else similar "creativity" has been applied.

In conclusion, The FX show DEVS tells a good story concerning a sinister technology company and highlights an affliction some (especially the ones we've mentioned) suffer from. One of the characters points out that tech CEO’s all see themselves as the new Messiahs (Blade Runner II has a great example of this). I’ll leave it to you to figure out where this applies in Palantir, but Neumann and Holmes concocted stories that promoted exaggerations and fabrications. They suffer from Messiah complexes and construct stories to support visions that are fictions, nothing more. While these are extreme examples, they go to illustrate the modern danger when we get seduced by the allure of storytelling.

Bringing Order from Chaos

Human beings hate randomness. We’re uncomfortable with the idea of luck except to explain our own misfortunes (attributed to bad luck) and the good fortunes of others (attributed to good luck). As the French poet Jean Cocteau famously said, “We must believe in luck. For how else can we explain the success of those we don't like?” What does this have to do with stories? We use stories to organize things, to explain the otherwise inexplicable, and to impose order on the chaos we see around us. Eric Barker maintains, "Our brains are wired to try to make sense of things. Meaning is part of our operating system. We need to think the world makes sense and that we have control. The brain doesn't like randomness. So, what is the meaning? Meaning, for the human mind, comes in the form of the stories we tell ourselves about the world."

So, stories are powerful, and that power is probably underrated. Stories have multiple applications, not least of which that they can provide us with meaning and also provide us with a sense of order and comfort. But this impact and power becomes diluted and loses meaning if we over-use stories or misuse them.

Kimberly A. Whitler's January 27, 2019, article, "5 Ads That Tell Great Stories: Insight From A Pixar Movie Writer," asks questions like "What makes a good story? Can commercials tell great stories?" Whitler is surfacing the issues around where the limits for storytelling exist? Whitler interviews Matthew Luhn, a Hollywood insider who spent roughly 20 years writing for Pixar Animation Studios. There's also a self-serving TEDxUCSB talk in there that Luhn gave. It’s all fairly nauseating stuff (demonstrating that just because it has "TED" in front of it doesn't guarantee it's any good). Other than talking about himself (telling the story of "him," perhaps?), Luhn spends some time describing the story's role as "reaching people with feelings." One example is the Mercedes Benz teenage snow date commercial. You know, the one where the kid's dad drives him to the Cineplex in a snowstorm, ‘cos he has a first date. It's a nice story and all that. You'd have to have a heart as cold as the weather in the ad to not like it. But therein lies the problem. Yes, it's a nice story that conveys a good feeling, but isn't it obviously taking advantage of that same feeling to hawk a car and doesn't that blatant hi-jacking of the "feeling" leave a bad taste in your mouth? Narrative and characters connected through dialogue are better at communicating that internal landscape of feelings. Written stories and poems are the most effective way of achieving this, followed by movies and serials, and in a distant final place, it's commercials. Commercials don't have the time to explore the details and consequently come off as superficial and inauthentic, or as my kids used to say…FAIL.

Stories are universal. We use them to pass on knowledge and preserve myths and legends. They connect us, impart feelings, demonstrating how we differ, and what we have in common. We can process and communicate information, better-using stories. We can recognize meaning better. Great ideas well expressed through stories are more substantial to us. Maybe stories have become more critical because we need them to help us find clarity by filtering the deluge of information to which we are subjected. So perhaps stories are currently fulfilling a different role in helping us make sense of this onslaught of information. In other words, if you can't hang it on a story, chances are I'll miss the point and move on. But misuse them or craft them badly, at your peril. Overuse them (maybe in commercials) or over-stretch them and you’ll become implausible and lose people.

The Verdict

We may have taken a few liberties of our own here with the definition of “jumping the shark”. What we’re warning about is that very human habit of taking something too far. In this case becoming so enamored with “storytelling” that you stretch beyond the limits of plausibility, undermining your credibility and conjuring up your very own “jumping the shark” moment.

  • Storytelling all sounds great, natural even, but the potential for abuse or at least "misuse" looms large. Trying to tell stories in commercials is incredibly tricky. It's not that ALL commercials that use a "story" idea fail. The point is that most of them do. We also know that storytelling isn't and never has been all "motherhood and apple pie." As we've said, telling stories has and continues to serve a range of purposes, some of which are not the purest or the noblest. We are not here to debate the broadest of these implications.

  • So back to business. Is storytelling just another "quick fix" in business, as if becoming great storytellers will help us close more deals? Telemarketing, email, content, search, social, referral, events, networking, behavioral intent, mind-reading…none of these methods are satisfying the insatiable appetite for immediate success in B2B, so we keep searching for the next big thing. It conjures up images of wide-eyed prospects mesmerized (almost hypnotized) into buying truckloads of our stuff.

  • The part that is valid here is the quest for differentiation. We're surrounded by products and services that look the same. Vendors adopt the approach of broadcasting increasingly optimistic claims and continually pumping up the volume. Storytelling is seen by some as a way of changing the game here. By crafting and telling a more compelling and inspiring story, they hope to achieve the differentiation that has become otherwise elusive.

  • Storytelling is just about the importance of communication. Stories are vehicles to communicate certain things, whether they hold cultural meaning, historical significance, or whether they are myths, parables, analogies, epics, metaphors, similes, or fiction. You use them today when talking about company history, founding principles, mission statements, purpose-driven philosophies, and customer case studies. This latest trend in propelling them to the forefront is about their place in the natural order of buying and selling. You must understand them and the role they play in this natural process. Even Mike Adams, in his book "Seven Stories Every Sales Person, Must Tell" counsels to "use your stories with the intention of getting the best outcome for your client, and only then for yourself." In other words, don't use them cynically as just another barrel to get the prospect over. Oh, and stop overusing the word "narrative." It's getting right up there with "pivot" in terms of being pretentious, overused and misunderstood.

  • Mike Adams also talks about the importance of listening to other people's stories as opposed to "becoming a story bore." Stories should be used to help find common ground between you and your prospect, and for helping to build and solidify an authentic business relationship, building and preserving trust. They should be used to help you and your prospect better understands one another. It's an old saying in sales, "you have two ears and one mouth…use them in that order."

Finally, if you can find the right balance here, you'll be able to achieve some differentiation, add to your culture, promote change, provide some genuine articulation of vision and inspire your team, your customers and maybe even your prospects.

At the very minimum, you'll need to avoid donning the swim trunks and leather jacket for your very own "jumping the shark" moment - right, Fonzie? Eeeeehhhhhh.


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