“So, what’s the story behind this brand campaign?” I asked.

One of the communications pros read the following (abbreviated) words from a PowerPoint slide:

“…As a global developer of innovative business and industrial products…(Company)…is applying it’s cutting-edge technologies in a wide range of new markets including sports, personal healthcare and medical markets.”

I stared at the slide for an uncomfortably long time.

“Umm…” I said, breaking the silence. “That’s our story?”

“Yes?” she said, suddenly sounding a little unsure of herself.

More awkward silence filled the room.

I tried another tack. “Okay. So, who’s the protagonist in this story?”

That’s when she flashed me the look–the one that I’ve seen hundreds of times before: the what the hell is he talking about? look.

Loose Definitions and Bad Choices

I’ve learned that most professional business communicators (Marketing managers, Public Relations pros, etc…) understand the power of story, but they maintain a very loose definition of it. When discussing “story” ideas, they consider any message, marketing copy, press release or earned media as a “story.”

We at the StoryHow Institute maintain a much stricter definition. A story without a protagonist isn’t a story. It’s likely a statement, message, or positioning piece.

Most professional communicators understand this fact. It’s like Mom & Apple pie…there’s nothing really controversial about it. However, when it comes time for them to choose an actual protagonist for their business stories, the next lesson is much harder to learn.

Most enterprises craft their stories mistakenly by choosing a product or service as the hero of their narrative. And although such product-as-hero stories may elicit high-fives from your C-suite executives, they aren’t the audience your company needs to impress.

We are the protagonists of our own lives. You are the protagonist of yours, your boss is the protagonist of hers, and your customers are the protagonists of theirs. To think that a product or service could be the hero in someone’s life is either silly or arrogant. No matter how hard you try to spin it, the relative importance of your product or service pales in comparison to life’s day-to-day activities such as getting the kids off to school, dealing with an impossible boss, preparing for a career-changing presentation, taking care of a sick relative, or wondering where that next mortgage payment is coming from.

The next time your company discusses a story to tell, ask the following question: “Who’s the protagonist in this story?” You’ll probably get the look, but if you can get past that awkward moment, you’ll have initiated a discussion that just may lead you to the real story that connects with your customers.

Photo Credit: Library of Congress