Monday, April 30, 2012

Listening for stories, storytelling's analytic stepsister

Loud speaker, credit:
It's hard to tell a good story.

But storytelling is very hot-- big organizations commission storytellers to story their brand or events.

Storytelling is not just hip to do. It's become a marketing mandate: Don't message, story! Facebook, naturally, has played a role in its mainstream adoption. There are also TED videos on storytelling. And blog posts abound with tips to create suspense and tension, or use storytelling vocabulary like "themes," "formulas," or plain old "plot." 

Like most 'big things' in business, there isn't an algorithm for creating stories. But even from a very removed stance, we know a good story requires a good listener; a listener who gets to know the characters, buys in to the premise, and becomes totally absorbed. With the race to capture the 'signals from the noise,' I often worry this skill of listening to and *for* stories is dying.

Tandem to the trend in telling stories must be a trend in listening for stories; think of it as the analytic stepsister.  

If you-- or an organization-- is too focused on creating and telling your stories, it's only an incremental improvement from creating messages and telling them on a 'one-way-street'. To really embrace storytelling, you need to incorporate elements of the audience-- listen to their cues, their digital body language.

Here's where some of what we know from psychology can be helpful (e.g. cues taken from person perception, relationships, 'the self', narrative psychology) :

  • Listen for context - Context is already a big word in listening-- typically it refers to the category within which a brand/ product sits. Instead, think of the context of your customers' and users' lives. Listening for the roles they play, their goals, the skills they have, their values. Many contextual cues can be aided by technology. Think about new queries you might run with sample roles, for example (i.e. aunt, teacher, photographer, geocacher). 

  •  Listen for facts and feelings. Our industry is obsessively focused on sentiment. While sometimes emotion-laden content signals an impassioned customer on her way to checkout, a lot of the good stuff happens in neutral (content and moods) and is conveyed through other types of words (pronouns, anyone?). Stories are rarely all drama, or exclusive positive or negative sentiment. Don't ignore content that doesn't contain strong opinions.
  • Listen for plot - Abandon preconceived notions so you're open to twists and unexpected story development. Self-defining moments are rarely borne out of habits and routine. It's easy to miss out on seminal, story-building momentum (i.e. unintended product use) by trying to confirm your expectations. This leads to the most labor-intensive advice: you must be inductive and deductive. Use specific queries, but more importantly explore freely. Become intimate with the data, qualitatively. Read. Read. Read. 

  • Listen for rhythm. You can't listen for stories in snapshots (i.e. one-time audits). You need to understand the order of events and how incidents are layered over time. People go through stages-- not just from awareness to intent, desire, and action; nor do they reliably visit, engage, share. They follow winding paths with firsts and lasts and several moments in between. David Armano often refers to the "rhythm" of a story akin to the soundtrack in a movie. Rhythm is another area where a taxonomy of stages and incidents can support your thorough qualitative scrutiny of the data. 

Listening for brand mentions-- and even doing customer service in a limited and transactional manner, will only buy you the "psychology of a stranger." That is, it won't take you very far in getting to know your customers. Advocacy, by any name, has reciprocity at its heart. You must listen to their stories if you want yours to be remembered and retold.

*Apologies to any readers unfamiliar with the industry term "listening"-- a technical term referring to the monitoring and analysis of social media.

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