Category Archives for "Purpose"

A mangle

Stories of Past and Present

Mostly stories told by business people take place in the past. Evoking the past and linking it to the present can be tricky. How do we tell stories of past and present? Here is a part of my personal story.

As a child, I loved biology.  As far back as I remember, I wanted to be a zoo keeper.  I had elaborate plans for cleaning a lion’s cage without being eaten!  Later, I wanted to be a vet and so I needed Biology.  I really enjoyed the subject. As I entered second year of secondary school, the school announced my brilliant exam results meant I had the honour of dropping Biology for Latin. 

I was really frustrated.  Even though Biology meant more sport (the subject I loathed most) because it covered fewer periods than Latin, I still wanted Biology.  My parents discussed the matter with the school.  Fortunately, we had streaming and so it was not too difficult to accommodate my wishes.  I was always top in Biology and went on to study it at University. 

So, how did I end up as a community development worker and lately, self employed as a marketing coach?

Time and Plotting

In an earlier post I wrote about plotting stories.  Most of what I covered relates to time.  I covered chronology, tense, starting and finishing.  In this post, I revisit this from the perspective of conveying passage of time.

All stories take place in the past, apart from science fiction and fantasy.  For the near past, you might use artificial present, eg “I’m walking down the corridor …”  Clearly, you’re not walking down a corridor but people are used to the convention.  It conveys a sense of near past. 

You can use this convention for more distant past.  What if your walk took place 30 years ago?  There are a few things to consider.  First, you anchor the story 30 years ago – the present in your story is long ago.  This doesn’t matter, unless you intend to link events to an incident in the near past.  You can do this but the danger is you’ll confuse your audience. 

You could start in the near past and travel back, thus: “Walking down the corridor to this venue today, I remembered walking down another corridor 30 years ago.”  You may need to say what triggered the memory and explain what the memory was but you establish a link between the two time periods.  This is probably better than beginning 30 years ago and then bringing the story into the near past: “… which is why I remembered this incident as I walked here today.”  It may be a problem if the link between past and present happens late in the story.

Evoking the Past

The second thing to consider is if your artificial present is 30 years ago, how do you establish the time period?  You could try: “I’m walking down a corridor, 30 years ago”, a bit lame but OK where you recount an incident from the past that could have happened yesterday.  What you don’t want is a question from the audience like: “Why didn’t you use your mobile phone?”  “Because 30 years ago, they hadn’t been invented …”  sounds really lame and shows your story jarred for at least one person in the audience. 

The problem is, mentioning the date can break the story: “It was 30 years ago …”.  So, how about mentioning a contemporary event?  It should be something most people recognise.  The fall of the Berlin wall, for example.  Most people have a vague idea it was some time ago.  “At the time, Abba was in the charts and I was humming one of their greatest hits”, sets the scene, probably in the seventies. 

Or refer to objects that we no longer use.  “The phone rang and we scrambled to pick up the receiver”, implies before mobile phones.  “Grandma was folding bed sheets and putting them through the mangle”, implies an earlier time and may invoke a nostalgic response.  Remember though, some people might not know what a mangle is!

Change and Transformation

Another possibility is evolution.  I recently heard a story about the cars the storyteller had owned.  The story spanned about 30 years and the stories evoked the past, more so if you know the models of car. 

This brings us to an important point.  Stories are about change and changes happen through time.  The situation at the end of a story, should be different to the start.  Usually, a character or characters have a goal and the story is about how they reached it (or didn’t) and perhaps the consequences of success or failure.

There are several ways to convey change.  Tell a story that begins at the beginning and builds tension because we don’t know how it pans out.  Did the storyteller win the heart of the love of their life?  Did the divorce happen and what were the consequences?

Alternatively, begin with the present state and show how you got there.  “It was my fault the police came to arrest me.”  Now backtrack and explain why they arrested you.  Then take the story forward, presumably you’re not arrested now!  This may be the best approach, if your story includes a near death experience.  The fact you’re telling the story is a massive spoiler!

Childhood Aspirations

Great storytelling hinges on the goals of characters.  Start with someone, you or your customer, with a goal.  Show how they attained it.  This shows passage through time but it is likely contemporary and took a few weeks or months to pan out.

A special case is where the protagonist conceived their goal early in life.  Such a story develops into a dialogue with your younger self.  The trick is to tell the story from the child’s perspective.  You know a lot of stuff now, you didn’t know as a child.  What did you know and how did you perceive things then?  What changed and how did it change?

Audiences root for a child.  You overcame obstacles and learned stuff on the way.  Don’t attribute contemporary insights to the child, let them make mistakes and celebrate successes. 

We’ll return to these themes in later posts.  Before we do that, let’s pause and consider the use of detail in storytelling.

Upright piano

Setting the Scene for Your Story

This is the start of a story about a massive altercation within a family. I have adapted it from someone else’s story to illustrate setting the scene for your story. What do you need to include to plot your story?

A Sunday Lunch Spoiled.

There we were, four of us, preparing Sunday lunch.  Grandma was in charge.  We were in her kitchen, she’d lived there for 50 years and nothing much had changed in that time.  I was 5 years old and knelt on a stool, shelling peas into a bowl on the central kitchen table.  Mum was putting Yorkshire Puddings in the ancient gas oven, while little Timmy was making a racket on Grandma’s piano.

A Sense of Place

Many stories lack a sense of place.  Whatever goes on in the story may be interesting but if it is not clear where it is happening, the audience is disorientated. 

Mostly, business people don’t tell science fiction or fantasy stories and so we assume whatever’s happening is on earth!  However, sometimes it’s hard to tell.  You don’t have to spell out every detail.  If you begin the story with “Once upon a time”, the chances are we are entering a fairy tale world.  “Ancient Persia” is enough for most people to imagine somewhere a long time ago and on the other side of the world.

If this is a realistic story, it helps to know roughly what part of the world we’re in.  There doesn’t need to be a lot of detail.  If you say it takes place in Sheffield, even people who have never been there imagine something.  However, it may not be that important.  For example, a story that takes place at a conference.  Perhaps we don’t need to know where the conference centre is and a description of the corporate space may be enough. 

It may be more important to describe a smaller space.  A home, a school or church, a park or shopping centre.  These details offer a sense of where the activity of the story takes place.  Name the city or county, if you think it relevant.

You don’t need to mention the place at the beginning of the story.  For example, if the story takes place on a spaceship, the reveal might work towards the end. 

Imaginative Space

The next point is how much detail to reveal about the setting for the story.  “There we were, four of us, preparing Sunday lunch.”  Most people imagine a kitchen with four people in it.  We don’t know much about the kitchen so far.  “Grandma was in charge.  We were in her kitchen, she’d lived there for 50 years and nothing much had changed in that time.”  We don’t know what date the story is set in but clearly we have an old-fashioned kitchen here.  “I was 5 years old and knelt on a stool, shelling peas into a bowl on the central kitchen table.”  “Mum was putting Yorkshire Puddings in the ancient gas oven, while little Timmy was making a racket on Grandma’s piano.” 

Do you see as I add sentences, we get a picture of the people and of the space they occupy?  Let’s focus on the piano.  When the setting was first mentioned, you would have imagined a generic kitchen and certainly not one with a piano!    The piano has a point.  There’s no point in mentioning the piano in the kitchen, if it is never mentioned again.  When something happens involving the piano, we need to know it is there.  The central table may be important too, as a place for the narrator and Timmy to hide. 

The point is you don’t have to describe every detail but you do need to mention important stuff.  A piano in the kitchen is odd, so you would not mention it if it had no role in the story.  It doesn’t much matter what era the story is set in and the exact layout of the kitchen.  Leave that to the audience’s imagination.

Setting the Scene

Every story is a summary.  Trust your audience to imagine something.  They adjust their vision.  It’s not too difficult to incorporate a piano into a kitchen in your imagination.  Indeed, a microwave might be more incongruous! 

You don’t need to say a lot.  It’s Christmas and someone sets a table for their partner to enjoy a quiet meal together.  This might be the scene of a colossal row but you just need enough for the audience to imagine table decorations, the starched table cloth and crackers. 

Where there is something important to the plot, mention it in passing and try to hide its significance.  It’s often effective if the audience forgets something until you mention it again.  Handled deftly, Timmy on the piano might just seem to be a bit of scene setting.  It’s a family scene.  You have to mention it before the action of the story begins because otherwise, it’ll seem really odd that there happens to be a piano in the kitchen.

Depending on what happens, the bowl of peas might be consumed by 2 children under the table as they watch the ensuing row.  The Yorkshire puddings might be forgotten and burned.  They don’t have to be, some of it is scene setting.  Leave the audience to guess what is significant.

This story could take place any time over the last 50 years.  It doesn’t much matter when it is set.  But time, like space, is important.  So, next time we’ll think about past and present in storytelling.

heron

Plotting Your Story

Recently, I delivered a 30 minute talk about how to find raw material for storytelling.  I described the walk from my home to the venue for the talk.  I showed myself pondering what to say to the group as I walked along.  (Most was prepared in advance!)  Plotting your story means turning mundane material into something your audience wants to hear.

Every incident was something I experienced that same day.  I had ideas before I set out, knowing the places I would walk through.  I prepared teaching and exercises for the group and incorporated reflections on the exercises in the fictional walk. 

On the way in I noted, there was a polling station in Sorby House, this enabled me to remind my listeners to vote!  By the river, I encountered two boys, one of whom threw a half bottle of Coca Cola into the river.  I was annoyed but then celebrated because I could add the incident to my story.

I ended by describing a heron I saw on the river.  I saw the heron that day, several hours before the walk. 

The exercises showed how we find stories from our pasts.  My story illustrated use of material from this day to make a story.  Processing raw material into a narrative is plotting.  “I walked to this meeting and on the way saw a polling station, a boy throw a bottle in the river and a heron” may not feel like a story but it depends on what you do with the material; it depends on plotting your story.

What is Plotting? 

It’s the shape you give to your story.  Once you have a story, work out how to tell it.  One story, many possible plots.  The challenge is to tell a compelling story that holds attention and delivers a satisfactory conclusion. Here are a few things to consider.

Chronology

If you tell the story in the order in which it happened, it can be very effective.  For my story about the walk, it makes sense to begin at the beginning of the journey, follow the route and end at the end.  Most people don’t know the route and so wouldn’t know if I varied it but the story needs logical progression. 

However, chronological order can be tedious.  We’ve all heard stories begin with “I was born in 1973 and went to school at …”.  There are many things wrong with this approach.  It’s dull.  There’s nothing to root for in this account, why should I care about the year you were born or where you went to school?  If these facts matter, mention them in passing.

Begin stories with action; something the audience cares about.  It could be some dilemma: “Should I hand myself into the police and face years in prison?”  This raises questions like, what had I done?  Did I go to prison?  How did I get out?  Opening this way, deliberately holds back information to share as you tell the story.  The audience trusts you to answer these questions (and more!) as the story unfolds. 

Open in the action and then work out questions that might be in the listeners’ minds?  In what order will you answer them?  How can you tell the story to answer them in that order?  Building tension as you unravel a mystery, is far more compelling than one damn thing after another.

In the Present

One way to avoid dull chronological accounts is to set the story in the present moment.  Here are a few things to think about.

If this is a story of transformation, show us the end-state first.  Say, you recovered from alcoholism.  Perhaps begin the story by showing your present lifestyle.  It needs to be active in some way: “I’m about to go on stage and deliver my keynote speech in front of 400 people.  A few years ago I would not have done this, even fortified by a stiff drink.”  From here flashback to your history and return to the keynote, possibly highlighting what happened afterwards.

Note how I constructed a false present in the telling.  “I’m about to go on stage…” and not “I was about to go on stage …”.  It’s a false present in the sense that the real present is you and your audience.  The false present shows you post-transformation and invites comparison with an earlier time when certain issues were not resolved.  It also enables return to the false present and indeed to the real present: “… and that’s how I’m able to tell you this story today.”  Not particularly exciting as an ending but it shows what I mean.

Begin Close to the End

Bring the action of the story as close to the present as possible.  Usually, you offer your audience hope.  Show how change has happened in your life, explain how it happened and then return to the present.  You could begin with some key crisis point to build tension, while you explain how you got there and finish the story by resolving the crisis. 

This approach satisfies the audience.  When you return to the crisis, the audience knows the tension will soon be resolved and the story will close. 

The story will depend on flashbacks.  A common pattern is CABC.  Here A is how you got into the problem.  This may be childhood issues or some mistake you made.  B is how you resolved the issue.  C is the state you are in now that contrasts with the state you were in when the problem began.

There are many alternative plot structures.  It’s worth thinking through how your story works when you focus on the end of the story and then work out how you got there.

Finish the Story

Once you resolve the tension in the story, finish as swiftly as you can.  It’s tempting to ramble on, drawing out lessons, explaining what happened later and how all your friends reacted to the changes in your life.  When the story is over, it’s over – don’t prolong the agony!

One option is to segue into teaching.  Incorporate teaching into your story or break the story for teaching.  The way to do this is to finish the story with some key idea you draw from the story.  Then start teaching with the same key idea.  This is where to include a call to action or make an offer, if you are telling a marketing story.

Conclusion

There’s a lot to plotting and it’s impossible to cover it all in one blog post.  The genius to good storytelling is in how you tell it.  Indeed, as your skills as a storyteller develop, you’ll make even the most mundane activity into a compelling narrative. 

Future posts will explore other aspects of plotting and next time we’ll look at setting the scene.

bouquet of white lilies

Use Stories to Communicate Information

Last time I asked, what is a story? Here is a story based on a recent experience. How does it communicate information and what information does it communicate?

In April this year, I attended a funeral.  The woman who died was not close, she chaired a voluntary organisation where I was treasurer.  The last time I saw her was when she stepped down in May last year.

Nevertheless, I was deeply moved.  She was 49 years old and had many plans.  Imagine her on New Year’s Eve, looking forward to what 2019 would bring.  Her diagnosis and the disease that overwhelmed her happened between February and April.  After she died her family heard she had qualified for her degree.  It seems utterly pointless and puts all our achievements in perspective.

My father used to say, “You always have 10 years to live.”  Obviously, that is not true for many who read this or indeed perhaps for the author.  We simply don’t know.  The point my father made was we should live as if we have time to complete our plans.  The woman who died had great plans and her mourners were a part of them and saw her plans die with her.

I’ve already lived 15 years longer than she did.  I am in good health and have loads of plans.  I sometimes wish I was 15 years younger because I sense I need more time.  It does run out but also we cannot be certain.  Wouldn’t it be ironic if I gave up for reasons of age and then lived another 3 decades?

Stories Entertain

Perhaps reading this story, you don’t feel entertained.  It’s not a happy story.  But ask yourself these questions.  Did you read through to the end?  Were you moved by the story?  I deliberately held back a lot of detail because you don’t need it. 

Entertainment is not necessarily pleasurable; there is something compelling about a sad story.  A funeral is an ending as well as the beginning of many peoples’ stories.  Her family have much to look forward to, they grieve and move on, perhaps inspired by her example, to build on her story.

We all try to make sense of our lives.  What is the point of a degree I’ll never use?  What is the point of plans that never bear fruit?  We need stories to show us endings are also new beginnings.  We explore these issues because we all make plans. If we give in because one day we’ll die, the world becomes a less colourful place.

Stories Educate

This story aims to educate without hard evidence.  It aims to encourage thinking about mortality.  We face certainty, one day our friends will awake and find we’re no longer with them.  How do we face up to that?  In one sense there is always time and in another it runs out unexpectedly.  How do we respond?  My father’s view is one response.  Does it work for you?

Stories help communicate learning and facts.  Indeed, it is hard to communicate without stories.  If you use statistics to communicate, you project a graph onto a screen but then what?  You can’t leave the audience to draw their own conclusions.  You must point them in some direction.  

Facts delivered as stories are more likely to be remembered and if a story engages the audience, it encourages them to think around your topic.  Whether they pick holes in it or conclude they agree with you, they are likely to interact.  Interaction is much more valuable than agreement.  Don’t believe me?  When did you last share a carefully crafted social media or blog post and receive no feedback at all?  Stories don’t guarantee feedback but increase the possibility you hold attention until the end and help the audience process and raise questions.

Can stories undermine your talk, by taking a topic and making it seem less serious?  If you begin with research and show evidence for your argument, the story reinforces your message.  Back up your story with evidence, even by circulating a fact sheet.

Stories are Emotional

Emotion is a pitfall if you feel too strongly about your story.  Decide what you want your audience to feel and feel that emotion as you tell the story. 

The story may be happy or sad, even traumatic but mostly, especially for business, leave the audience hopeful.  Show there is reason to hope and your audience is moved and inclined to hear your message.

Bring the audience to a point where they see how to address a problem and you bring them to a buying state.  Finish with a call to action and they are likely to follow it if they are moved.

Stories communicate information effectively precisely because they generate positive emotion.  Communicate information in an entertaining story and it is more likely to be remembered. With emotional impact, it is likely to be acted upon, through a call to action.

To achieve this, you must understand plotting, so that is the topic next time.

Canal in Rotherham

What Is a Story?

What is a Story?  I walked yesterday from my home in Sheffield to a meeting in Rotherham and back again.  A total of about 15 miles.  The route is particularly pleasant, along the canal.  It’s flat, a narrow corridor of trees and flowers between roads and industry.  There’s even a very small farm that reminds me of a child’s model!

One thing I noticed was the intensity of colours.  This time of year (early May) leaves are recently in bud and there’s lots of new flowers.  May blossom opens, dandelions bright yellow and forget-me-nots – deep blue.  In some sections the dandelions are a riot of yellow and in others spent, clocks, always something of a disappointment.

Walking for Health and Solitude

I see these things with fresh eyes. I’m aware of my age and whilst I could easily have another 20 years, my chances are not what they were when I was younger.  I’ve adjusted my daily routine to walk for health reasons and I enjoy walking.  My doctor, when I was first diagnosed with diabetes, recommended diet.  “If it tastes sweet, don’t eat it”, he said.  I lost about a third of my body weight because I found his advice worked for me.  (He didn’t remember it!)  Diet is how you lose weight, walking, any exercise, keeps you healthy.

Not just the changing scene and the details I note but also the sensation of walking is a pleasure, even when I tire, it is no problem keeping going.  It is an opportunity to ponder, to solve problems.  Work overwhelms when close up, to walk builds perspective and works out priorities. 

My chosen arena for walking is the city.  I enjoy the changing scenery, with the seasons and the time of day; changes I suspect many miss.  I know many lesser known by-ways and how long it takes to walk to destinations across the city. 

We all need times of solitude.  Some people sit still and meditate.  I’ve always found that difficult.  For me it is the rhythm of walking that moves me to that state.  Maybe it works for you too.

Story as Artefact

Keeping to the theme of aging, I used last time.  This time I have taken a recent experience, it happened yesterday at the time of writing.  Look closely at this story.  What happened?  I walked to Rotherham and back.

You could argue this is not a proper story.  It lacks transformation.  The journey and return did not bring about change.  But look more closely, there is a deeper story about my experience of aging and how I respond to it.

Instead of telling how I responded to the diagnosis by taking up walking, I rooted the story in present experience.  That sense of immediacy gives the story a different perspective from an account of my medical history.    Could I say more about the amusing conversation with my doctor?  Perhaps.

But let’s take a step back.  I started with the recent experience of a long walk, aiming to build on the theme from last week.  Note I set out to tell a story that aims to do certain things.  It picks up the theme of aging and illustrates the idea of immediacy, telling the story from the present.

I didn’t think about aging as I walked yesterday.  It is a theme I have superimposed on a recent experience.  This is an important point.  All storytelling is artificial.  It has to be.  You use the story to make a point that captures attention and is likely to be remembered.

Reproducing Experience

You cannot fully reproduce an experience.  Many life experiences unfold over weeks, months or years.  With 10 minutes tops to tell the story, you leave out most of it.

Emotional impact is even more troubling.  Your audience cannot possibly experience what you experienced.  If your story is about depression, for example, no-one can share months of suffering, not even remotely.  So, what do you want them to experience?

Stories are about transformation, overcoming adversity.  Your story is not about depression so much as what changed to bring you out of it and to the point where you can share the story.  They cannot feel how you felt so you help them feel something else. 

 No Story has a Purpose

This is the beauty of storytelling.  Our lives are full of events and mostly they are meaningless until we give them meaning.  You tell a story to make a point by introducing meaning to the raw material. If you get them to work together, you have a story.

Stories amuse, entertain and make a point.  Sometimes the point is from time immemorial or we retell with a different aim in mind.  Sometimes we start with something fresh and uncover meaning as we work on it. 

No story has a purpose.  You have a purpose telling the story.  The purpose makes the story compelling.  Indeed, your purpose makes the story.  There are loads of possible purposes and we’ll look at some next time.

Aged hands on lap with younger hand on top.

Why Tell Stories?

Why tell stories?  My grandmother, when she was 90, told me that although she was 100 years old (she was a bit confused), she felt as she did in her twenties.  Now that I’m significantly closer to her age at that time, I know what she means.

Someone said that at the age of 60, it feels like you’re eating breakfast every 15 minutes.  Aging is not so much becoming a different person, as finding new perspectives.  Personal development is still important but I’m no longer doing it to set myself up for a lifetime’s work. 

It is easy for the young to mock the old, at least in modern Western culture.  I don’t find wisdom comes with age, I still make the same mistakes.  But older people are survivors – to put it bluntly I’ve had 60+ years, will you?

Why Tell Stories?

Was that a story?  Or polemic?  Did it make you smile?  Were you moved?  Did you want to argue the points I made?

The first three paragraphs are copy.  They open with an anecdote and then expand on the theme of aging, something currently buzzing around my mind. If I developed this as a story, I would seek more to further illustrate these points.  Ideally, I’d replace these paragraphs with a story, moving into teaching towards the end.

Would a story about aging work better than the opening of this post?  Why should a story be more effective than reasoned argument?

Connection

Sharing stories helps connect with others at a deeper level.  We all tell stories.  Enter a business network meeting 10 minutes before it starts.  What are the chances you tell someone a story in that 10 minutes?  Or someone tells you a story?

Pretty high!  We do it to connect with others and it works formally too.  For people to know like and trust you, they must hear your stories.  We know this instinctively, although we are not necessarily good at it.  Asking someone what they do is safe but unlikely to trigger a compelling story.

It doesn’t matter what your story is about.  Inveighing at the traffic driving in, may find common ground.  Or your experience of teenage boredom in a rural setting.  Your first kiss or loss of a parent may be riskier.  They’re all common ground and maybe someone needs to hear those stories.

Attention

Connection means someone knows you and wants to know more.  You have their attention.  Stories capture attention because you want to know what happens next.  If you capture and hold attention, in speech or writing, your audience will understand what you do and may help you towards your goals.

Stories sell!  Sometimes the right story told to the right audience in the right way leads to sales, even before you say what you’re selling!  Sales sometimes feel as if you’re being hit by a rubber mallet.  Your choices are to run away or buy in order to stop the mallet.  Hear the right story and you’ll buy the mallet!

Inform

Stories communicate information.  If someone remembers a story, they remember the lessons within it.  Speakers’ notes help, so long as someone remembers to look at them or remembers enough of your talk to interpret them.  A story with key points is far easier to remember.

Imagine you project a graph that supports your argument, onto a screen.  You must interpret the graph.  Don’t project a graph and leave it to your audience to interpret it.  They will, if they are awake but not necessarily how you want them to! Offer a story they can use to explain the graph.

Inspire

Stories have emotional impact.  They move audiences to tears or laughter or amazement or enthusiasm. 

None of this matters if emotional change is not matched by action.  The call to action at the end of a story specifies what you want your audience to do.  They do it if they are moved by your story.

So, that’s why we tell stories but what is a story? This is the first post in the sequence, “The Art of Telling”, wherein I share ideas about how to craft a good story

Potters wheel - artist at work

Entrepreneur or Artist?

This is an addendum to the sequence of posts about failure.  It’s not really a reason for failure but this misconception may lead to failure, where we make wrong assumptions. 

I am indebted to Megan Macedo for the distinction between entrepreneur and artist – they are her designations.  I’m not sure artist is the right word because you do not need to be an artist to own that business type. 

Entrepreneur or Artist?

These designate two types of business.  One focuses on the game of business, using money to make change.  The other makes change by building a body of work. 

It is easy to be partisan or disparaging.  If you are an entrepreneur, you have a real business.  If you are an artist, you have a job – or to be kinder, a vocation.

Both are valid businesses.  Both make or lose money.  You can move between them – or even practice them at the same time! 

However, most business support books or websites assume business is entrepreneurial.  They ignore artistic or vocational business. 

Let’s go deeper.

The Entrepreneur

It is tempting to think of the entrepreneur, obsessed with making money.  Text books suggest this is so.  We know 1% salt away billions of pounds and sling their weight around the political world because they have a route to unaccountable power.  All this is misleading.  We should not allow bad apples to define the terms of debate.

It is not disparaging to say the entrepreneur plays the game of business.  Entrepreneurs identify something needed and develop a structure to provide it.   Big business is big because only an organisation that size can solve a particular problem. 

The entrepreneur is good at building organisations.  What the organisation does is less important.  If I build a business with 250 employees that makes steel, I can build a similar organisation with 250 employees that makes pork pies! 

The Entrepreneur chooses what they do.  I might build a steel maker’s but as a vegetarian I may be less keen on pork pies.  It’s my choice.  However, I need never actually make any steel or pork pies – I manage the people who do that – or employ someone to do that, while I build the next business.

Their focus is on capacity.  Once the entrepreneur finds something to market and sell, they focus on building capacity.  This is the move from early adopters to mainstream.

Generally, entrepreneurs have potential to move to 6 or 7-figure turnover.  This is largely about capacity.  Artists certainly make profit but usually with limited capacity.

The distinction is not about ethics.  Perhaps it is easier for the entrepreneur to lose sight of the ethical implications of their business but there is no intrinsic reason to suppose they lack ethical motivation.  They focus on getting something to happen.  The Retail Co-operatives were entrepreneurial, whilst the 1% are often not at all entrepreneurial because they take finance from the economy. 

The Artist

This includes business-owners who are artists plus many more.  Anyone who works hands-on to build a body of work, falls into this category.  This includes coaches and professional firms.

Vocational business-owners may need to build capacity but they are not interested in building a business.  They may employ a few people but they do so to create the space wherein they follow their own interests. 

Capacity is important because they must make profit to carry on the work.  Some make significant profit but love for the work and not money motivates them.  Some may invest profits to generate passive income.  Again the reason is to enable the work.

It is tempting to put these business-owners on a pedestal.  However, the negative side is where they focus on doing what satisfies them and lose sight of their market.  Where their interests coincide with their market’s, they are immensely effective.  Some spend years seeking something that resonates, lines up their interests with their market’s.

Perhaps most businesses are this type in the early stages.  The entrepreneur tries something new and experiments in this space.  The distinction is the artist seeks something that gives them direct personal satisfaction, the entrepreneur delivers something profitable to a market. 

Telling Their Story

Both types tell a story.  They have a different understanding and uses for money.  Text books assume the artist is the precursor to the entrepreneur but for many the work is the goal and they seek ingenious means to get there.  The progression to a full business by building capacity is simply one option that requires specific interests and skills.

They share the need to build a market that knows likes and trusts them.  To do this they must understand their own business stance and tell a business origin story that does justice to their motivations as business people.

However, little attention is given to the artist.  They are told they don’t have a business, they have a job.  They have to work round the clock to make money because they do not build the business structures they need to enable the work they love to flourish.

The truth is both types struggle with business.  They have distinct goals.  What happens when they work together?

Calculator, pen and paper figures

Businesses Die through Financial Mismanagement

We’ve travelled a long way, exploring why businesses fail and this 15th is enough doom and gloom!  We can be certain many businesses will discover new reasons for failure.  I’ve left the most severe and possibly most common to last – financial mismanagement. 

Financial Mismanagement is not about poor sales.  I’ve dealt with that in previous posts.  Mismanagement is about what you do with money, once you have it. 

Here are three issues – there are more – be alert to them by getting an accountant to help manage finances.  Indeed the usual warning applies, get professional advice.  Don’t rely on this blog post or any other!

Debt

Manage your debts.  There are two types, unplanned and planned. 

With unplanned debt, your outgoings exceed income and you have no reserves.  With an unsustainable business it is illegal to trade without reserves.  Can you reduce costs, increase sales or take out a loan?  The last option is advisable only where you see a way out of the problem because the loan adds to outgoings. 

Planned debt is where you borrow on the strength of a business plan.  This is a better way to manage a debt, not a last minute panic.  However, planned debt is still debt, so take this route with a strong business plan and an accountant to guide you.

Cash Flow

This is similar to debt when your costs are greater than income.  If you are cushioned by reserves, it is good but what happens if you inadvertently cross zero? 

You need financial information to see ahead and predict times when your financial situation is squeezed.  If you see a problem coming up, you can do something about it in advance.

If your business is complex, you need management accounts and your accountant should prepare them and advise you of steps to be taken.  However, some accountants are compliance accountants, who focus on historic records and don’t make projections.  Management accounts focus on the future for your benefit, compliance accounts focus on the past for the benefit of others. 

Compliance accounting is important and benefits your business too.  It is about accountability and shows the world you have a record of being solvent and can account for income and expenditure.

Compliance

Compliance can threaten your business.  It is where you must meet a standard imposed from outside your business.  You can be fined substantial amounts or put out of business for wilful or accidental failure to comply. 

There are four main sources of compliance.  The first two are voluntary, if you join in you must comply to get the benefits.  The third applies to all businesses.  The fourth is compulsory under certain conditions and woe betide if you meet those conditions and fail to comply.  They are in order of increasing severity.

Charity Commission

Few businesses have charitable status.  Most that do are social enterprises and some charities trade and so have a lot in common with businesses.  You comply by filing annual accounts.  Specific regulations apply to charities and independent examination of accounts before they are filed should cover that.

Companies House

If you are a company, you must do a bit more.  Annual accounts must be filed, along with annual returns, information about who controls the company. 

The annual accounts are subjected to independent examination.  This does not have to be a full audit, if your turnover is low.  The difference between an examination and an audit is the auditor is insured.  If they make a mistake, this means compensation is available. 

Inland Revenue

Fill in tax returns yourself or with assistance from your accountant.  If you make a mistake with the first two sources of complience, you pay a fine.  You also pay a fine if you make mistakes with the Inland Revenue.  The rules are complex and so an accountant is your best option if your business is any significant size.

Customs and Excise

This one sinks businesses.  If turnover exceeds a certain amount, you must charge VAT.  Failure to do so will sink your business.  This is the most dangerous source of compliance, if only because it is easy to be caught out.  The threshold is fairly high and so many businesses do well without crossing it.  But as you approach it, your accountant should point out when it is time to register. 

That’s it!  15 ways to fail.  Take your pick!  The truth is though, many businesses do well because it’s not too difficult to take precautions and avoid obvious pitfalls.  I’ll deal with one final issue that’s worth noting next week.

Why Business is Not About Quality

Perfection is a theological virtue and nothing to do with reality.  Yet, many business owners are plagued with perfection.  They call it quality and when quality is absolute, you are in trouble.

Quality and Quantity

Quantity is measurable and if it is relevant and measurable, you should measure it.  There may be cost implications but think of the advantages. You:

  • follow progress, so long as you interpret your figures
  • have evidence for potential customers to show they can trust you.
  • eliminate unproductive processes
  • show customers the progress you make with their contract

Quality is impossible to measure.  Every practice is open to improvement.  You sell the best there is but there is no guarantee it cannot be improved. Someone may find a better solution and topple your dominant position.

But a superior product is no guarantee of success.  The history of marketing is full of competition where a poor product won out over its superior.

Quality is important. No-one knowingly buys a poor product or service. Taken to extremes, quality is problematic because: 

  • It prevents marketing a good product or service, while you seek something better
  • Agonising over copy means you waste time for very little gain.
  • Launching early is a smart move, sometimes called Beta testing, where you do a pre-launch and test your offer before you refine it.
  • Marketing before you produce your offer is often wise.  You waste a lot of time perfecting something that doesn’t sell.

The Best Thing in the World

A well-known cartoon in marketing circles shows a row of pizza shops.  The first has a sign outside: “The best pizza in this district”, the next reads “The best pizza in this city”, the next “The best pizza in this country”, then “The best pizza in the world”.  The final shop has a long queue outside and the sign reads: “The best pizza on this block”.

Your thing may be the best in the world but that is no guarantee it sells.  There’s little advantage to the best in the world.  Why?  People do not always base their choice on quality.  They want to know whether they can trust you.  This is not about honesty so much as compatibility.  Can you work together? 

I’m not saying sell substandard goods.  Quality is important so long as you don’t take it to extremes.  Other things matter too when you make a sale.

The Best is the Enemy of the Good

When something is good enough, get it out there.  You don’t know how to make it better until you test it and get feedback.  All the improvements you make before you launch are tinkering with something you don’t even know sells.

The issue is not quality so much as confidence.  If you are confident in your ability, then you don’t worry about your capacity to improve with feedback. 

Receive complaints graciously and gratefully.  Reply as quickly as possible and thank the person who complained.  Explain the steps you intend and how long it will take to make them.  This is a new promise and the customer has grounds for complaint if you don’t meet your deadline.  So, keep channels of communication open. 

When someone makes an initial complaint they draw your attention to something that needs fixing.  If you vanish or avoid the issue you appear to be dishonest and create anxiety. 

They say the customer is always right.  However, customers can be unreasonable.  Don’t assume their expectations are realistic.  You may need a new deal but occasionally, a refund and removal from your list may be the best course of action.

Fixation on quality undermines your business.  It distracts from more important issues.  The final post for now about reasons for business failure is financial mismanagement.

Child contemplating formula

Are You Too Theoretical for Your Market?

I’m guilty as charged!  This is my weakness!  I trained as a scientist and to write as if for a scientific journal is ingrained.  It’s how I think, which makes storytelling difficult!  It is little comfort that many business-owners are too theoretical.

Types of Writing

Let’s start by defining the problem.  There are four types of writing.  They differ in emotional impact, have particular uses and appeal to people in different ways. 

Theoretical Writing

This is default for many writers.  I’m following it in this post.  Theoretical writing is difficult to read because it is, well, boring!  The ideas it expresses may be exciting but the writing is mostly dull.  Why?

The strength of theoretical writing is accuracy.  So, it considers all options and justifies the recommendations it makes.  This makes for cold, clinical, objective language.  It works as background information, equipping the reader with unassailable arguments.  We read to be informed but rarely inspired. 

Technical Writing

This is easier to read than theory but mainly because we have to read it.  Technical writing answers the question, How?  Think of a recipe.  If you follow it, there’s likely to be numbered steps so you keep track of where you have got to following instructions.  Governing documents and legal agreements are other examples of this type of writing.

People read this because they have to.  They applaud instructions that are easy to follow and deplore anything unclear.  So, it shares accuracy with theoretical writing.

Transformative Writing

Transformative writing aims to change things and so packs an emotional punch.  This writing includes stories. It aims to inspire and motivate around a particular problem.

It can be ideologically driven.  Any transformative writer has something in mind they want to change and there is no barrier to taking it to extremes.  This is why this third category should interest business owners more than the first two.  If you want followers, people who take an active interest in your business, use this type of writing.

Transcendental Writing

The focus here is on seeing things differently.  Poetry and religious writing fall into this category.  This writing can be challenging and so for business owners the message is, use it sparingly. 

Mind Your Language!

All four types have uses for business owners.  The trick is not to be confined to one.  Too many, myself included, default to theoretical language and that means people don’t understand us.  Why?  Well. It is hard, especially on a screen, to concentrate on closely argued text, where language is unfamiliar.  And if writing is dull (hard to avoid), where is the incentive to keep reading?

Ideally business owners default to transformational writing and venture from there into other types as appropriate. 

Let’s look at some practical steps:

  • Use stories. Stories convey a lot of information if you prepare them that way and also convey emotion.  They are by far the easiest material to read.
  • Avoid jargon.  Jargon has uses because jargon often has specific meaning.  However, it depends on the reader knowing its meaning.  Even if you provide a glossary with definitions, the reader has to remember what the unfamiliar word means, let alone familiar words with new meanings!  Remember jargon is often used to keep non-specialists out!
  • Use your customer’s language. Even without jargon, text can be incomprehensible because it expresses things in a way unfamiliar to your target market.  How do they describe the things you write about?  It’s not only words that differ.  Your customers may understand the problem you address in a very different way to you.

Too Theoretical?

You may have the solution to a real problem but it is easy to be too theoretical about it.  Don’t assume people are interested in the method you use.  At first they want to know what it does for them.  Do they have the problem?  Would they welcome a solution?  It really doesn’t matter what it’s called or how it works.

Some people want theory before they decide but they ask for it or you offer it.  If you provide proof your approach works, many people take it on trust.

Perhaps this is one of the milder causes of business failure.  It limits the people who listen to you.  They may think you always talk like that, they’ll never understand you and so your offer is not for them.

You need to find a space where people understand your business and make a decision where they sense a good fit.  Your problem may be you expect too much of yourself and of them.

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