Keith Ritchie, storyteller at Siemens, talks to Marketing about his role as a storyteller and just how powerful telling a story can be to engage clients, potential clients, and staff.
What does story-telling mean to you?
I think story-telling is an area of expertise that some people have and that isn’t necessarily part of corporate comms, corporate affairs, media relations or anything else. It’s an area of focus for a lot of companies now, they realise that storytelling is one of the most powerful forms of communication, and that comes at a couple of different levels.
I think that good communicators, the great communicators, all really do it naturally. These days though, there is some science coming into it so that all communicators and all companies can start to consider how they use it. I think that’s the difference.
Think of someone like Branson, he uses it all the time. Every time I’ve seen him interviewed, he basically tells a story. The classic one I saw was when he was explaining his lack of knowledge on finance and accounting, and he was giving an example. He said, “I’ve been working with my chief finance officer. He’s been trying to explain to me what the difference between net and gross is,” which for most people would be a fairly simple term, and Branson says he struggles with that stuff.
He then starts telling this story where the accountant has painted a picture for him of a fishing net and all this stuff, to try and get this message across and try and explain what the difference between gross and net is, and half way through explaining this to the journalist, he goes, “Shit, I can’t remember what it was. I still don’t understand what the difference is.”
Branson uses storytelling all the time. He creates stories. Obama uses storytelling. All the great communicators do it. They either create stories, so there is a concept called story trigger where you actually will take an action that triggers storytelling, or you use it in how you communicate.
So it’s less of a job title and more of a strategy or an idea?
I think so. I think that it should be something that all companies really look to use. We have gone through a period where communication was all about being fast and short and to the point. That doesn’t mean that no longer has a place, it still has the same place, but storytelling is just a really powerful add on that helps you get a message across in a way that resonates and connects to people.
So there is definitely not a lack of content then?
There is absolutely no lack of content; we’ve got unbelievably rich content. You’re talking about one of the most diverse technology companies in the world, so we’ve got energy technology that’s generating power in every different way you can think of, from wind to gas turbines and distributing power.
You’ve got a healthcare business that if you went into a hospital you would find that if you had to have some sort of treatment or care or analysis, you’re using a Siemens MRI or a Siemens CT or a Siemens ultrasound.
You’ve got an industrial sector that you would find that just about everything that you have – if you go home tonight and have dinner and have a bar of chocolate and a bottle of beer afterwards, it’s likely that Siemens technology is behind the scenes actually helping produce and manufacture those goods.
And then you’ve got an infrastructure and cities business that covers everything from smart grid to trains and trams and building technologies, security access control, energy efficiency of buildings.
The content is extremely rich. It’s a matter of picking out what the great stories are and which ones the customers will allow you to work with them on. Some customers don’t like to share what the technology has actually done for them. But there is no shortage of great stories here.
Who would you say your main audiences are? You’re obviously after trade, but is it used internally as well?
Yes, we absolutely use storytelling internally as well. For example, we’re trying to build a really strong safety culture, especially because a lot of our people are out in quite dangerous sites and we want to make sure that they’re safe.
So to create the safety culture, we are using storytelling as one of the mechanisms, and we’ve started that process by, rather than just follow a set of rules, we want a change of mindset so that people actually want to be safe. To do that, you’ve got to make an emotional connection, and the best way to make an emotional connection is through storytelling.
We’ve got one guy who volunteered to tell his story. He lost an eye when he was a young apprentice, and we video interviewed him, and we’ve got a series called, This Is My Safety Story. He talks about that loss of that eye and he really delivers some powerful messages because it’s authentic, it’s coming from a person, it’s not a manager telling you how you have to be safe, here is the rules you’ve got to go and follow. It actually makes you stop and think, “Gee, I want to be safe. I don’t want to lose an eye.”
It’s just a great example of how powerful story telling can be.
I’m curious about distribution strategies. Obviously having the great stories is a first step, but how do you make sure the right people get to hear them?
I guess in our business, we approach things at a few different levels, so at the top level of our business in Australia, the main message that we deliver is technology for a sustainable future. That’s our top level message, and that flows out throughout all of our businesses. But when you get down to the level of, “I want to sell energy technology to the energy sector,” of course you’ve got to know the audience and you want to tell stories that are relevant to that sector.
So how do you measure ROI?
ROI in marketing communications is always a tough one, unless you’re running a specific comprehensive campaign, so we don’t always find out whether the work that was done has had an impact, and sometimes you don’t find out for two years or more because the creation can be a longer term thing. But we did a story of a dairy farmer in Cobram in Victoria, who wanted a technology solution to help him be more productive on his farm. He has what’s called a rotary dairy, and so he came to us and our partners, and we created a technology solution for him that allowed him to milk his 240 cows single-handedly by himself in an hour.
This was an amazing productivity improvement for him. There’s just no way he could have done that previously. And it also gives him very valuable data on the cows as well. But from that, we told that story in a number of different ways, we took that and we applied it to work content and social media.
Then we turned it into a print ad for a very technical magazine called PACE, (Process Automation and Control). We used it at a sustainability speaking opportunity that we had, a broad sustainable speaking opportunity; we used a video of it. We shared it with our staff. We’ve used it in a multi-channel approach., repurposed
I really had to get over the line the fact that this isn’t about promoting to dairy farmers, this is about telling a story that delivers the message that our technology can be used to help anybody. So ask yourself if it helps a dairy farmer, how can it help you in your business?
Through that one, we had an enquiry from a plastics manufacturer in South Australia, and he looked at it and said, “That’s really interesting. If you can help this guy, how can you help me because I need you to find some efficiencies, I need to reduce my costs, I need to improve the manufacturing process.” So we’re now working with him on how we can do that on a number of different ways.
So it wasn’t a story about selling a product, but rather a solution.
That’s right. He didn’t come for us for the particular solution that we had there; he came to us because the message was that our technology can actually help improve his business. And interestingly enough, at a recent internal workshop, that story was shared with a bunch of employees, and it turned out that one of the employees was the product manager of that product, which is PLCs, Programmable Logic Controllers.
He stood up at the end of it, and he said, “Actually, there’s more to it than that. Our sales in PLCs has more than doubled in the period since we told that story.” We didn’t know that. So you often don’t know – and you can’t necessarily attribute the doubling of sales to that story, but it certainly didn’t hurt.
How do you know if your efforts are working?
When I showed the safety video for the first time, and every time since, when I’ve been in an audience where that video has been shown, and you look around the room and you see people with tears in their eyes, or when they’re sort of choking up, and they just walk away and say, “Wow, that’s really powerful,” then you know it’s working.
There is no doubt about it. I walked away – I mean I did the interview on that video, I know the guy, but I didn’t know the story behind how he lost his eye. After that, I’ve gone home and I make sure that I wear safety glasses to mow my lawn, to use an electric drill, things that I probably wouldn’t have considered that necessary in the past, I think, “Wow, I’m doing this.” So it’s definitely worked on me and I’ve heard lots of other people say the same thing.
So in each particular case, is it just a matter of directing people to the video online, or used by their sales teams when they go out and talk to people?
We use a full mixture of channels. We would use it at trade shows, we use it on the iPad for Salesforce, we use it in print material, we use it in advertising, we use it online, social media. You’ve still got to take a multi-channel approach to reach your audience. It’s just another way to do it.
And finally, in recent times, what has been your favourite story to work on, or is that too hard to choose?
I think I probably told you – the safety story, from an internal point of view, that really makes a strong emotional connection, and that’s a favourite. I really think that it will help change people’s lives.
I like the simplicity of the dairy farmer, because a lot of our projects are really, really big. We’re working on some of the biggest projects that Australia has, and it’s very easy at the top end to say, “Yeah, Siemens, great technology company. They’re going to be involved in this big power station or this water treatment plant or whatever.”
But when you take it down a level to (a) the market of SMEs and manufacturers in Australia, I think there are a lot of opportunities for those guys, if they understand how to use technology and how technology can help them. They’re a really important part of Australia’s future. So I think the dairy farmer story is such a simple one, that those sorts of SMEs can connect to.
The other one is the mining map. I think that took of demonstrating that hey, we are in mining – it’s one image that tells a story in its own right. And we used that at a trade show in Queensland, the Queensland mining expo up at Mackay last year, and that was the whole wall, the backdrop of the wall. And we took a very different approach to that trade show.
You’re coming from a traditional engineering technology company where they have typically lots of product on a stand, to a situation where we said, no, we’re not going to have any product on that stand, and what we’re going to do is we’re going to tell our story of our technology in mining. And you have people come up to our stand and just stare at that wall and point to, “Hey, I work at that site. I didn’t know that Siemens technology was there,” it was a conversation starter. So I think for us, this sort of thinking is a bit of a game changer.