Wickedly Effective Storytelling: Exercise of the 5 Whys

February 16, 2016

There’s one critical element that makes a great story a great story.


In working with hundreds of companies and even more marketers on how to become stellar storytellers, I’ve noticed that relevance in storytelling is what separates the strugglers from the artists.

Without exception, when we struggle to tell a story that sounds different from everyone else, it’s because we focus on what we want to say instead of why we want to say it.

Here’s a little magic, fellow storytellers, to make it easy to flip the equation and make it easy to start with why your story matters – making it relevant to more people, more often – and then move into what  you want to talk about in your story.

This formula, called the 5 Whys, comes from book that Robert Rose and I wrote called Experiences: the 7th Era of Marketing. In Chapter 7, “Story Mapping: Managing the Creation of Experiences,” we talk about the complete process of mapping a story but it begins with discovering an idea that’s truly relevant to our audience.

Understanding Root Cause
To be relevant to our audience, we have to get to the root cause of why what we want to talk about is relevant to them. Getting to the root cause means we have to get curious and dig into why a topic might be a great idea or expose it as just a mediocre one. Great ideas are ones that can turn into uniquely differentiating stories. And that’s what we’re all after.

The process of the five whys was developed Sakichi Toyoda and was used within the Toyota Motor Corporation during the evolution of its now famous Toyota Production System manufacturing methodologies. It was a critical component of their corporate-wide problem-solving training.

The premise is that by asking the question “why?” five times, the nature of the problem and its solution will become clear. Since Toyota originated the idea, it has since been borrowed to become a part of Lean Startup and Agile methodologies.

Here’s what a typical marketing story sounds like…

We help companies mitigate risk by delivering reliable, cost-effective transportation services. We have 14 locations along the East Coast that our customers rely on to move their goods. By giving  our customers more options with transportation services, we help them grow their business and better serve their customers.

Is this a story? No. Because it sounds pretty much like every other marketing statement in the transportation industry.

The 5 Whys
Now, let’s dig into this by using the process of the five whys…

  1. Why do people want to mitigate risk? Because they want to save money
  1. Why do people want to save money? Because 66% of supply chain costs go to transportation costs.
  1. Why do companies spend 66% of their supply chain budgets on transportation? Because they want to make sure they have an effective, reliable and cost-effective way to transport goods.
  1. Why does this matter to businesses? Reliably is key because delivering goods is how our customers grow their bottom line, reduce how much money they spend and serve their customers.
  1. Why is this important? Because serving customers and helping them grow their business is ultimately what matters to them. They’re looking for a partner who understands the dynamics of growing their business and serving their customers, not just a company who can move boxes from point A to point B.

Now, let’s flip the answers and turn them into a story…

We know that running a successful business is more than just moving boxes from point A to point B. Being able to serve customers and grow a business is about the people you have on your team and how well they understand the dynamics of your industry. And reliability is a huge component of this.

 Working with reliable partners means our clients are able to reduce costs and deliver much better customer service. Part of that customer service is understanding the dynamics of transportation and how to manage costs. That’s where we come in.

 We know that 66% of all supply chain costs come from transportation. That number comes with a lot of risk. But growing a successful business and making customers happy – while still bringing revenue in the door – means mitigating risk. At ABC transportation, we help supply chain managers mitigate risk by delivering news and information that helps them understand the impact of trends, economics and market dynamics on their transportation choices.

In this example, the root cause is not that people want to mitigate risk. It’s that they want to grow their business. We’re just able to start with that story by becoming relevant to our audience, gaining their trust, and then bringing that back to our brand through our content mission.

That’s a much different process than starting with, “we need a brochure/blog/video/any other piece of content to talk about how great we are at mitigating risk.”

The biggest reason that storytelling doesn’t work for organizations is because people don’t know how to tell a story that’s relevant in the world of their customer.

Great stories aren’t great stories because they’re what a company wants to say. They’re great stories because it’s relevant to an audience and what they want to hear.

Are you interested in learning how to create a story that hits home with your audience and makes them take action? Contact me and let’s talk about how we can help. Or follow me on LinkedIn, and Twitter, and if you like what you see, Subscribe here for regular updates.

Photo credit: Flickr user Joe Penniston

About Carla

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author

Carla Johnson helps leaders who are often paralyzed by traditional thinking. They suffer from slow growth, an eroding competitive advantage, low employee engagement, and depleted investor confidence. Their teams lack purpose and progress and constantly battle a resistance to change and new ideas.

As the world’s leading innovation architect, Carla’s spent 20 years helping leaders shatter limits and discover undiscovered possibilities. Through years of research, she’s developed a simple, scalable 5-step process that teaches people how to consistently produce inspired ideas that lead to uncommon outcomes.

Carla Johnson Innovation Creativity Speaker Author