Want Stakeholder Buy-in? Tell Better Stories – Interview with Victoria Lefevers of Carbonite

Today we’re featuring an interview Sean Campbell, CEO of Cascade Insights, conducted with Carbonite‘s manager of market and competitive intelligence, Victoria Lefevers.

Victoria

In this Q & A, we cover:

  • How to paint a picture of the competitive landscape that speaks to a variety of different types of stakeholders.
  • Why storytelling is essential for a presentation to make an emotional impact that secures stakeholder buy-in.
  • What the critical differences are between mid-market and enterprise competitive intelligence and market research roles and processes.

[Sean:]

Victoria, could you give us a bit of background on your role at Carbonite?

[Victoria:]

Yes, absolutely. Back a couple years ago, Carbonite started making a pivot from the consumer market into the SMB market. They realized that to do that well, they needed to have a pretty firm grasp on the market and the competitors within that market.

With that realization, the idea of my role in the company was born and I joined the company early last fall to help head up their market and competitive intelligence functions across the board. I focus mostly on competitive aspects these days, but I do a lot of market intelligence as well.

[Sean:]

So let’s start with what it takes to “start” a function. Especially in a mid-market company, where you don’t have the resources of an enterprise company perhaps but at the same time, you don’t have the same level of organziational baggage to deal with. So how do you look at starting a research function in that context, where resources aren’t perhaps as unlimited as they might be in a larger company?

[Victoria:]

That’s a great question. First off, it’s interesting because Carbonite focuses more on smaller and small mid-size businesses, and so when you say that we probably don’t have as many assets to allocate to competitive as an enterprise might, it’s so very true. That’s really a huge understatement.

From my standpoint, I came in knowing we had a few analyst subscriptions, but beyond that it was really on me to figure out what resources I could leverage that were free or that I could build out via collaborative relationship with others inside the organization. Hence, I had to be kind of clever from the beginning in order to figure out a quick way to get as much information as I can, while staying focused on what is really going to be important in the short term.

[Sean:]

That completely makes sense. You also fully understood where I was going with the mid-market vs. enterprise comparison — which is that in mid-market companies, competitive intelligence is a dedicated role that tends to focus on “what can you do with what you already have,” versus a model focused on building up a large program that involves a large number of independent assets – which is what you might see in an enterprise company.

All of which frees you in some ways to be more of a competitive intelligence analyst as opposed to more of a project manager, – someone who’s driving both external and internal resources forward. Hence I imagine, you are doing a lot of the analytical work as opposed to running a lot of projects?

[Victoria:]

Yes, you’re absolutely right. I really am sort of the boots on the ground for the company and one of the main things that I have been trying to establish across the company is that I can’t really do this on my own. I need everyone else who I work with, and I work with about 580 people, to be my eyes and ears as well.

I try to leverage my sales force, I try to leverage my product managers, and the people on my product marketing organization — really all across the company — to help me find the information I need, because we simply don’t have the resources to dedicate like some other larger companies do.

[Sean:]

Fair enough. Let’s talk about something that I know you have a lot of experience with, which is telling an effective story with the findings you have. We know that this is an area where it’s a bit of a teachable skill, yet it’s also a skill that’s actually somewhat difficult to teach — a little bit like public speaking in that way, or certain types of performance arts and the like.

Given that background, tell us a little bit about how you weave storytelling into your findings, and then we’ll move from there into some of the steps people may be able to take on their own as a result.

[Victoria:]

Sure. You mentioned that for some people, storytelling comes naturally. Whereas for others it’s more of a learned skill, and for still others it’s something where they struggle to apply even the basics.

For the people who find storytelling comes really naturally, they should feel very lucky, because so many people try to learn storytelling as a skill, and it takes years for most people. You talk about practice and preparation for any sort of presentation, and that’s just frankly just the beginning for storytelling. Storytelling is a skill that is really overlooked in business school curriculums and other strategic academic programs. Which is a shame, because it’s really a great way to weave various types of data together.

Storytelling also isn’t exactly the same thing as being a great public speaker. Although the two ideas really do share a lot of the same skill set, you need to be able to read your audience. You need to be able to figure out the best channel of communication for that audience. Then attune yourself to your stakeholder’s culture and their other frames of reference.

Where storytelling really departs from public speaking and really takes it up a notch are the more abstract components. I think this is why it can be a little difficult to learn. It’s really about figuring out how to tap into the ability to connect with your audience in a way that does more than simply just deliver a message; you work to create a shared understanding of that message. All of which really makes your stakeholders feel that message.

Which in the end really disarms your stakeholders, thereby allowing them to actively listen and understand and engage with your message, take it in, and then envision the kind of a future world where the intelligence that you’re giving them can actually be played out.

[Sean:]

Those are all really good points and the one that stood out to me the most was where you said something to the effect that you almost disarm stakeholders in a sense, by including a bit of a storytelling that is focused and by having an emotional component to the message. Hence stakeholders don’t end up just looking at the data very abstractly, and thereby not being really affected by it. I imagine more than a few of our blog readers or podcast listeners have experienced a read out, delivered inside their company, where it’s plays out like that. Where you look back and say, “I know there’s real meaning that I wanted the audience to get but for some reason they didn’t get it.” I imagine that’s a lot of what you’re driving toward – the audience grasping the meaning of your message — when you utilize storytelling.

[Victoria:]

Yes, absolutely, a lot of people think of storytelling as a way to discuss the qualitative data and they miss out on the fact that they can also use story telling when they’re relying on statistics and other quantitative data. And it seems really odd to me that that sort of separation happens, because the ability to story tell really depends on understanding the nuances of both qualitative and quantitative and figuring out where that real meaning, where that “ah ha” is within all of the mess, as it relates to your specific stakeholders.

I can see where people get tripped up, because quantitative data obviously tells a story on its own — especially when we’re looking at stuff like predictive analytics, which are so advanced and only getting more so. They can pretty accurately tell us what we’re going to do in any given situation, even taking into account our own irrational, non-linear and truly human aspects.

Even though we’ve come so far with that sort of analysis, not everyone understands — or wants to understand — what data tells us. We’re just looking at the output. We really need to tell them what it means for their business, what it means going forward. Putting it in a frame of storytelling, that data set gets passed to those people who maybe don’t want to listen, or simply can’t hear — and provides you with an ability to communicate the meaning behind all that data.

[Sean:]

People buy emotionally, and they justify the purchase rationally.

Those are really good points. It reminds me of something that someone who had been doing sales for a really long time once told me: “People buy emotionally, and they justify the purchase rationally.” There’s a little bit of that in play when it comes to what you’re talking about. That if you simply ask stakeholders to justify change on a purely rational basis, just on a spreadsheet style justification per se, there tends to be a lack of emphasis on the need to make those types of changes ”now,” and there sometimes is a lack of emphasis on really engaging with the data you’ve provided. All of which leads to a lot of head nods but a lack of decisions impacted.

But I imagine readers of this interview are thinking one thing right now. How do “I” do that? What are some of the techniques that “I” should use? So can you go into that a bit? Because it’s not about picking a bunch of great photos from stock photo sites and telling a great visual narrative. That’s just a sub-component of the process – and sometimes that kind of purely visual interplay isn’t even necessary per se.

[Victoria:]

First off, before you even look at your deck, look at your audience. You really have to know your audience as best you can. This is hard sometimes, especially if we’re talking about a new product development opportunity or any sort of environment where we don’t have a lot of exposure to the people that we’ll be talking to. You need to first and foremost figure out what is the most effective way to speak to these people.

Do I need to really lay on the emotion? Do I need to make it very obvious? Or can I make it more nuanced? Should I frame things more in analogy to do with family and personal life, or should I keep it strictly business? There are all these different types of questions that we can figure out just from doing a quick Google or LinkedIn search on someone. Then we can sort of figure out who they are as a person and how we should be speaking to them. Then you can really move on and start thinking in terms of what data you need to be looking for in order to weave this story together.

I think that, like I said before, that’s practice and that’s preparation — and that’s really looking for the beginning and the end of it all to come together. Usually to be quite frank, I look for the end. I look for the “so what’s” and I work my way backwards from the kind of nitty-gritty detail, and I look for it piece by piece, to see where the different links are. I know that’s kind of abstract, but you just kind of have to do it until it works.

[Sean:]

That makes a lot of sense. On our side, we typically say that we need to know what the decisions are that you want to impact or the uncertainties you’re going to want to remove. Then we ask: What do the stake holders actually want to see, and how are they best affected? It’s not about trying to persuade them in absence of data. But you do have to speak in their language in order make things effective. That requires a bit of forensics, which seems to be what you’re getting at, right?

[Victoria:]

Yes, it’s absolutely true. I’ll just give you an example of something that happened yesterday: I had to provide my entire group with an overview that I’ve been working on for quite a while, and in order to make sure that I had the right voice for that particular, really wide audience, what I did beforehand was socialize with key members of that audience that had very different voices – as individuals, and distinct from each other. That provided me with their “lens,” so that way I could then make sure that when I delivered that message it held the most impact for that large group.

[Sean:]

That makes sense. So now what are the things that folks should look for in their own findings, and in their own briefing documents, that signal that they’re steering away from storytelling?

From my end, I’m always looking to see whether a given document has a clear point of view, and whether I’m communicating this at an emotional as well as data-driven level.

What do you look for in that regard?

[Victoria:]

It’s really simple — you just have to look for the “why.” I know this is a concept that is overused in a lot of ways, ever since we all started seeing TED talks. Everybody started latching on to the “why,” but when you’re thinking about the story you need to tell, that is what people are going to take away. When you’re looking at a particular slide in your slide deck or a particular set of data, if someone can not look at that and in the first 5 seconds understand why that’s important, or why they should be listening, or why that action is the right action, then you need to work on the story.

[Sean:]

That’s a very good point. I think everyone reading this interview has probably had that experience, where a peer or someone you report to goes through your deck and asks, “Why is that there?” And there is this horrible moment where you think, “It doesn’t need to be there.”

With that, I want to thank you for this great interview. I think we covered a lot of good ground here in terms of storytelling, driving toward decisions impacted, and building findings that will drive change.

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