Kristiaan Van Woensel Q&A


I learned about Kristiaan Van Woensel when he made a comment here on A Storied Career, which inspired me to look into his Belgian agency, The Story House. I’m delighted to have him as part of the Q&A series.

KVanWoensel.jpg Bio: Kristiaan Van Woensel is a communication consultant and founder (in mid-2009) of The Story House, a business communication consultancy.

His fortune in life is to help people wherever he can and to share his knowledge and experience with anyone who wants to listen. His family is his treasure!

His passion is the understanding of how humans interact and how to use these insights for business purposes.

His mission is to help marketeers how to tell about their brands in passionate stories. His 20 years experience in multiple marketing and sales assignments in pharmaceutical industry, together with his expertise in “brand storytelling” (for Genzyme, Ipsen, Mylan, Pfizer, Xwebinar…) are helping him to make pharma brand managers see to speak “human” with their business targets, physicians.

An extended bio can be found on LinkedIn.

Q&A with Kristiaan Van Woensel:

Q: How did you initially become involved with story/storytelling/narrative? What attracted you to this field? What do you love about it?

A: “Well, let me tell you a story about … this marketing manager who had been working for several major pharmaceutical companies over the last 20 years … until that moment in time, four years ago to be precise, when he discovered he still loved the job but had no private life anymore. There was not enough time left to spend with his family after work, there was hardly some time to read the classical fairy tails for bedtime to his kids. The manager even fell asleep before his kids heard little Red Riding Hood’s plot. Sounds familiar to you? So, one evening he told himself this had to stop and started the day after with creating his own child stories in the hope to stay awake at least (from his childhood on, he loved to create and tell stories out of the blue) and to entertain his children with quality time.
That decision was a turning point in the man’s life. The storybuilding and storytelling worked out really well, even so fine his kids were thrilled night after night to hear his stories along with seeing his funny gestures. Unlike the classical fairy tales, they were motivated to retell his stories in detail afterwards to family members. And the man … stayed awake, mission accomplished! However, he realized some of the stories were nicely written and entertaining, so he started to write down what he had created before history would take it all away from him, forever.”
That was my first children’s book I wrote, but more importantly, that act made me realize I had failed to create successful brand messages in my daily job. “Light the fire within your customers with compelling stories that they can understand, breath in and breath out and share with peers,” should have been the essence of brand communication. Until then, I realized I had focused too much on pure brand message delivery solely and too less on (brand) storytelling. Yet, the latter had always been an essential part of who I am, only I wasn’t aware until that experience of the children stories. How can I thank you, my sons!
Not much later, I quit my job and started my own communication agency The Story House and became a missionary of brand storytelling in pharma industry in my home country, Belgium.
What intrigues me so much about storytelling for business purposes is actually threefold.
Firstly, “storytelling” is such a rich and meaningful medium to work with, and for the creator, and for the teller, and for the listener, and for the story characters that drive the story! Not in the least for the sponsor of the story! Defining which story elements, which story angle, what tone of the story, which images, which metaphors you are going to select to make the most inspiring brand story, makes it all so special!
Secondly, people are surprised to find out that capturing the right brand story for the right moment, ain’t necessarily a “mission impossible!” Mostly, marketeers don’t realize they already possess the story they’re eager to communicate. We, at The Story House, are pretty much the katalysator for marketeers to bring up their best brand stories.
Thirdly, storytelling is such a thankful medium! Since we work very closely together with our clients in the creative process of a brand story, in which they bring up most story elements themselves, the client’s engagement to deliver an excellent story is strongly present. People have the feeling they’ve created the story from A to Z, which makes them proud story owners.
Q: You noted in an e-mail to me that your “biggest challenge is to persuade pharma brand managers to wrap up their scientific data in a context and emotions, rather than do data mining solely.” How do you address that challenge? How do you get buy-in for storytelling with your clients? Also, why did you choose to target the pharmaceutical industry? humanphysician.jpg
A: A controversial phenomenon that I acknowledge in pharma business for several years now is that its marketing and brand managers tend to ignore the uniqueness of their business targets: physicians (the ones that prescribe the drugs for patients)! The profession of physician, being a general practitioner or a specialist, is quite complex since his/her daily life balances between science (data and ratio) and people (emotion) in every aspect of his/her acts. However, the majority of pharma marketeers emphasize mainly on one side of their brand communications: scientific data from clinical trials that support the excellence of the brands they work for. Odd but true … the human side of the doctor, his/her ability to listen to patient stories, short and long, his/her empathic ability to live together with patients emotions, being it happiness, sadness, defeat or loss, has been neglected by pharma industry. “Speak human” to “human” physicians, through “brand stories” is what we preach marketeers to do!
Scientific data give physicians the intellectual permission to prescribe drugs, but it is an emotional reason that make them actually do it.
So, I use three arguments to create the buy-in for “brand storytelling” in my discussions with pharma brand leaders.
  1. People remember stories, not data: I illustrate the power of brand storytelling through examples from outside pharma industry. What’s important is that you need to focus on recent ‘best practices’ that can open managers’ eyes and change their paradigm. The rescue team in Chile, relying on Oakley eyewear to protect the miners’ eyes when they were brought back to the surface is a great and successful brand story to tell. The features of the Oakley Radar® sunglasses were inferior to the rescue itself. The world cared about the 33 Chilean miners when they left the belly of the earth after 69 days of captivity. We wanted to do everything to get these heroes back with their families, healthy and well. Protecting their eyes against UV light was on everyone’s mind. The world will never forget those images of the return of the miners with flashy eyewear … it is an unforgettable (brand) story. Alas, the story data will vanish with time: 33 Chilean miners; 630 meters depth; 69 days of captivity; number “33” is a magical number says Chile’s president! (rescue was on 13-10-10 → 13+10+10=33) along with the Radar® ‘s features. (see brand story case - ‘“How the Radar made the globe care”)
  2. “Speak human” to physicians because they’re humans, too! The graphs we present in our corporate presentation focus on the physician’s balance between the scientific part of his/her job and the human aspect.
  3. Showing the visuals helps us a to win the managers’ confidence to use a more balanced brand communication. We show them all different means that can support them when shaping a pharma brand message into a pharma brand story (see green table*).
  4. Stories are made to share: Unlike scientific data, good stories are made to share from physician to patient, and from patient to patient. Scientific data do resonate for physicians, but they hardly do for patients. However, data that are wrapped up in a compelling context, could resonate with the patient’s worldview!
I’ve never targeted pharmaceutical industry consciously. How I ended up in pharma business is a story that stands on its own. Being a former physical education teacher, now almost 25 years ago(and at that time 20 kilos lighter), I was formed to become a coach of sportsmen or a physical education teacher, just like many of my family members before me. However, I was looking for a bigger challenge in my professional life, that would combine multiple skills and aspects from my educational background: medical science, social skills, management skills. My first assignment in a major pharmaceutical industry fulfilled my expectations completely : interaction with doctors, scientific talks, organizing meetings, etc. I loved my business environment right away and stayed! Over the last 20 years I have worked for 3 major pharma companies in different sales and marketing assignments until I started in 2009 with The Story House.

*The green table is a little hard to read. Here’s what it says:
  • Use story elements
  • Use founder stories
  • Use GM stories
  • Use R&D stories
  • Use marketing and sales stories
  • Use literature stories
  • Use HCP stories
  • Use patient stories
  • Use family/patient relative stories
  • Use PAG stories
  • Use visuals
  • Use metaphors
  • Use sequels
Q: The storytelling movement seems to be growing explosively. Why now? What is it about this moment in human history and culture that makes storytelling so resonant with so many people right now?
A: Over the last 10 years, globalization and the Internet have changed the way how we tend to drive business, dramatically! You can clearly say and see, “there are no barriers anymore for companies to conquer the world,” in times where everything and everyone is deliverable and accessible, 24/24. All this may not have frightened companies as such; a great part of its employees, however, are having problems with coping and adapting to this overwhelming biotope. People got off track since their place in society got swallowed by a bigger entity. “From local to global” is just one scary leap too much for many of us. People have lost their ability to do what antcesters ever did before them: the primary need to tell and share stories with people around.
Not a big surprise, that a former Harvard College social network became such a huge hit and currently groups more than 500 million users worldwide. But what Facebook really demonstrates is “The law of proximity” in practice: (objects near each other tend to be grouped together).
Law of proximity[2].png
The closer we are to someone, the more we are willing to share, the deeper our stories will be and how bigger the overall storyboard will look like. You can have so many friends on Facebook; you’ll exchange profound stories with only the closest you know in a setting that is familiar to you and where you know exactly what you may expect: resonance with your public.
Globalization makes “finding of resonance” very hard if not, impossible. Storytelling helps us to restore our local biotope!
Q: What people or entities (such as Web sites, blogs, books, organizations, conferences, etc.) have been most influential to you in your story work and why?
A: Like a sponge is predisposed to take loads of water, nothing else pleases me more than diving into storytelling books and swallowing new insights and ideas! Although we have a common idea about what defines a good story, I’m surprised everytime I open a new storytelling book to run into new and different insights about the art of storytelling.
The books that have lit the fire within me are various, but each deserves my recommendation: The Elements of Persuasion (Richard Maxwell & Robert Dickman), The Springboard (Stephen Denning), Wake Me When the Data is Over (Lori Silverman), The Story Factor (Annette Simmons), Storytelling: Branding in Practice (Klaus Fog), What’s your Story? (Craig Wortmann), Made to Stick (Chip & Dan Heath), The Elements of Story (Francis Flaherty), Believe Me (Michael Margolis), Story (Robert McKee), The Making of a Story (Alice LaPlante), Storycatcher (Christina Baldwin), Resonate (Nancy Duarte), All Marketers Are Liars (Seth Godin), and Speak Human (Eric Karjaluoto)
VonWoenselBooks.jpg Q: How important is it to you and your work to function within the framework of a particular definition of “story?” (i.e., What is a story?) What definition do you espouse?
A: My business experience tells me “storytelling” is the word that triggers marketing managers. People in general, associate “storytelling” too much with the “once upon a time” cliché, which makes it pretty hard to be taken seriously as a business-communication consultant!
“Brand storytelling,” “story sharing” or “story working” are non-provocative terms I use in my daily meetings with managers and they work fine!
The best definition of “story” for my business purposes is the one from The Elements of Persuasion book. (Richard Maxwell & Robert Dickman):
A story is a fact, wrapped in an emotion that compels us to take an action that transforms our world.
We use this definition as a turning point in our corporate presentations and the public seems to like it! [Note: Link in this paragraph goes to the presentation illustrated above.]
Why do they actually? More than likely, because we emphasize on the word “fact,” which is a pretty important “nuance” to pharma marketers, who breath scientific facts and data!

Q: Your Web site states: “Marketing plans don’t read like a novel and actually they should.” How do you go about creating marketing plans that read like novels — or at least have story elements?

A: A marketing plan is much more than a strategic document, reserved for marketing department and sales force only. A marketing plan is the lighthouse on paper, that will lead every member, working on a brand team, toward the common objectives for the upcoming business year. No matter what your function or position is within a team, you should know the base of the marketing plan of the brand you’re working for!
“A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” That goes for a brand team as well! For a marketing plan to be really successful, it should be understandable for every brand team member so that you, as brand team leader, can get your team aligned.
What we propose brand managers to do is quite simple: shape your 60-page marketing plan into a story of one page and win the hearts of all brand team members! Drill down your marketing plan to the essence and focus on three story elements to create your one pager:

  1. Quantitative brand objective 2011: “how much” you want to get!
  2. Qualitative brand objective 2011: “how good” you want to get!
  3. Main brand program 2011: “how” you are going to get your brand objectives!

A simple job to copywriters and storytellers, but I admit, a true burden for marketeers! Why is it so hard for marketeers?
It’s in the marketeer’s DNA to collect the 3 F’s, with their analytical minds: Facts, Figures and Features. Marketeers think, speak and live by numbers and graphs, not by stories…
So, here’s where The Story House jumps in and supports brand managers with the making of their brand plan story. We give recommendations about the most appropriate metaphor or story angle to use for a particular brand-plan story. We advise brand managers to use or speak their audience’s language! Brand managers speak mainly rationally while sales people and non-marketing employees talk more “emotion.”

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Dr. Kathy Hansen

Kathy Hansen, PhD, is a leading proponent of deploying storytelling for career advancement. She is an author and instructor, in addition to being a career guru. More...


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