Storytelling is one of the most powerful business-building tools in existence. It captivates, influences, and transforms customers, stakeholders, talent, and beyond, closing the gaps in business with bridges that last.
But how is that so? How is it that something as simple as a story can be so powerful in business? To understand that, and to start the process of finding and telling your own stories, we need to travel to the source of where stories begin in the teller and the place where they find their home in the receiver: the brain..
Once Upon a Brain
For all the power of story to captivate, influence, and transform the brain, there are two key things we also know from studying the neural impact of story.
The first is that there actually has to be a story. If you’ve ever been to a conference, a Monday morning meeting, or anything involving PowerPoint slides and a lot of text, you know that not everything is a story.
Second, not all stories are created equal. Some stories suck. Actually, a lot of stories suck. This is, in essence, the lesson that neurology teaches us about the brain and business: you have to use stories and they have to be good ones.
Which leaves us here: what exactly is a story and how do you tell a great one?
What Makes a Story Great
Cute puppies and talented directors don’t guarantee great stories. Despite what some may tell you, a mission statement isn’t a story. A brand isn’t a story. Marketing jargon isn’t a story. Additionally, a story doesn’t have to be complicated. Introduce a few characters, paint a picture using a particular moment in time with specific details and the emotions involved, and you’re on your way to story success.
The next question, of course, is, which stories should you use? There are an infinite number of them. Where do you even start?
There are four key story types that appear over and over again in business. They are the stories that illustrate not only what you offer but why and how. No matter what the gap is in your business, one of these four stories will be the bridge you need.
#1 The Value Story
How Storytelling Drives Sales and Marketing
Marketing is no longer about the stuff that you make, but about the stories you tell.
—SETH GODIN, AUTHOR AND ENTREPRENEUR
This is the first gap in business: the value gap. The most important gap any business needs to bridge is the gap between what they offer and the people who, whether they know it or not, need it. To capture the attention of buyers, to convince them that, yes, this is the solution, and eventually to transform them into repeat users, customers, buyers, believers. When it comes to sales and marketing, the value story is king. And the value of a value story starts in psychology and spans the full spectrum of why we say yes.
A Breakdown of the Storytelling Framework
A customer or prospect has a pain or a problem. They’re struggling with it, they’re dealing with it, they’re trying to figure out a better way. Normal. Then you or your company comes along. The customer engages with your product or solution or service. Explosion. Now, life is better. The pain is cured, the problem is solved, and the customer is so much better off than before. New normal.
In other words:
- What is your customers’ problem?
- What pain are they experiencing?
- How do they feel?
- How is it impacting their life? Their business?
- What’s keeping them awake at night?
- How does your product/service solve the pain or problem?
- How does your product/service make their life easier?
- What does the experience of using your product/service feel like for the customers?
- How is using your product/service different?
- How is life different after?
- What is enhanced or improved?
- How do the customers feel?
- What pain points have vanished?
The Value Story: A Components Breakdown
The greatest mistake of marketing is to put what you offer at the center of everything instead of the person you offer it to. It’s focusing on the software, the burger, the makeup, the car, the widget instead of the person who will use the software, eat the burger, wear the makeup, drive the car, or benefit from the widget. Unless you work at Pixar, cars aren’t characters. People are characters. Products don’t win the girl, overcome the odds, or slay the dragon. People do those things. The knight in shining armor is the character, the sword is the product, the dragon is the problem. Sure, the knight uses the sword. But it’s the knight who slays the dragon, not the sword. The sword is just a tool to solve a problem. Take away the knight, and you don’t have a story. You just have a piece of metal stuck in a rock.
What keeps them awake? What problem are they staring at the ceiling and trying to solve but can’t? What issue is worrying them, concerning them, stressing them out? Once you know that, then the next step is how do you fix that feeling
It might be tempting to share your feelings about the product or the opportunity, but the only emotions that matter in the value story are those of your potential customer and, as such, the identifiable character.
Home in on the thing, the one thing your customers care most about, the thing that keeps them up at night, and tell a story that includes and taps into that emotion.
One of the many strengths of telling a value story is that it demonstrates and, when done right, often simulates the problem you and your product solve by putting it into a specific context. While including a character and emotion will help to draw the audience into the scene, the best value stories include a specific moment in time the audience can see vividly and specifically
it’s often connected to the explosion. Things had been going along as normal, and then suddenly, in this moment, things changed. It’s the moment the solution is discovered, the moment the real value of the product or service is realized.
When you tell stories to potential customers, don’t be afraid to get specific with your details. If you know they likely order pizza during after-hours meetings, include that. If you know they likely have a collection of branded pens from a hundred different sales reps, include that. Each specific detail you include builds a scene that looks and feels familiar to the audience, and in doing so, they will say to themselves, “They get me.”
A word of warning, though. This is a step you cannot fake. ou have to actually know your potential customer. Either with time, research, or experience, get to know your audience. Once you do, include details in the story you tell that will make the scene familiar and show them you really get it.
#2 The Founder Story
How Entrepreneurs Use Story to Attract Money, Customers, and Talent
If a person asking you to invest doesn’t believe her own story, why would you believe it?
—AMY CUDDY, PRESENCE
Every business has a founder story. Behind every business, there is a story of the who and the how it all began. A story from before the business was even a twinkle in the founder’s eye. A story about the moment when an idea first struck. A story from the moment the founder realized this might actually be a business.
Whether you’re in a company or you started one, this story is guaranteed. No matter how big, no matter how small, no matter how old or new—unless it’s the only case of immaculate incorporation—show me a company or a product, and I’ll show you a story of how it all began. There are no exceptions.
The Founder Story: A Components Breakdown
At its core, the founder story, as you might have guessed, centers around the founder. It’s designed and told to position the entrepreneur as the right captain for this idea’s ship. So when it comes to identifiable characters, it might seem obvious that the founder is it. Putting the founder front and center is the only way we get to know you, believe in you, and root for you. Obvious. And yet this is where many founder stories go wrong.
When it comes to the founder story, your first step to adding emotion is to consider what the respective audience cares about. What do you want them to feel or know as a result of hearing this story? Here are a few examples.
Investors care most about whether or not you can survive the trials and tribulations that come with starting a company. They want to know you can handle adversity, that you aren’t a starry-eyed shell, that you’ve felt the sting of defeat and bounced back with more determination. When preparing your story for investors, include some of the negative emotions you’ve experienced: frustration, betrayal, doubt. They need to know you’ve felt these things and worked through them.
That being said, the key to the founder story for investors is to balance those negative emotions with what positive emotions grew from them: determination, relief, pride. The contrast between these emotions is what makes a founder story great.
Customers care most about your connection to the product, the service, and your commitment to creating a better life for them. They care that you’re human, that behind the logo and the price tag is a person with a dream or a solution. This is not unlike telling your story to investors. Include how it felt to survive the highs and lows of creating the company.
But slightly different from crafting your story for investors, when telling the story to potential customers, include the emotions of what drove you to create this solution in the first place. What were you frustrated by? What problem were you dealing with? The Airbnb founders couldn’t pay their rent and were looking for a solution to make ends meet. The fear of not being able to pay your essential bills is real for many of the Airbnb customers who rent out their spaces. Including that side of their founding story resonates with the customers who are looking to make additional income and have never realized the unused space in their home could do it.
The easiest, most-often overlooked component of the founder story is the moment. Many neglect to identify a specific point, place, or moment and instead make a broad-stroke allusion to time in general. To avoid this unnecessary mistake, as you’re crafting your story, include a specific moment, like sitting at your desk for the first time, watching your first order come in on the internet, or turning the sign on your door from “closed” to “open.” Say something like, “I’ll never forget the day . . .” or “I’ll never forget the first time . . .” or “I remember when . . .” as a way to segue into the moment. Even something as simple as a date, a day of the week, or the weather outside will satisfy your audience’s need for a moment.
Details are audience-specific. Depending on what you know about the audience to whom you are telling your founder story, you will include different pieces to help them connect their experience with yours. Rely on details universal to your audience. If your customers are new parents, include a specific detail new parents can relate to. If your audience is new talent, include a specific detail about what it feels like to be a part of something you truly care about.
#3 The Purpose Story
How Great Leaders Use Story to Align and Inspire
Stories constitute the single most powerful weapon in a leader’s arsenal.
—HOWARD GARDNER, HARVARD UNIVERSITY
As a business grows, however, one thing always happens: new people arrive. Employees, contractors, temps, and freelancers begin to fill out the ranks of the growing venture. Those new people are critical to growing a company. Beyond a certain size, you simply can’t grow without more people. But new people pose a problem too: they’re not the founder. They don’t have the same skills, aren’t driven by the same motivation, and frequently don’t understand as clearly what the company does or why.
Aligning what can eventually amount to a small army of people and inspiring them to take action every day is a daunting but critical task, one that leaders would be wise to turn to storytelling for. The purpose story offers members of an established organization a reason to show up each day. To commit, to cooperate, and to accomplish something together.
When it comes to telling a successful purpose story, there is one thing that matters more than anything else, more than the components, more than the details you include. Purpose stories live and die on how well, how strongly the story supports a specific message.
In other words, all purpose stories start with this essential question: What point do I want to make? Said another way: What do I want my audience to think, feel, know, or do as a result of hearing this story?
The Purpose Story: A Components Breakdown
Main characters are sometimes customers, as in the value story, or sometimes a stakeholder telling the founder story on behalf of the founder—the identifiable character in a purpose story is almost always the storyteller. The leader who learned the lesson. The person who had the experience. While you can tell a purpose story about someone else, the best ones are about yourself.
The key to using identifiable characters well in a purpose story is to reveal details about yourself. Something as simple as what you were wearing that day or a specific observation you made or thought you had. But as you do, keep your audience in mind. What details will they relate to or connect with? What detail will make them say, “Yep—that’s so me”.
The success of your purpose story is dependent entirely on your ability and willingness to share how you felt about these events. These emotions don’t have to be big. In fact, indifference is often the primary emotional state. What does need to be big—the bigger the better, really—is your willingness to be vulnerable, to share things about yourself that aren’t typically shared in business.
Researcher, author, and famed vulnerability expert Brené Brown says, “Vulnerability is the absolute heartbeat of innovation and creativity. There can be zero innovation without vulnerability.” The purpose story is the perfect place to open up emotionally and get vulnerable. And you don’t have to feel tied to telling a story from within the workplace. One of the most exciting freedoms of the purpose story is the opportunity to seek stories outside the walls of your company and the responsibilities of your role. Have a transformational moment while at sleepaway camp? Fair game. Learn an important lesson from the fallout of a friendship? A viable option. Not only does this give you endless purpose story material, choosing stories beyond the office gives your team the chance to connect with you as a human, not just as a corporate figure, which, unless you actually are a robot, is a very good thing.
Like the previous two story types, your purpose story will be more compelling if it includes a specific moment in time. This can be accomplished by including something as specific as a place or a time the audience can picture, like sitting in the bleachers watching a water polo game.
The success of a purpose story hinges on the leader’s ability to make a story that is technically about him or her feel like a story that’s about the audience. With that in mind, whenever possible, build in audience universal truths. Details, situations, emotions you know the majority of your audience is familiar with.
#4 The Customer Story
Sweet-Smelling Armpits and the Story You Can’t Tell
Branding is what people say about you when you’re not in the room.
You already know the customer story well. You’ve seen its echoes in things like testimonials, reviews, influencer endorsements, referrals, and recommendations. The long history of customers praising (or panning) products is a pastime that just keeps on giving.
Customer experiences have a natural edge over traditional marketing because they come preloaded with what the Acme story lacks: credibility. When you tell someone your product is great, that’s called marketing. When another customer tells them, it’s called a referral, and referrals carry a whole different level of clout. Studies consistently show that reviews and referrals have an enormous influence on customer behavior. The power of social media and review sites like Yelp and Angie’s List make leaving—and reading—reviews easier than ever.
But while consumers are seeking out and reading reviews, research also shows that consumers are often skeptical and on the lookout for fake testimonials. This is where customer stories can help.
The Customer Story: A Components Breakdown
When it comes to the identifiable character in a customer story, it’s much less about the who and more about the how. How do you enable the customer to be a character your audience can relate to and trust? The answer varies depending on the means by which you are sharing your story.
There is nothing more authentic than what naturally flows from a customer whose life has been changed by what you offer. But more valuable than the emotions they felt after experiencing your product or service are the emotions they felt before. Customer stories live and die based on the emotions that are shared in the normal of the story.
When seeking and telling customer stories, remember this: the joy or relief they felt (authentic emotion) after finding you only matters when placed in contrast to how they felt before finding you.
Like the previous story types, including a specific moment strengthens the effectiveness of a customer story. And while your control over these stories has its limitations, you can encourage the inclusion of a moment by asking questions like “Where were you the first time you tried our product?” or “Do you remember where you were when you first heard about our service?” These questions are moment-driven.
The specific details are what give the customer story its irresistible ring of truth. The offhanded comments or specks of reality so small they risk being written off completely. Of course, you would never do that; you now know better.
This is perhaps the most rewarding, fun component of customer stories: hearing the unique details of your customers’ experiences that you otherwise wouldn’t know.