Storytelling in business is a fundamental yet often neglected aspect of content marketing. But think about it: if people don’t know your “why”, how can they care about your “what” or “how”?
You may well have the best customer service or widest range of products, but this is not your story. Your story is what defines your business, your values and your community.
Time and time again, companies chuck their products and services at consumers with little-to-no context as to who they are or why they do what they do. Instead rushing ahead to what they offer and the various ways it’ll benefit their prospects.
Whether I’ve clicked through to your website, seen one of your ads or stumbled across your social media, if I can’t discover your story in a few clicks, I won’t bother “browsing the huge range of spectacular products”, “jumping on a quick call” or “downloading this amazingly wonderful, phenomenally life-changing ebook”.
What is storytelling in business?
"Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.”Robert McKee, author and lecturer
Stories connect us, and we all have one to tell. The most compelling stories transport you to new worlds, new perspectives and fresh points of view. They form strong bonds, create communities and evoke emotion. Storytelling in business is no different.
It’s up to you, as business owners, content creators, strategists and marketers, to tell your story in a way that stimulates your audience, giving them purpose and something to believe in.
If you can tell a story that emotionally connects with anyone who touches your brand, giving them a reason to communicate, relate and align themselves to your company and people, you are much more likely to achieve great things.
Who is the storyteller?
"The most powerful person in the world is the storyteller. The storyteller sets the vision, values and agenda of an entire generation that is to come."Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs was a visionary in branding and storytelling. He transformed Apple from a tech company into something much bigger and more powerful. How did he do this? By focusing on the “why”, not the “what”.
Just look at this advert from 1984. Not until the last 10 seconds is there any mention of what the clip is actually advertising, or even who it is advertising.
Directed by Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator director Ridley Scott and debuting during the Super Bowl, this advert is widely regarded as one of the best-ever pieces of marketing.
Think back to what I said earlier and apply it to every element of Apple’s marketing. Does it evoke emotion? Does it get people talking? Is it stimulating and engaging? Abso-bloody-lutely.
Still to this day, Apple is thriving from Jobs’ storytelling efforts. The iPhone may not be the most capable or impressive device technically - some argue it has been overtaken by the likes of Samsung and Huawei - and yet it still remains the most popular phone in the world.
That is because people buy into Apple’s story, just as much, if not more so, than its products.
Why your business’s story matters
“The initial bond is the shared experience.”Lucy Macdonald - journalist and author.
A 2012 study proved that certain types of words can elicit sensory responses, therefore demonstrating that our minds “do not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life”.
If reading the word “perfume” can light up the same sensory system in the brain associated with actually smelling perfume, then your business’s story is certainly capable of prompting a customer to take action on your website.
Only you know the “why” behind your business. Only you can tell your story. Yes, you can get others to dress it up, decorate it and make sure it elicits the response you hope to achieve, but the core of it has to come from you.
Your business’s story matters to you and is therefore likely to matter to others, too. Yet only 10% of businesses embrace storytelling. This means that, of your 100 competitors across the country, you only need to compete with ten of them when it comes to the most important and influential element capable of turning prospects into paying clients and customers.
Don’t sell your story, share it!
The average adult spends almost seven hours online every day. Try to imagine seven hours (420 minutes or two back-to-back showings of The Irishman, by the way) of networking. Think of how many terrible sales pitches that would entail, then times it by one-hundred. That’s how many adverts and sales messages you will receive online each day.
Storytelling is a way of standing out from the crowd, demonstrating your values and mission while making a real, human connection. Not a click. Not an impression. But a connection.
The art of storytelling in business
People are always looking for something to believe in and somewhere to belong. Your brand can provide that, but only through a powerful story.
To create your business’s story, we must start with what not to include. A story is not:
- Your history
- What you’re doing
- Your blog
- Facts and figures
- What you’re selling/providing
- Your successes and case studies
- Customer service
- Your competitors
Think about your favourite stories, not just in business, but in life. How many of them involve logic, or are remembered because of numbers and data? None. The stories we carry with us and share are the ones with emotion.
The Golden Circle Rule
“People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.”Simon Sinek
The most unique and successful companies such as Google and Apple each follow a similar pattern: a model that digital marketing expert Simon Sinek defines 'The Golden Circle Rule'.
This model challenges business owners to:
- Start with Why they do what they do, before diving into...
- How they help their audience, before finally discussing…
- What they offer.
Try to answer each of these three steps for your business, and remember to focus on human behaviour and emotion for each one. Don’t start with what you offer or how you help your audience. Begin with why you do what you do, and the rest will follow.
Learn more in Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle Presentation.
What separates a decent business story from a great one?
In business, stories are all about helping prospects make sense of a decision they’re about to make, easing them towards becoming a customer, without appearing salesy.
The requirements of great storytelling remain the same for brands as they do for novels, films and television. They need:
"A reader doesn't really see the characters in a story; he feels them."Cornelia Funke, author of Inkheart.
At the centre of every powerful story are the characters. As soon as I leave the cinema or finish a book, I challenge myself to name the characters. If I can’t, I know that I have not really invested in or connected with the story.
For instance, I know that Matthew McConaughey’s character in Interstellar was called Cooper because that’s one of my favourite films. I remember that Keyser Soze was the antagonist in The Usual Suspects because he was one of the best villains in film. And still to this day, I recall the moment Piggy was struck by that boulder in The Lord Of The Flies because it remains one of the most enjoyable reads of my childhood. Spoiler alert by the way…
If your audience does not understand and recognise the people in a story on any level, the story will not resonate with them. So, make sure you put your customers at the heart of your story.
Think about your buyer personas: who are they? What do they hope to achieve? What are their challenges? Is your story told from their point of view (second-person narrative), a narrator’s point of view (third-person) or your own (first person narrative) perspective?
A first-person narrative can help form a connection between you and your customers, while a second-person narration makes the experience more personal for readers. Just be sure to keep to one tone.
“You need contrast and conflict in order to tell a story."David Lynch, Director of Mulholland Drive & Blue Velvet
At the foundation of every successful business lies a problem to be solved, a question to be answered, and a solution.
If what you’re writing lacks conflict, stop what you’re doing. You’re not writing a story; you’re writing a sales pitch. A conflict, providing it is genuine, honest and not overdramatic, is what steers the overall story and encourages readers to engage.
It’s up to you to demonstrate your values by telling a story that involves relatable characters and a conflict that fits their needs and problems.
“Every great story deserves a great ending.”Christopher Nolan, director of Inception, Interstellar and Dunkirk.
The resolution of your story reiterates your purpose. Really think about what drives you.
Wrap things up, but make sure things don’t end there. Inspire action. The customer’s journey is only just beginning. So what do you want them to do now?
Other examples of great storytelling in business
Apple spends $1.8 billion on advertising, but you don’t need a huge budget to tell a great story. There are many other amazing storytellers in business that have focused on their people, their mission and their values, without splashing the cash. After all, everyone has to start somewhere.
Gandys, for example, is centred on a magnificently heartwarming, uplifting, yet also equally tragic, story. The company sells lifestyle clothing, but it is remembered and shared not because of their products, but because of the journey of its founders, brothers Paul and Rob.
Their story’s characters are the founders of the business. The conflict? Losing their parents in the Boxing Day 2004 Tsunami. The resolution? An inspiring mission of "giving back to other underprivileged children around the world."
AirBnB is another recent of fantastic storytelling in business, focusing on the value of community, collaboration and hospitality to create something much bigger and more inclusive than the service it offers. Need more? What about TOMs or Hinge or Iceland’s highly-talked-about Palm Oil advert?
Tell your story
Stop producing content for the sake of filling a gap. Content is power. Content is emotion. Content is caring. It needs to be compelling, authentic, fascinating, inspiring, clear, concise, specific, emotional, truthful.
So, what’s your story?