Business Storytelling: The Tricks of the Trade

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Millions of pieces of content are created and shared every day. People are drowning in information. This makes it easy for branding or marketing campaigns to blend in and get lost within the noise. Cheril Clarke is an expert at storytelling. She is both a novelist and a business communications specialist that founded the company She says, “Before we did anything the way people communicated and relayed stuff to each other was through telling stories. … We still remember a good story before we remember any statistic.” A good story can make a company stand out. It can make it memorable.

Branding, marketing, and design all involve storytelling. The fact that stories sell is evidenced by the success of Apple, Humans of New York, and Kickstarter. The most successful companies in the world have profound stories behind them that instill a sense of bigger purpose and meaning into what they do. Having purpose and values as a business sells, but to do that, they need to be communicated with a story that captures people’s attention. Stories connect people with other people, businesses, brands, and products. Businesses cannot succeed without this connection. It is a strategic move for companies to do the best they can to humanize themselves through their messaging.

Communication experts understand the importance of delivering a compelling story, drawing inspiration from disciplines like professional acting. Actors spend their lives seeing the way effective storytelling can change an audience. When you bring this concept to your professional communication and start taking advantage of the impact of storytelling in business, then you can get your audience to take action like never before.

Start with a message

Every storytelling exercise should begin by asking: Who is my audience and what is the message I want to share with them? Each decision about your story should flow from those questions. For instance, if your team is behaving as if failure is not an option, you might decide to impart the message that failure is actually the grandfather of success. Or if you are trying to convince senior leaders to take a risk by supporting your project, you could convey that most companies are built on taking smart chances. First settle on your ultimate message; then you can figure out the best way to illustrate it.

Think Bigger

The storytelling of the future will have more of a “social change” component. In fact, it’s already happening. Storytelling must be bigger than the company. In part, though not exclusively, this is a generational change. Millennials especially want to do business with companies that care about causes bigger than themselves. People make choices based on social issues. Companies must not only care about customers, but they must also tell transparent stories about their mission and how it affects society, not just customers’ economic situations.

Highlight a struggle

A story without a challenge simply isn’t very interesting. Good storytellers understand that a story needs conflict. Is there a competitor that needs to be bested? A market challenge that must be overcome? A change-resistant industry that needs to be transformed? Don’t be afraid to suggest the road ahead will be difficult. People actually like to be told it’s going to be hard. Smart leaders tell employees, ‘This is going to be tough. But if we all pull together and hang in there, we’ll achieve something amazing in the end.’ 

Know Your Best Storytellers

Great storytelling is becoming decentralized both inside and outside the organization. Story stewardship is becoming every employee’s responsibility, and it’s the C-suite’s job to keep the fire lit.

The best storytellers are often not in the C-suite. We know from studies like the Edelman Trust Barometer that customers trust people like us, and that means employees, not executives or the marketing and PR department. Yes, marketing needs to have a hand in storytelling, but controlling the message and who tells it so closely can destroy value for the company rather than help increase it.

The best storytellers are closest to the front lines, whether in service, product, or sales. Unleashing these trained storytellers will increase the credibility and scale of your storytelling efforts, which is likely to result in increased lifetime customer values. That’s a powerful return on investment.

Keep it simple

Not every story you tell has to be a surprising, edge-of-your-seat epic. Some of the most successful and memorable stories are relatively simple and straightforward. Don’t let needless details to detract from your core message. Work from the principle that “less is more.” One of the biggest mistakes you can make is putting in too much detail of the wrong kind. Don’t tell your audience what day of the week it was, for instance, or what shoes you were wearing if it doesn’t advance the story in an artful way. But transporting your audience with a few interesting, well-placed details – how you felt, the expression on a face, the humble beginnings of a now-great company – can help immerse your listeners and drive home your message.

When it comes to storytelling in business, the most important thing you can do is actually commit to it and give it a try. We’re storytelling creatures. Your audience has human needs that have nothing to do with your product or service, and those needs go beyond rational, economic value. It’s your job to find what they are and tell stories that speak emotionally to those needs. Did your product help them reach personal goals? How? Go there! It’s never about your product, ever. A great ending isn’t perfect. It just has to stay simple and honest.

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