As human beings, we are hard-wired to tell stories. From the campfire to the water-cooler, it’s these stories that are remembered and passed on to others. Whether we’re standing around a BBQ, sharing after-work drinks on Friday night or grabbing a latte at mothers’ group, it’s our shared stories and experiences that bring us together.
So why don’t we place the same emphasis on storytelling in the world of business? The business world that is one that’s full of data, statistics and numbers. We talk about our yearly revenue. We boast about how many products we offer. We emblazon the number of years that we’ve been in business on our marketing materials.
But the reality is: do most customers care about these numbers? Not likely. Do those numbers convey whether or not you can solve their needs? In short, no. So why do we cling on to these sort of statistics?
Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with including key statistics and facts in your marketing. Numbers add credibility to your stories. But don’t neglect the fact that you need powerful stories in the first place for your prospects and customers to truly engage with you.
We’ve been conditioned to think in short, sharp facts. Powerpoint presentations force us to think in bullet points and pie charts. The popularity of infographics (the graphical representation of information of data that you see everywhere these days) means we’re trying to encapsulate concepts in cute pictures. But these pictures rarely capture the kind of emotional experience that a story does.
That’s why storytelling is so important in business. In the book The Story Factor, Anette Simmons writes: “When you tell a story you invoke a power that’s greater than the sum of the facts you report. It has emotional content and delivers a contextual framework and a wisdom that reaches past logical rational analysis.”
In other words, stories access your emotions and this helps you put a feeling or meaning to facts and figures. The numbers themselves don’t really mean much without a story underpinning them.
If you are serious about marketing your business, you need to tap into the hidden power of stories. Here are the four top stories you need to grow your business.
1. The success story
Before you tell people how many years you’ve been in business, how many university degrees you have under your belt and how you’re strategically aligned with a worldwide network of widget sellers, tell your customers a story that’s going to be much more relevant to them; a story about someone just like them, another customer. Tell people a story about how a customer has been successful as a result of working with you or buying your product.
This may take the form of a written case study or a testimonial from the customers themselves. Have several of these stories in your arsenal so that you can showcase them at a moment’s notice.
In my own business, the Sydney Writers’ Centre, these stories play a huge part in converting leads to customers. But I’m always mindful that one story does not fit all. It’s not enough for me to have just one customer’s success story up my sleeve. After all, my business offers more than 30 different writing courses. And a “success” in one course may mean nothing to someone who wants to learn about writing in an unrelated genre.
So it’s important to have a variety of success stories that are going to resonate with different types of customers. The good news is that these stories are probably sitting right under your nose. Your job is to document them (yes, actually write them down) so that they don’t stay in the depths of your brain, only to be accessed when you remember. When they’re trapped in there, you also risk forgetting them.
Encapsulating them in written form means that other team members, or even other customers, can access and tell the story on your behalf. A good story will be re-told time and time again.
2. Your passion story
This brings us to the story behind your business. This is the story that tells people why you do what you do. It gives people an insight into why you get out of bed in the morning.
Why is this story important? Because most customers want to do business with people who are enthusiastic and passionate about their work. When you go to a restaurant and the host talks about how she used to spend afternoons with her grandmother making the special Napoletana sauce that she now uses in the pasta, this story gives the dish more meaning. She might then talk about how her grandmother inspired her to cook every dish with love and not just to follow the clinical instructions of a recipe. Even if it’s a waiter that tells this story about the founder of the restaurant, this pulls at an emotional cord far more than if the maitre’d simply says: “So can I tell you the specials?”
Don’t be afraid to talk about what excites you about your business. Make sure you incorporate it into the “About” section on your website. This goes much further than a list of your educational qualifications. People already expect you to be qualified. Revealing your passion allows some prospects to connect with you on a deeper level, even if you’ve never met. Enthusiasm and passion is infectious. Feel free to spread it around!
3. The triumph story
We all love a story about triumph. Overcoming the odds. Winning in the face of adversity. Hollywood movies are full of them. Why? Because people love them.
The protagonist recovers from a near-fatal accident and goes on to win Olympic gold. The hero saves the world from certain destruction. The obese mother of four becomes a size eight and wins The Biggest Loser.
Now, your story may not be quite as dramatic. But it should include three important things: a problem or challenge, a journey that overcomes this, and a winning resolution.
All three elements are vital. The “winning” part loses impact if people don’t know what the odds that had to be overcome in order to get there.
When you’re trying to articulate a customer’s triumph story that might fit the bill, a great place to start is to think about what your customer’s biggest challenge is. Is it to lose weight, build wealth, become more productive, or help their kids do better at school? What’s the one thing that your customers wish they could be, have or do? The way you help them through your products/services is the journey that leads them to triumph.
The great thing is that this can also be your story. Sometimes, the very thing that pushes someone to start a business is their own experience in overcoming the odds. Like the woman who creates designer bling-adorned walking frames (yes, she’s real, I’ve met her!) because her mobility-challenged mother hated the ugly ones on the market. Or the guy who took on established companies and started an organic baby food business because he wanted to feed his kids nutritious meals but couldn’t find any acceptable options on the market. Or the accountant who went back to study in order to changed careers to become a writer, then opened up a writers’ centre to help other people just like her. (That’s me!)
The best part of about telling your story is that your customer can see that you have been in their shoes. You’ve faced similar challenges and overcome them. Too often, business owners don’t share this valuable story but it could be this very story that gets your prospect over the line.
4. Illustrating the benefits instead of listing the features
It can be tempting to try to convince your prospects about your products/service by listing its features. This is especially prevalent in the technology industry where marketing materials is peppered with jargon such as Gigs; 128-Kbps AAC encoding; H.264 1.5-Mbps video at 640-by-480 resolution combined with 128-Kbps audio.
That kind of description means nothing to the average person. Take a leaf out of Apple’s book and tell a story – albeit a very short one. “10,000 songs in your pocket” was the line it used to sell the earlier versions of the iPod when people were still getting used to the concept of a MP3 player that could carry around their entire music collection. It captured the benefits of the iPod and made it personal. That simple sentence helped the customer understand exactly what it would mean for them.
The great thing about stories is that they illustrate your promises. They have more power than the promises themselves, no matter how sincere you are in making them.
When you tell stories, you are adopting a gentler approach to marketing. Stories are totally different to the intrusive nature of television commercials, the in-your-face push of a billboard or the desperate sounding plea of a business asking customers to “like” them on Facebook.
So never underestimate the power of stories. Told well, they are compelling and magnetic. Identify the four stories above in your own business and have them ready. Next time you want to get a customer over the line, stop the hard sell. Don’t try to convince. Just be authentic and say: “Let me tell you a story …”
–Valerie Khoo is managing director of the Sydney Writers’ Centre.