How do you feel when somebody approaches you and says: “Let me tell you about my company’s products and services”? Yuk, right? But when somebody says “let me tell you a story,” you’re interested, right?
Stories are universal. No culture has survived without them. They are widely recognized as an essential part of human cognitive development. As toddlers, when we listened to someone telling a tale, we built emotional bonds with others, developing empathy, encountering common cultural touchstones of morality and ethical behavior, and learning the ability to use language to express our thoughts and feelings. As social animals that crave connection with others, stories — whether told orally, written on paper, or conveyed on film — are our most immediate way to enter the imaginative minds of others.
Business and commerce continues to be one of the fundamental ways we interact outside of our family. And while we may not fully realize it, stories are an inescapable part of how we communicate professionally.
However, most businesspeople are terrible at telling stories. They spend so much time talking about products and services that they forget about saying something interesting.
The story customers tell themselves
Critical to an understanding of story is how customers tell themselves the stories that define them (their worldview) and how these relate to the products and services they use. For example, a mother tells herself a story: “I want the best for my family so I only buy organic food even though I know it is more expensive.”
When the story that you tell customers matches with the story that customers tell themselves, your business is in alignment. However, all too often, companies are completely out of alignment with their customers which makes for difficult work. It is really tough (but not impossible) to convince someone to change their worldview and therefore the stories they tell themselves. If you sell organic food but emphasize its low cost, you’re out of alignment because people “know” that organic costs more.
As storytellers, companies need to consider customers’ existing worldview as they work on the ways they communicate to the market.
Consider the worldview that many homeowners share about contractors. It’s not uncommon for people to say they distrust home repair people because they suspect they are taken advantage of. There are unscrupulous contractors using a familiar manipulative sales technique plying their trade in many neighborhoods. It starts with an initial lowball bid, and after the job is well underway, additional expensive charges are added on due to “unforeseen circumstances.” For the honest contractor who understands the worldview of the homeowners he serves, the market is wide open.
What about your market? What is the worldview that your potential customers share? How can you align your stories to fit perfectly into that worldview?
Telling your story
Of course, stories don’t only sell organic foods and home contracting services. A great story will also help drive your business. Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about telling stories people will want to pay attention to rather than propaganda they will ignore.
Instead of "creating copy," think about sitting in a restaurant with friends and explaining a little about your work. How would you convey your story? How would you hold your friends’ interest? Write that down.
Rather than talking about the features and benefits of your products and services, consider how you help people to solve their problems.
Who or what is the "bad guy" in your market? Is there a silly government regulation that holds buyers back? Is there a technology that frustrates people? How can you weave those into a story to show how you solve problems?
What is the status quo? Use that as the bad guy in your story.
As you’re thinking about your story, consider them as a movie or a novel and consider casting your clients as the heroes. Your stories must be true. They must align with your buyers’ worldview. And they must showcase how you are the ideal organization to do business with.
David Meerman Scott is a marketing & sales strategist, keynote speaker, and bestselling author of 9 books including “The New Rules of Marketing & PR” now published in 26 languages.