10 Ways to Story Your Business (or Product, Brand, etc.)

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Here’s a synthesis of lots of terrific thought from the past several months on telling your business’s story:

  1. Humanize your ownership story. In Turning Business Owners Into Stars of Their Own Stories in the New York Times, Jessica Bruder talks about Abe’s Market, an e-commerce hub that the owners believe “can offer customers something that eBay and Amazon cannot … stories about decent, hardworking people, like Abe,” the grandfather of one of the owners. Bruder notes that the Abe’s Web site “offers plenty of getting-to-know-you yarns, starting with the tale of Abe [pictured].” Bruder cites The Daily Grommet (slogan: “Fresh Finds, True Stories”) as another businesses that tells human stories and Etsy as a hub that encourages storytelling among its individual merchants. [Here’s another good one, by Gail Kent of The Buzz Factoree, which not only tells the story of the business, but also celebrates the idea of story.] In fact, “brands or companies without an interesting, compelling story are doomed to die,” writes Alan Siege in There’s value in storytelling.
  2. Know your customers’ backstories, writes Trey Pennington in Life is a Backstory. To paraphrase Trey: Value the backstory by making a commitment to listen, explore, and discover your customers’ backstories — ask where were they before the discovered you, understand what fears, hopes, dreams, and goals are, discover what fuels their imaginations and actions. For, “storytelling reveals what your customers really think,” Siege writes. “Gathering customer stories tells you what is truly happening. No matter what organizational myth you might have, the real truth comes from your customers,” he says.
  3. And once you know your customers’ story, make it your story, advises Ann Handley in What Does Storytelling Have to Do with Business?. “Find the stories of how your product lives in the world. And look to your customers for inspiration,” Handley writes. She quotes Cam Balzer, vice-president of marketing for Threadless* a community-driven T-shirt and apparel company: “Have their story be your story.” Example? Handley cites Benchmark Brands, which “incorporates customer stories of how its products help people into its marketing.” She quotes Trish Tobin, chief marketing officer: “If a shoe is meant to help someone with heel pain, we don’t just state that fact, but we tell the story of someone for whom it made a difference.” *Threadless is in itself an example of a storied business, which Maria Popova lauded in her blog Brain Pickings: “[Threadless] uses t-shirts as a vehicle to tell a wonderful and inspired story about art, design, creativity and community.”
  4. Make the audience member the protagonist of your story. Taking this concept of making your customer’s story, “So closely pace the experience of the reader that they actually step into the story,” writes Jonathan Fields in Business, Branding and the Art of Storytelling, “they experience a sense of transference that goes beyond rapport.
    They become the protagonist. And, in pacing their current experience, you are telling their story, sharing their tale of woe, their pains, frustrations, emotions and deep need for resolution. You bring them to a place where they’re hanging on every word to find out just how the story resolves itself.
    Well-known blogger Chris Brogan offers an apt example of stepping into the story. Of this Levi’s video, Brogan says:
    This piece by Levi’s really moved me. It worked perfectly as a story. And that story got me interested in buying more Levi’s products, because I saw myself as part of the story. I loved what they were talking about in the story, and I was moved.
  5. Help people connect more deeply with your story. Suzanne Gibbs Howard offers four tips for doing so in Good Stories Make Good Brands:
    • Share what you care about
    • Empower people to make it their own
    • Localize
    • Be discriminating
    See her elaboration on these tips — and perhaps even better — seven examples of businesses that do it well in her post
  6. Story your business in a variety of situations. In Storytelling — A Powerful Tool When Branding Your Organization In Social Media, Marlene Friis lists these business uses of storytelling: breaking news, education, creating leadership, product launch, creating brand awareness, crisis management, being persistently present, creating community relations, and practice of CSR.
  7. Don’t limit yourself to just one way of telling your brand’s story. Just as you should not limit yourself to any one business scenario in which to tell stories, consider various archetypal motifs or plots you might use. Although writing about presentations, the archetypes Mary Jaksch discusses in How to Prepare Public Presentations that Knock the Socks Off apply equally to business narrative:

    Climbing a mountain: how someone overcomes all difficulties to reach the summit.

    Finding the missing piece of a puzzle: how a search is finally rewarded with a new insight into how pieces fit together.

    Voyage into the unknown: how an adventurer set out into the unknown and finds a place hitherto unknown.

    The treasure hunt: how someone follows hidden clues and finally uncovers a treasure.

    The reluctant hero: how an ordinary person overcomes all odds and ends up a hero.

    Finding the source: how someone walked back in order to find the source or origin.

    The blockbuster story: you can use a story thread from popular culture. An example would be Star Wars.

  8. Know how to tell a good story. In the same post referred to above, in which Chris Brogan praised the Levi’s video, Brogan offers these tips for telling a story (see his elaboration on each in his post, Storytelling for Business):
    • Start with a character and a point of view.
    • Have a point to the story.
    • Make the story useful.
    • End with a “next action.”
  9. ImproviseBonifer.jpg
  10. Consider improvisation and co-creation. “Good managers don’t try to control their brand’s narrative but, rather, to foster an environment in which it can be liberated, expanded and unleashed across networks,” writes Mike Bonifer. “The emphasis is not on following a script, but on improvisation,” he notes in Don’t Script, Improvise!, which is also a 14-page PDF publication. While I believe that scripted stories are often the best approach, I agree with Bonifer that businesses need to be open to improvisation in light of a constantly changing marketplace. Sometimes customer needs and opinions drive the story. Both consumers and employees are increasingly co-creating the story right along with the honchos. David Milliken of Blueline Simulations offers a thoughtful piece on this subject in Organizational Practitioners are Recognizing the Power of Story, in which he writes, “We don’t market ourselves actively as a ‘story company.’ But the ‘co-creation of narrative’ lives in everything we do.” He ends the post with this powerful question: “What is the new story of success and opportunity that you and your people might co-create together?”
  11. pickle-story.jpg
  12. Remember that if you don’t tell your story, your story will probably get told for you — in a way that may damage your business. Roger Dooley writes about a memorable pickle story in which a merchant would not replace a jar of pickles in which one pickle had a bite out of it. The customer vowed to tell of the merchant’s poor customer service far and wide and ensure that no one he ever encountered would patronize the merchant. (Dooley’s post also reinforces how memorable stories are, as Dooley heard this story many years ago as part of a keynote speech, and the tale is all he remembers of the speech.)


Hi Katherine: I was pleased to find your blog and your mention of my post on Abe’s Market in my blog. I will follow your blog and tell my readers about yours, as well!

Best, Gail Kent

My pleasure. Thanks so much for stopping by, for your kind words, and for spreading the word about my blog.

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