How important is storytelling, anyway?

If you want to communicate an idea to people then it’s best to tell a story.

We pass down tradition and history through stories. We’re told stories from the moment we enter the world. Our parents tell us fairy tales that were written long ago. Children’s films and TV shows help explain complex ideas through simple storytelling.

But what has storytelling got to do with how we market our businesses?

According to Will Storr in The Science of Storytelling (brilliant book that I thoroughly recommend), we tell stories to help us make sense of the world. Our brain is created to make stories even when none exist.

We’re getting into a bit of behavioural science here but Daniel Kahneman points out that when we see two things that have no connection, our brains will create a story to connect them. In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he uses the example of BANANAS and VOMIT. Two words that have no logical link until your brain just made up a short, if disgusting, story.

Therefore stories are important to help us connect and make sense of our world. This is why telling your story is a powerful tool when building that all-important trust with your audience.

Brand Stories

So how do we tell our stories when it’s about business? When you have a personal brand, it’s a bit more obvious. You tell your story because you are the face of the business. But what about when you run a brand that is not personal? How do you bring the story in then?

Well, there is a strong argument that as a founder, your story will always be interesting to your customers. People buy from people rather than faceless, nameless organisations. It’s why influencers can have so much… well, influence. They are giving the brand a face, a personality and a story. They are making it more human.

Even big brands love telling the stories of their founders. Some of these even teeter on the edge of folklore. Think about Apple and you’ll know that Steve Jobs was a mercurial and innovative co-founder.

McDonald’s was built by Ray Kroc, whose story is so interesting it also warrants a film (and it is well worth a watch). You may not want to put yourself front and centre of your brand but your story is important. And telling it can be the thing that makes a huge difference.

Telling your story

When you tell your story, you make yourself more relatable to the people who want to buy from you. I think of it in terms of fans and bands. You have a band, they create records that you listen to and buy. You go and see them perform on stage. You probably follow their accounts on social media and you’ll certainly read interviews with them.

This is what fans do in the hope that someday they will get the chance to meet the people who create the music they love. Most fans may not ever meet the band but they will buy the latest record when it’s released regardless of what any reviews say.

The same is true about you.

When your potential customers get to know you, they can see something of themselves in you through the stories you share. You don’t have to share your deepest, darkest secrets but letting them know your inspiration behind starting your business and developing your product, is hugely important to creating that deeper connection.

We all have stories. The ones we choose to share can help our customers make buying decisions.

Story structure

Hopefully, I’ve convinced you that you need to start telling stories as part of your content. Stories don’t need to stop at our personal ones — it’s just that this is a good place to start. I’ll cover other kinds of stories later on.

Building a story into your content means understanding how to structure it so that it is interesting enough for someone to want to read.

Stories need things like titles, and a beginning, middle and end. Not half a story that drifts off in the middle because you’re not sure how it finishes. Plan it first and edit it after.

Stories also need to take the reader on a journey. They need to finish with something they didn’t have at the start. Some new information, an understanding of transformation, or to be inspired. You create this movement through the plot — much like you would if you’re writing fiction.

Christopher Booker identifies seven basic stories. Once you know these, you’ll start to recognise them in everything you read. They are:

  • Overcoming the Monster
  • Rags to Riches
  • The Quest
  • Voyage and Return
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Rebirth.

One of the most inspiring founder stories I’ve heard is that of Sonja Leason. It follows the rags to riches structure. I won’t tell it here as I can’t do it as much justice as Sonja telling. But go check out her content and what she does. Her life is immensely inspiring but what is important here is why she includes her story into her content.

“I often talk about being unique as when no one can copy you, you get to be yourself and charge a premium,” explains Sonja. “People buy from people, so talking about your story helps people to understand why you do what you do. The right people will pick you if they align to your story, and it makes everything flow a lot easier!”

Sonja also teaches her clients to use storytelling in this way to help scale their business.

“It’s changed my business so much! I work with a lot of businesses who give back, a lot of coaches too. I think they see that I talk about my personal development and healing journey a lot, so they “get” my message.”

Do you see how there is a connection between Sonja’s and her clients? They understand where she is coming from.

We have many different stories to tell

You don’t need to have a rags to riches story to attract clients. Besides, it would be rare that you only had one story to tell. It is not often I share stories about my working-class background anymore. Although my children find it horrifying I grew up in the North without central heating at home.

Instead, I tell stories about my values or the silly things people have misunderstood from my Yorkshire accent. It is perhaps telling that I now talk more about veganism and sustainability, I find out some of the things my clients are doing in their lives in these areas.

You find that piece of common ground and you attract the right people.

Stories that go beyond you

I said earlier that starting with “you” as the story is the easiest place to begin. Yet if you only told your story, it would get pretty boring to hear over and over again.

It helps when you’re writing a blog, newsletter or social media copy to ask yourself — what’s the story here? What is it about this information that will make my audience want to read it?

Let’s say you’re writing a blog about how to be more productive. The story might be a quest to find out the best tools that help productivity. This gives your blog more structure. And you can add in some colour around how much time is wasted trying out all these different techniques.

Or you might be writing a social media post. The story needs to be short and snappy. It would be remiss of me not to mention Hemmingway right now with his famous six-word story.

Baby shoes. For sale. Never worn.

If you want to see accidental storytelling, go and look in the adverts at the back of your local newspaper. There are some weird and wonderful things that create intrigue because people are weird and wonderful.

Gumtree is great for this as well. If you have some time to wade through all the rubbish. Or freecycle. Look for what piques your interest and then analyse what it is about that advert that made you stop and read.

There are so many different ways that you can find inspiration for stories and approach storytelling. Get this right and you’ll start to see more traction from what you put out.

Bring storytelling into your content

Whatever it is that you’re planning to post next week, go back over it and ask: what is the story here that my audience wants to read? Then see if you need to edit what you’ve written to create that story.

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Content writer by day, fiction writer by night.

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