We tell stories every day. Whether it’s a quick ditty to a friend or a long anecdote to your grandchildren, storytelling is ingrained in us. In our professional lives, we also tell stories. We tell stories to persuade someone to support a project, inspire a team, or explain a complex problem.
Storytelling is an essential skill in the professional world, but you may not be using it to its full advantage. Successful business storytelling can set you apart from your competitors and bring in loyal customers, which is why it’s essential to know how to craft a great story. We’ve created this quick guide to break down the business story writing process so you can fine-tune your storytelling skills and reap the benefits.
What is storytelling in business?
Business storytelling takes abstract concepts and complex messages and solidifies them into simple and attainable terms. It can help your customers take a non-tangible concept and relate it to concrete ideas and emotions. Storytelling in business is also the heart of inbound marketing. It’s not facts and figures that stick in our minds — it’s the stories and emotions they invoke that leave us wanting more (or have us running out to buy the new iPhone).
How many Super Bowl commercials can you remember that left you in tears? Or, ask someone and chances are they can tell you the reason why they donated to a cause or bought something. It may surprise you how often those reasons link back to a story the company told. So without further ado, let’s break down business storytelling so you can get writing.
Steps to creating a story
1. Know your audience
We’ll stress this until we’re blue in the face: Know your audience. This important piece of work will determine your message, your medium, your distribution … it may already determine your product or service. The extra time you take to dive into your audience’s demographics will pay off greatly in the long run. Without specific information on their wants and needs, you could end up with a real disaster. For example, if you are set on sending out flyers or a brochure when your audience is largely a Gen-Z crowd, you’re going to fail. Younger audiences expect that useful information is most likely going to come in digital form.
As you start research on your target market, it can help to define your buyer personas. A buyer persona can also help provide direction for the first few steps as you build out the foundation of your story. Make sure to move past age, gender and other obvious sections of their demographics. Find out what their triggers and stressors are. Even better, find out what pushed them into the content-consumption phase of their customer experience.
2. Determine your message
This, of course, is coming as number two because it doesn’t matter how long or short or where you are publishing it — your story needs to have a core message. It will be the foundation of your story moving forward. Eke out whether your story is to raise funds, advocate for an issue, explain a service or something else.
To help determine the point of your story, try summarizing your story in one simple sentence. Or give it the old elevator pitch (30 seconds or less!). If you’re unable to, you don’t have a core message, so go back to the drawing board.
3. Include a story arc with conflict and resolution
The best storytellers know that all good stories have an arc that involves a wonderful conflict apex with a tapering resolution. The conflict will be the lesson of how your character overcame a challenge. Your conflict is what will connect you to your audience through relatable experiences. Without that conflict, your story is going to be a bit boring or fall flat with your audience.
And don’t forget that every good story has a closing. Use your resolution to wrap up the story, provide context around the conflict and leave your audience with a call to action.
4. Select your medium and layout
Stories come in all shapes and forms. Some are watched, some are listened to, and others are read. There are several different ways you can distribute your story: in a video, in copy on your website, through in-person or virtual presentations, via social media, etc.
Picking the right medium for your story will probably depend on your resources and budget. Just remember that no matter which medium you choose, you want to make your message relatable to your audience.
5. Produce it
Once you’ve chosen your medium, it’s time to produce your story. The production phase will probably include a larger team than you imagine. You’ll want writers to help with a script and other creatives to aid in backdrops for a visual story or layouts for a written story. Involve your social media team to make sure what you produce will translate well on social platforms.
6. Distribute it
You’ll almost always want to share your story on social media and via email. If you’ve chosen a written story, don’t forget to publish it beyond your blog; get it guest-posted or shared on other publications. Digital stories are great on your own social media platforms, but also be sure to include them on Vimeo and YouTube. The more places you share your story, the more engagement you’ll get.
Do’s and don’ts of business storytelling
- Make the customer the hero of the story.The focus of your story should be on your audience or customer. Hone in on events you’ve witnessed or lessons you’ve learned, but try to keep yourself out of it. Your story shouldn’t be about how great you are; it will alienate your audience and could pull them away from you.
- Keep it simple: stick to one storyline and one message.Don’t let unnecessary details detract from your message. Some of the most memorable stories are straightforward and rely on the “less is more” principle. Certain details are important to include, such as emotions, the expression on a face, etc. These kinds of details help immerse your audience without distracting from your core message.
- Include a call to action.Don’t forget to include your call to action! Outline specifically what you want your audience to do after reading/watching/listening. It can be as simple as a colorful share button at the bottom of a screen or a quick callout at the end of a video.
- Don’t make it a sales pitch or an advertisement.Your audience is already overwhelmed with ads day in and day out. The purpose of storytelling is to further a brand or foster community outreach. Don’t use a really good story to simply sell a specific product or service you provide. Instead, use it to grow brand awareness or reach out to donors and investors.
- Include a hook and make it engaging.If you ever took a writing course in school, you’ll remember how important that first paragraph is. How often your teachers stressed having a good hook to draw the reader in. It’s no different with your content. You need a good hook that will draw your audience in, and then you need to continue that momentum throughout to keep them engaged.
Some great brand storytelling examples
A recent example of effective business storytelling has been Best Buy’s commercials in recent years. The company’s most recent campaign, “Dear Best Buy,” is an homage to the letters children write to Santa Claus, only these letters are specific to the strange times we’re currently living in. The ad starts out with a customer asking for holiday gift-giving advice and ends with a Best Buy employee providing recommendations.
Another great brand story comes from TOMS. The shoe company shares stories of not only its customers but also the people it serves through each purchase. By doing so, TOMS created a movement that increased sales and built a community.
We’d be remiss if we didn’t include Apple in our brand storytelling examples. Apple uses real-life stories to describe exactly how its products benefit users, and oftentimes a script isn’t even needed. The company’s latest commercials for AirPods show customers using the extensive features of the earphones throughout everyday experiences like catching the metro or walking home. Apple leaves the technical jargon at home, letting the music do the talking.
As you pull out that computer or lay out your pen and paper to write your story, remember that in the end, storytelling is always about your audience. What do they need and what do you have that can help them? If you’re stuck, go out and talk to people. The best storytellers know that they don’t have the only stories to tell. Chat with a colleague, a friend or a peer. Inspiration could strike from anywhere, and just remember that storytelling is a trial-and-error process. Your first run at it may not be astounding, but as they say, practice makes perfect!
We’ve got some tips on how to get your whole organization on board for consistent storytelling: Check out our ebook The rise of the design democracy: How to maintain a consistent brand story.