The buzz is true: A great business story is the most powerful way to your audience.
A great business story with specific, vivid details grabs the attention of your reader-prospect and then, in a way that’s relatable and accessible, takes them on a journey of change that along the way engages, informs, and sways their hearts and minds.
A business story only works, however, if you tell the right story.
The good news? Storytelling is a skill you can learn, practice and improve at. Just as fiction writers need to study and practice their craft to tell a better fiction story, marketers also need to work at telling a better business story.
You can have all the makings of a great business story—the solution, the product, market insight, a few great testimonials—but without a clear understanding of what is needed to write a story that works, your story won’t deliver the results you want, whether that’s to win more clients, sell more product, or convert readers into a true fans.
In this post, I’ll show you the bigger picture when it comes to storytelling and give you two things you need to tell an effective business story. The first is a tool that shows you exactly which story to tell—including how to tell it and with what details—so that it resonates with your reader-prospect. The second is a tried-and-true story framework taken from our fiction toolbox that you can use to write a story that works.
Storytelling Is a Superpower
I came to Story Grid as an aspiring fiction writer with a 60K manuscript that was going nowhere. From the start, I was hooked on Shawn Coyne’s deeply informative and clearly articulated theory of story along with his prescriptive strategies for crafting stories that work. In fact, I took a dive so deep, I re-emerged as a Story Grid Certified Editor.
All that, just to write a better story. Why?
Story is the most potent way to talk to your audience and develop a deep and lasting relationship with them. It’s fundamental to our human experience: It’s not only the lens through which we view our world, it’s the way we make meaning of that world.
Think about this: We all know a good story when we hear one. Have you ever seen a movie and felt that something was just “missing” or “not right” but couldn’t explain what or why? That’s because story is embedded in your very psyche.
We also look to story for models or blueprints (prescriptive or cautionary) for dealing with life’s problems and challenges. Stories, at their heart, are about a change or an evolution that comes from some action or choice, and the most compelling are those that are about a hard-won transformation.
Don’t you want something that powerful working for you?
WHAT’S A STORY WORTH? Journalist Rob Walker and writer Josh Glenn conceived of The Significant Objects Project, as a way to measure the objective value of story. In the first phase of the project, in 2009, they assembled a range of thrift store objects, wrote a story for each, then resold the items on eBay. The result? They sold $128.74 worth of stuff for $3,612.51. Their conclusion: “Stories are such a powerful driver of emotional value that their effect on any given object’s subjective value can actually be measure objectively.”
The Business Story Problem
Here’s basic business storytelling knowledge that holds:
- Business stories are written for a clear business objective. That might be to sell a product or service, to establish your expertise, or help overcome a doubt.
- Business stories address the specific want or need of a particular audience.
- Business stories are part of a larger content marketing plan. Content marketing simply means creating and generously sharing stuff that’s relevant and valuable. Its end-goal is to build long-lasting relationships with true fans. Story is the bridge to those relationships.
We need to level this up and add two things: Empathy and Structure. Let’s look at these in more detail:
- Empathy for your reader helps you understand WHAT to say and HOW to say it—what language, voice, tone, and style you’ll use to connect to your reader in a profound way so that your story will resonate emotionally.
- The hero’s journey/worldview story, one of the most popular story structures across time and cultures, gives you a story structure that reader-prospects instantly can make sense of and, if your details are right, relate back to their own lives.
Step 1: Find Your Story with Empathy
Using EMPATHY to understand your reader-prospect’s wants and needs is the most direct and reliable way to create your best business story—one that grabs their attention, connects in a meaningful way, and moves them closer to the action you hope.
Here’s why: It’s not about you, it’s about them.
Empathy allows you to see the story from your reader-prospect’s point of view. I’m not referring here to first-person, second-person, or third-person points-of-view. Those are important choices that relate to the structure of your story, but the right form and structure won’t help you if you’re not telling the right story with the right details.
You mine that story gold through research. Focus groups, one-on-one interviews with prospects, even talking to sales or support staff gives you access to the information you need. As you proceed through your research process, remember to keep your focus on your reader-prospect. Think about what THEY are doing (or not doing) about their problem, desire or fear. Go deep. What are they thinking? Feeling? What words do they use to describe their situation? (Pro tip: You can use the same words and phrases when writing your story). The key is to gather lots of specific detail that you can use to build a relatable and compelling story.
Those details are vital for crafting a story that resonates, that reflects their problem or challenge through their worldview in a way that’s so real that they’ll connect on an emotional or even subconscious level. They’ll be so invested in your story (it’s their story, after all) that they’ll begin to tell it to themselves.
Now, Tell Your Story Through Character
A helpful approach to telling your story is to imagine the real-life people in it as characters. To tell a great story you need three essential characters: a hero, a mentor, and a villain.
Your story needs a hero…
Your reader-prospect is ALWAYS the main protagonist/hero of your business story, because it’s their journey to X that you are presenting. This is why you do all that research and you do it with empathy so you can tell their story the right way.
Your story needs a mentor (that’s you) …
You’re an important part of the story, too. Imagine your product, service or solution as the “mentor” who is going to help, guide, encourage, support or coach your reader to help them with their problem, challenge, want or need. And because you know your client-protagonist’s “story” or problem inside and out, including who their “enemy” is, you can do this with authority.
Your story needs a bad guy (most of the time) …
The antagonist of your business story is the problem, the want, the paint point that your business or product promise to solve. This antagonist might be a relatively small problem (what to order for lunch) or a seemingly insurmountable one (how to stop climate change). There are times when there may not be a clear enemy in your business story. If you do have one, though, positioning your brand, product or service as the hero’s ally against a common enemy is a great way of building trust.
To better understand your story’s enemy, identify the kind of conflict they emerge from using these fiction-toolbox frames:
- Internal conflict: comes from within your reader-prospect. It might be an objection, a reluctance, or even what they are doing instead not taking action (for example, sitting on the sofa and feeling badly instead of going to the gym and feeling better).
- External conflict comes from the larger social forces that you have to fight or dispel. (for example, a cultural belief that one needs to drink milk to be healthy)
- Interpersonal conflict: People or groups close to your client that are preventing the change in the client from taking action.
This copy from Warby Parker’s website only alludes to the story’s antagonist:
Buying eyewear should leave you happy and good-looking, with money in your pocket. Glasses, sunglasses and contacts—we’ve got you covered.
What’s so powerful about this approach is that it clearly defines the problem/antagonist (how to find eyewear that makes you feel and look great and that isn’t expensive), without being overtly critical. Warby Parker, as the mentor-solution to the problem (those other expensive eyewear stores) is positioned as our hero’s ally. And, by avoiding any overt criticism of the competition, the copy positions Warby Parker as reliable and trustworthy.
Let’s get practical and convert this into a working business story.
Step 2: A Business Story Model that Works
One story structure that works extremely well for telling a business story is the hero’s journey-worldview story. It’s a story that takes your reader-prospect on their own hero’s journey (it’s their story, after all) that requires some form of personal change.
The hero’s journey is millennia-old story structure we all instinctively know and have seen many times before, from The Odyssey to Star Wars. What’s a worldview story? The worldview story takes the reader on a journey that causes a change in how they see the world around them.
The hero’s journey-worldview story, then, is one that connects a character’s internal change story to something that happens in the 3D external world.
To tell your story, you need to understand what that internal shift or journey is. A good way to understand that is to formulate your story’s controlling idea or main premise, before you start writing.
Know Your Story WHY: The Controlling Idea
In the Story Grid universe, a story’s controlling idea or premise is the meaning, insight, or lesson you hope the reader-prospect will glean from it. This controlling idea can be expressed as a positive (what to do) or a negative (what not to do). Remember, your controlling idea or premise is always formulated from the perspective of your reader-prospect and must be uncovered through empathy.
Here’s a simple formula for establishing a controlling idea/premise (with thanks to Story Grid Editor Anne Hawley:
“(Human value) prevails when (a specific change occurs)”
In a business story, the controlling idea or premise is a proposition or a promise of a certain outcome, or ending payoff, that helps your reader-prospect with a specific problem or want. This is all tied to a core value and conveys the core emotion (the feeling you want your reader-prospect to have as they make their way through the story).
The core value of a worldview story has to do with a shift toward new knowledge, insight, or even a revelation. The product or service sold is often a stand-in or even facsimile for the real change or transformation a reader-prospect needs, which is expressed as an ultimate benefit.
Including this ultimate benefit in your story premise further embeds your reader-prospect in the narrative and makes it irresistibly compelling. It’s an emotional hook that makes your story “stick” in readers’ minds and hearts so they’re invested in the journey you’re offering and will willingly come along, from start to finish.
Now that you have all the pieces you need, let put them into a story structure you can and should use to tell your business story.
The Hero’s Journey Story Structure
This hero’s journey in fiction storytelling has well-defined elements and stages. Here are some steps that can apply to your business story:
- Your story begins in your prospect-hero’s ordinary world.
- There’s a “call to adventure” that disrupts this ordinary world in the form of a problem to be solved, a pain point to be alleviated, a desire to be fulfilled.
- The hero might refuse the call, at first, by refusing to see the problem or being unwilling to try a new solution, for example.
- There are roadblocks and complications along the way that foil the hero’s progress toward their goal (which is your goal).
- There might even be an all-is-lost moment. Our hero doesn’t know what to do until…
- The mentor arrives (your product, service, or solution) to show them the way forward.
- The hero (your reader-prospect) has “a-ha” moment in which they see the problem in a new way, recognize the solution, or understand the action they need to take.
- The ending payoff comes when they take action to seize a reward/benefit that brings about some (positive) change in their situation or world.
One example of a witty and powerful use of this Hero’s Journey story model is Kia’s 2017 Super Bowl commercial featuring Melissa McCarthy as the consumer-hero-eco-warrior out to stop climate change. The spot was titled, “Hero’s Journey.” The premise proposes that individual empowerment and agency are possibly even in the face of a seemingly insurmountable problem when we refuse complacency and take action in the world. The story begins in the ordinary world of our current climate-change reality. Our main character gets several calls to action—“Hey Melissa, the whales need your help!”—to which she responds with the enthusiasm of true go-getter: “I love whales!” Slapstick comedy ensues as her attempts to stop whaling, logging, and glacial melt are foiled. Comedy, remember, is the avoidance of emotional truth, and here Kia uses it to temper the anxiety that contemplating our global climate-change reality might dredge up. Just as our hero meets her all-is-lost moment, our mentor, Kia, steps in to give us a solution in a voiceover tagline: “It’s hard to be an eco-warrior, but it’s easy to drive like one. Introducing the most fuel-efficient crossover, the Kia Niro.” Watch the clip for yourself.
The Rewards (Ending Payoff) of a Great Business Story
As a business storyteller, you have to craft a story that hooks, engages, embeds, and drives conversion, and empathy for your reader-prospect is key to understanding how to do this.
Your ultimate reward for caring about great business storytelling is the chance to create long-lasting relationships with your clients, customers, and fans. Because whether you’re an author, a business, or a non-profit interested in changing the world, it’s these deep and lasting relationships, built from a place of empathy and intentional storytelling, that are your most valuable asset. An asset that is truly your own and one that can’t be easily reproduced by those who only seek to copy instead of create something new. Don’t you want that on your side?
I want to thank fellow Story Grid Editors Julia Blair and Marissa Frosch for their invaluable feedback during the writing process. I’d also like to extend a big thank-you to Story Grid Editor Rachelle Ramirez for her keen editorial direction over multiple drafts of this post.
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