The Power of Storytelling for Businesses

John Steinbeck on Story telling...

Socially responsible enterprises thrive because they are able to move people to change. How do they do this? By tapping into the emotional connections that inspire.

Stories act like catalysts to action. Businesses should take note.

In the old, business-as-usual paradigm of getting information across about your business, think of the familiar tools you’ve used: Powerpoint presentations, jargon-laden bullet point lists, sterling but stale reports and policy briefs, manifestos that are intellectually seductive, though emotionally hollow. What do they have in common? These are tools and techniques that convey information but don’t do much else for your cause. Numbers are the lingua franca of business, but I argue that much more can be gained in adding storytelling strategies to your campaigns.

Companies that are focused on a business idea that solves a social or environmental problem, or are trying to make a change in the communities around them have one thorny obstacle to overcome: the inertia of indifference and getting buy-in from your market. Your target market has to care enough to use your products or services not because you tell them it’s good for them and the community around them, but because they feel moved at some level to do business with you.

What Businesses Can Learn from Writers

Social enterprises can improve the way they do business by focusing on good storytelling– in their marketing and promotional campaigns, in the way they give people glimpses of their ventures, and in how they interact with customers or clients. Storytelling humanizes your business. A good story connects your business to your target market in a very visceral and potent way.

At Night Owls Press, we make it our mission to help small businesses and organizations tell those stories that inform, motivate, and inspire.

Why should a business care about telling a good story? Stories are what make up our lives. They make us feel connected, alive. They provide the material that moves people to act. As an editor, I always tell authors I work with that their first job is to get their works read. No self-respecting writer should dismiss the value of readership. It’s the same in business. Don’t dismiss the value of reaching out to your clients, your employees, and the community around you.  If people are inspired and compelled by your story, then they will want to know more about you and your company. By exploiting that intrinsic love of a good yarn, many businesses can start forming that invaluable base of followers, clients, fans, and admirers.

Constructing a good story and compelling narrative isn’t rocket science, though it often makes people nervous. “I’m not a writer,” they say. How do you get started? There are some basics to learn of course. First, you’ll have to figure out these things:

  1. Who is your audience? - Every business needs to know who their customers and target market are so that they can tailor their messages accordingly.
  2. What are your goals? - Is it to raise awareness for a cause? Are you trying to sway a room full of investors? Are you looking to convince colleagues to join your project? Is it to inspire collaboration?

Once you have these two fundamentals nailed down, the next step is to learn how to tell a good story. Here are some tips below.

The Small Business Guide to Storytelling:

"Story Road"

1. Make people the heart of your story.

People like to read about other people. Profile a client who’s used your business. Share how you reached out in the community. People love triumphs over adversity, stories of people stumbling but getting back on their feet, and tales of ambitions achieved. But at the center of the story has to be people. What you ultimately want to convey is that your business or business idea, no matter how abstract or drawn from an intellectual place, emerged in the context of people coming together to solve a problem.  You want to show that your business has something of value to offer the community and the world around you, even change the human condition.

2. Keep your audience spellbound.

A good story engages your audience. Stories are interesting when they have what writers call ‘narrative tension’. There’s a dramatic arc to the stories you tell, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. Start with a conflict or an obstacle and show how it was overcome. Build up people’s expectations so that they’ll be wondering, “What happens next?” or “Where is this business going to take this?”

Will people care that your business helped get high school drop-outs back on track to earn their GED? Or, that your organization created an app that helps local citizens anonymously report incidences of corruption in their local governments? Facts and information alone are interesting, but not very compelling. Narrative threads can be spun out from thematic tensions in the facts (e.g. fighting corruption, getting young people educated), changing the landscape of experience for those ‘listening’ or ‘reading’ your stories.

Go deep. In biography and memoir writing this is what separates a mediocre writer from an exceptional one. These writers don’t just recite events; they show their subject’s response to events. What brings the writing to life is that there are patterns– how someone reacts in various crises, the description of various provoking agents that sets the story into play, and the roller-coaster ride of emotions.

3. Turn up the drama.

This doesn’t mean that your business has to write tabloid melodrama. But stories that work best are usually the ones that people can relate to. They tug at the heartstrings. People become attached to the characters. Information and messaging is sometimes not enough. People can easily tune you out this way. You need to remind people why your business is important and deserves their attention. One way to do this is to make sure the people you profile in a story have a voice. That’s one reason interviews are a great way to get palpable material that you can use in your storytelling efforts. Use direct quotes from people. Let them speak.

4. Show, don’t tell.

The classic rule in producing riveting writing is to show, not tell. You want your audience to experience the story as if they were there. Give them the details– names, places, colors, sounds– so that they can imagine your stories in the most vivid way.

5. A clear message.

Finally, what’s the take-away? What grand epiphany do you want your audience to walk away with? The emotional, personal content is what draws people in but it’s your message you want people to take away with them.

What kind of stories should you write? There are several forms of writing to showcase your business. Here are my favorites:

  • Candid commentary on what you do behind-the-scenes.
  • Discussion of key issues that matter to your business and how you are tackling them.
  • Profiles of your star employees.
  • Spotlights on your most loyal customers.
  • ‘Straight talk’ Q&A sessions where a member of the community interviews you.
  • Editorials on relevant events and news stories.
  • First-person accounts of projects you’re taking on to further your S-R goals.
  • Guest posts from industry leaders.

So, step out from behind the slogans, marketing shill, and background noise and put some heart into how you interact with your customers. The poet Maya Angelou once said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Go ahead and tell the stories that inspire.

the one that got away.

Genevieve DeGuzman

Genevieve DeGuzman is the co-founder and editor of Night Owls Press, an editorial services and publishing company for small businesses and organizations. Night Owls Press publishes print and digital books on business innovation, social entrepreneurship, the collaborative economy, D-I-Y culture, and education.

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