How do you use stories in a business?
Yesterday I looked at the idea of stories being the most powerful form of communication we have as a society.
The question I’m currently struggling with is how to then apply that to my business.
The most common advice seems to be to build a narrative around your business’s backstory.
Telling a brand’s story
The key to telling a story from a business perspective is to understand that you are never the hero.
Your customer is always the hero of your story. Your role is merely to help the hero become heroic. Placing yourself at the center of your own business story is the easiest and most fundamental thing to mess up when you start telling stories as a business.
I learned this on Will Storr’s 2-week storytelling sprint. He did such a fantastic job of explaining how to put a brand story together
Park Howell’s book on Brand Bewitchery also dives into the mechanics of repurposing the hero’s journey for your brand communication.
My only problem is that building a brand story as practice for developing storytelling chops is that it’s a one-off exercise. Once done, it’s done. You can tweak it every few months, but it’s not something you do every day.
I want to tell stories every day.
I need a format short enough that I can produce a story 30 times a month. I need practice. I need to put more stories out there. I will learn more from telling 30 stories a month than I will from reading a book and telling one story a week.
At this initial stage, when I’m crap at every aspect of the craft, volume is vital. Once I’m fluent with the basics, then I can pay attention to quality.
So what would scales for a storyteller look like?
Given that you can never be the hero of your stories, the first thing I thought of was testimonials. Not just reviews, but actual stories of how the business has transformed people’s lives. All stories are stories of transformation. So what could be better than the stories of real customers’ journeys?
Telling your customer’s stories
I started planning it out and realized that my customer’s tales of transformation were more like the end game than scales.
Stories of transformation take time and change happens slowly. I want to work towards telling these stories but I can’t rely on them for practice because I’d be lucky to get 2-3 good transformation stories a month.
Telling customer stories is the right direction, but the format is too slow for practice. This is closer to the thing I am practicing for. By the time I have customer stories to tell, I want to be able to tell them well.
Stealing stories instead
For the last month or so I’ve been writing on a platform called Nicheless. It’s beautiful. You can write about anything you want. There is zero expectation to stick to a theme.
I used it as a conceptual clipboard. Whenever I found a good anecdote in a book or podcast, I’d transcribe it into Nicheless for future reference.
Here are some of my favorites:
- Why Copenhagen doesn’t have an obesity problem
- The upside of writing online
- Fiction reduces reoffending criminal conviction
- The cow was the solution
- A social alternative to prescribing chemical anti-depressants
The best thing about Nicheless is that there is a 300-word limit. So I couldn’t;t just transcribe the anecdotes directly. I had to cut bits out, move things around, and sometimes paraphrase stuff.
This was a fun exercise.
The problem was I wasn’t practicing much other than curation.
Tracing people’s stories is a great way to break down and understand other writers’ structure and phrasing. But I also needed to apply these lessons and I wasn’t quite sure how to do that.
Making stories up
Maybe the solution was to just make stories up.
In 2009, two journalists, Rob Walker and Joshua Glenn, bought 200 objects from eBay. We’re talking about cheap trinkets. The average price for each was no more than a few dollars.
Then they called 200 authors and asked them to write a story about one of the objects.
They returned to eBay to sell the objects with their stories in the descriptions.
One of the objects was this beautiful horse’s head. Bought for 99¢ and sold with a story for $62.95.
They managed to sell all 200 objects for $7964.
This wasn’t a hoax. No one was being tricked. The stories were clearly labeled as invented on the listings. You can check out the objects and their stories on the significant objects website.
Perhaps the lesson here was to just make stories up about my business. This would be a fun myth-making exercise.
In essence, isn’t this was advertisements are? Take this 1964 Volkswagen commercial. Isn’t this just an opportunity for Volkswagen to tell a little make-believe story about their cars?
But I don’t want to trivialize the business. I’m not saying that all made-up stories and advertisements trivialize businesses. I’m just saying that I want to develop skills that help transform mundane communication for all kinds of businesses. Important ones too, like projects that focus on human rights or climate change, or animal cruelty.
If the only tool in my toolkit is to fabricate stories then I feel like it would limit the kinds of businesses I can help. Rather than making things up, I want to learn how to make the truth, and the real, interesting.
A teaspoon of story
Maybe I’m overthinking this.
I’m definitely overthinking this.
What if learning to tell better stories isn’t about producing stories as much it’s about sprinkling anecdotes into non-narrative communication (as I did with the Significant Objects project in the previous section).
If this is true then practice just means collecting stories for later use. The skill here is understanding which stories fit where.
So…more DJ, less musician.
Transforming things into stories
I don’t want to be a fucking DJ.
The skill I want to hone is the ability to take important but dry and sterile information and use narrative to bring it to life and help other people feel its importance.
I tried to do this with two articles about weight lifting and fat loss. I changed them from instructional information into a narrative about the person who went on a journey of transformation.
I find it easier to turn instructional information into a narrative with personal stories:
The problem here is that I am placing myself at the center of these stories. As I’m also doing with this blog post I am writing. This is the cardinal sin of business storytelling.
To push myself, I tried telling a human story where I am not the hero. The best I could do was this episode of when I helped someone deal with their chronic back pain
But stories like this take time. These are the customer stories of transformation that I’m working towards.
So what stories can my business tell today?
Stories as advertising campaigns
Another way to look at this is to think of stories at the level of an entire project or marketing campaign.
A great project that comes to mind here is Eva.Stories, a multi-million dollar budget visual depiction of the Instagram profile of a 13-year-old girl who chronicled the 1944 German invasion of Hungary – complete with hashtags, the latest internet lingo, and emojis of rainbows and strawberries.
The project broke 1 million followers in 24 hours.
Here’s a link more on Eva.Stories if you’re interested.
Campaigns could also be smaller, at the level of a single ad, like Accenture’s Nothing gets past Ebun tweet or the TV placement as in the 1964 Volkswagen commercial.
But these are not stories.
This is about applying the principles of storytelling to copywriting and advertising.
The problem with this direction is that practice here would mean creating better advertisements, not crafting better stories. The incentives are all messed up. Performance advertising and masterful storytelling are two separate things, and while there may be overlap, they have very different trajectories.
I want to practice the craft of producing discrete stories as compelling content for my business.
But maybe the stories my business needs are not the ones I tell. Maybe the most effective stories are the ones that emerge from the work I do.
Getting other people to tell your story
KFC franchisee Sam Edelman set out to earn a Michelin star.
Sam’s KFC in Australia met all the criteria. He believed he deserved a star. And he was serious. So much so that he traveled to Paris to plead his case.
The absurdity of it all was brilliant.
Sadly, Sam’s KFC was not awarded a Michelin Star.
But KFC reached 850 million people with the campaign. And 724 individual articles covered the story as it unfolded over three weeks.
If you’re interested, you can watch a video recap of the whole thing on Ogilvy’s Australian website
Perhaps the real art of storytelling in business is to stoke the stories that emerge from the things you do and the campaign you work on.
Alas, now we’re just talking about becoming a PR person.
I give up.
So where do I go from here?
When I drafted this post yesterday, I didn’t have a neat ending for you.
There was no resolution. Only confusion. No transformation had been made. I’m still in the thick of this so there’s no moral to share yet.
But then Jay Acunzo sent out an issue of his newsletter yesterday evening. It was titled the 6 types of stories for your bag.
Earlier that day, I had a hastily typed-out exchange with Jay on Twitter around the question of a short-form story format that I could use to practice storytelling for business.
His newsletter later that evening fit the pieces together by explaining that in business we need 6 types of stories:
- Your Brand Story - I was on the money with this one.
- Your personal Story - completely missed this one. Jay’s point is that my personal story is an important part of the business. It will come up every time I do an interview or appear on a podcast and therefore is an important story to hone.
- Personal Anecdotes - These are shorter, personal stories that I can use to reinforce lessons that my personal story perhaps glosses over or isn’t the best fit for.
- Lead stories - These are the customer’s stories of transformation that I was talking about.
- Supporting Anecdotes - this was the missing piece for me. This is the short form story that I can hone. These are stories around specific ideas or questions to emphasize a key insight or highlight a point of view. These don’t have to be my stories, my job is to collect them, and make them my own in the way that I tell them. The skill is shaping the story, in the way that I retell it, to fit my needs. This is what I’ve been missing all along, the idea that retelling someone else’s story for your own purposes is as much of a skill as crafting a story from scratch.
- Skeptic’s Story - This last type of story wasn’t on my radar at all. Jay’s point here is that you need a specific arsenal for disarming people’s most common objections to your brand story I’m not sure this warrants its own category because I feel like there’d be plenty of overlap here with my personal and supporting anecdotes. Still, interesting to consider.
So I found my answer.
The way I can use stories in my business is to develop a portfolio of 5-6 types of stories.
My brand story is really the capstone to this collection. It’s a slow-moving that provides all of the context and meaning around what I am doing and it progresses gradually over.
The action is in my lead stories, a handful of tales of customer transformation, and the impact my business has had on real people’s lives.
Then there is my personal story, which cannot be separated from the business and is an important contribution to humanity propelling the business.
And the day-to-day stories, the faster moving pieces on the board, are my personal and supporting anecdotes. These are where all the practice happens, where the mechanics are mastered and mastery is honed.
So my job now is to go out and find stories that speak to the transformation my business helps people make, to collect them and learn how to retell them to share valuable insights and guidance with my heroic customers.
@joshpitzalis Love the eBay story. What a lovely creative experiment.
That 6 types of business stories is so good! I think I only do a bit of #1 and #5, maybe some #6. Totally missed #2 too. Today i learned.
Thank you. Today I learned too 🙂