I’ve always loved stories, losing myself in a good book and following the characters on their journey. As a child, these often included quirky characters, magic wands and lots of adventure – as did the plays that I wrote and forced my siblings to act out with me.
“The purpose of a storyteller is not to tell you how to think, but to give you questions to think upon.“
~ Brandon Sanderson
Now you might think that these elements are just fictional fantasies, but you’d be surprised how much of this can translate into storytelling for business. If you think of some of your favourite TED talks, I’m sure a lot of them will be great example of stories. I watched one recently by Chimamanda Ngozi where she shared ‘the danger of a single story’, and the way she weaves her message through the power of storytelling is truly magical.
So, what do I mean by storytelling for business?
I’m sure for most of you, storytelling in sales is nothing new. But as a starting point, when it comes to telling stories for business, we are aiming to persuade, influence or inspire people. Let’s be honest, nobody wants to hear a list of products, or some generic industry statistics. These days most people’s attention span is shorter than that of a goldfish, so what we need is an interesting story or scenario that is simple, memorable, relates to the customer’s careabouts and shows them a way to make their life better or easier – most of us are still searching for a happy ending.
And this is why storytelling is so important. As humans we are wired to respond to and remember stories; before humans could write, their stories were passed down round the fire through word of mouth to the next generation. When we listen to a story, we are programmed to empathise with the narrator and relate to their experiences. This creates a connection between the listener and the storyteller, helping to humanise them and build trust. If you include a personal element in your stories to back up your main points, then people will trust you more. Plus, personal anecdotes can help to make you stand out.
Set the Stage for your Stories
As most of my spare time is spent in the theatre (both on and off stage), I tend to structure stories into three acts (secretly hoping for a standing ovation at the end):
Act I – set the scene.
Act II – start to build the story.
Act III – a powerful finale.
Consider your Audience
But before you start your story, you need to think about the audience. Who are you dealing with? The organisation itself is one audience of course and no doubt you’ll know your customers extremely well, but additional research can help to make sure your story hits home.
When it comes to the specific people you’re meeting, this is where LinkedIn can play a role. Use your audience’s profile to understand what they’re about. What news are they sharing? Do you have common interests? Sales enablement materials like personas and industry information can also play a role here, but it’s important to understand your audience and make sure your story will resonate.
No less important is the story you are telling on your own LinkedIn profile – and on the internet in general. Make no mistake that anyone you’re speaking with will probably be researching you as much you are researching them, so if you haven’t updated your social media profiles recently, make sure they’re telling the story you want. I recommend a quick Google of your name every few months just to understand your web presence. If your name is unusual, like mine, you’ll know that there’s nowhere to hide. So, check what story your digital footprint is telling…
Choose your Characters
The best stories have the best characters, especially if you can relate to them and understand what they’re going through. Now, there are many fictional characters I relate to: Elizabeth Bennett, Bridget Jones, Hermione Granger… and – more recently during lockdown – The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
In business storytelling, your characters are just as important. When sharing stories, we often position the customer as our central character, protagonist or hero. We want to take them on a journey, showing them how we can help them to solve their challenges (because every true hero has to face a test). I would recommend that your products and services play more of a supporting role, helping your main character on this journey. So, if the customer is Frodo Baggins, your products and solutions are Samwise Gamgee… meanwhile the challenge (or your competitors) would be the villain – in this case, the eye of Sauron.
Build a Structure
There are many rags to riches stories, where the hero goes on a journey, overcomes adversity, has a near death experience etc. and a lot of us will root for the underdog in any book or movie. And this idea of a struggle is essential for any good sales story.
To tell a good story all you need are a few key elements:
- Location – when and where does your story take place?
- Challenges – make your story believable, add in some complications
- Turning point – we want to end positively, so what tipped the balance?
- Resolution – make sure all challenges are resolved and the listener gets a key takeaway
- And of course, your characters.
I’d also recommend you keep your story authentic. There’s nothing wrong with using your imagination and being creative, but don’t get carried away. You don’t want to lose credibility, especially in business.
Going back to my stagey scenario:
Act I – set the scene. You need a compelling opening. Maybe your hero (the customer) is struggling with a villain (perhaps a variety of challenges) in their location (perhaps a country or an industry). Some of your supporting characters (the customer’s customers / employees) and how they fit into the scenario could also feature in Act I. Or alternatively, start with an existing customer’s story to set the scene.
Act II – start to build the story. How could our hero overcome their issues, obstacles and pain points and journey towards success? Bring in some other supporting characters, like an existing satisfied customer, and share their story as an example.
Act III – a powerful finale. This is where the hero understands what they can do to be triumphant and resolve their issues – via a potential partnership with our supporting character (you or your organisation), who will make our hero even greater. I don’t want to get carried away, but your company’s products and services could almost be the weapon that slays our metaphorical monster…
End on a High
We all love a good ending (and closing a deal is definitely a happy ending). But how do we end our stories to leave a strong impression with the listener? You want to leave the audience with a variety of emotions and a clear moral – or call to action. Thanking them for their time or asking for questions might be polite, but it’s not memorable. It could be something simple, like a date for your next meeting, but make sure they remember you.
And of course, once the show is over, you can take your curtain call and bow. But not until the contract’s signed!