Getting smart about storytelling for your business

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Until recently, very few people knew who MJ Hegar was. That is, until the Democratic candidate for Texas’ 31st Congressional District racked up more than 4 million views on a campaign ad that has gone viral and propelled this combat veteran and mother of two to the spotlight. 

The secret to her viral fame? A smartly produced campaign video entitled “Doors.” The ad tells Hegar’s life story through the metaphor of doors—the doors that have been shut in her face by the military and political system, and her fight to kick them open as a female combat pilot. Although her background and experience already made her a strong candidate to begin with, it’s this personal narrative and story that has made her candidacy even stronger.

Why we love stories

Humans have had a special connection to stories since the beginning of humankind. In fact, our brains are hard-wired for it—when we hear stories, we produce the hormone oxytocin, which help to enhance our sense of empathy. On top of that, we also retain stories in our memory better than we do facts or logic. Jennifer Aaker, social psychologist and author of the book The Dragonfly Effect, conducted an informal study where students were asked to recall business pitches made by their fellow colleagues. Only 5% of students remembered statistics cited within pitches, while 63% remembered the stories.

In business, stories are powerful tools for connection, persuasion, and motivation. They can help to attract investors, market your product or brand, and align your team around a shared purpose or goal. 

In short, people are substantially more motivated by an organization’s transcendent purpose—how it improves lives—rather than by its transactional purpose (how it sells goods and services). The most memorable brands are all known by the stories they tell, whether its Airbnb’s founders renting out airbeds to earn extra rent money for their San Francisco apartment, to Salesforce’s numerous customer success stories, which it features prominently on their website. 

Crafting your company’s stories

When coming up with ideas for the stories that will define your business or brand, start with the “six-word story” that distills a narrative down to its primary theme. At Creative Business, for example, our six-word story is “Creatives don’t like math. We do.” For Hegar’s campaign ad narrative, it might be something like, “One door slammed. I opened another.” 

Using your six-word story, expand the narrative to have a beginning, middle, and end. According to Aaker, successful stories have four important characteristics: 

  1. Goal: Why are you telling the story in the first place?
    The goal is defined by where you want the audience to go, and what you want them to do, feel, or think. Also important is to know where the audience started from; this helps you to set the context and guide them more clearly to the end goal.

  2. Grab attention: Why would the audience want to listen? 
    To grab attention, you’ll need to find the story’s hook. This could be a shocking statistic, a dramatic pause, or a funny joke. 

  3. Engage: Why would the audience care?
    Engaging stories are compelling, relatable, and authentic. Even better is when a story has a protagonist, a hero that wants something and must undertake a journey or overcome some sort of obstacle or advertise to accomplish it. Such story arcs help the audience care about and empathize with the main character. 

  4. Enable action: Why would the audience want to share the story? 
    Your organization’s story should inspire the audience to take some sort of action, whether it’s to buy your product, invest in your company, or rally your team. It’s important to be explicit about what you want your audience to do—make it easy for the audience to take action and don’t leave them guessing on the next steps. 

Build storytelling into your business process

Companies should all start with one great origin story that explains where you came from, what you’re doing, and where you’re headed, all while tying in your vision, values, and overall purpose. But don’t just leave it at that—build a bank of stories that explain different aspects of your company, including innovation stories, personal leadership stories, and user stories. 

You’ll also want to tailor your stories based on the intended audience. Talking to investors? Integrate powerful data and statistics into your narrative. For customers, turn the focus onto them—make them the hero of the story and allow them to picture themselves as the protagonist. Looking to inspire your team and employees? Lean on the emotional elements of the story and focus on mission and purpose. 

Stories can also be used as part of the day-to-day work process. Jeff Bezos from Amazon famously got rid of Powerpoint presentations in meetings in favor of narrative memos. Simply put, bullet points don't have sticking power, but stories do. If you want to have your team remember something, put it in the form of a story. 

Stories will also evolve as your business evolves. A great origin story may need some tweaking or even a complete rewrite if you want to make a company pivot. You may also find new stories to tell as your customer base and team grows—make it a point to interview customers and employees to find unique success stories that can amplify your brand. 

By integrating storytelling into your business process, you ensure that you’re keeping your company aligned with your core vision and values and building a lasting brand.