From time immemorial people have been captivated by stories. Why? Because stories inspire, challenge, provoke and give comfort.
Starting as infants, we are immersed in stories. But as we mature and become adults, stories still infuse our thinking.
Stories appear in different forms and inhabit different areas of our lives:
- Work based stories
- The story of brands
- Family stories
- Nation building stories
- Morality Stories
- To name a few
Before I get into how you can use stories to grow your business, let’s firstly take a look at early stories, way back when Adam was a boy. Or was it earlier? Well, apparently the first stories were told by Neanderthals.
What Is Storytelling?
According to Wikipedia storytelling is the ‘conveying of events in words, sound, and images, often by improvisation or embellishment.’
Through the ages, stories have been used in every culture to entertain, inspire, profit from, teach morality, instill hatred and fear, and maintain cultural norms.
Storytelling can take the form of drawings, paintings, the written word, and the spoken word. With the advent of electronic media, the breadth and scope of storytelling opportunities have increased exponentially.
Stories take many forms such as:
- Fairy tales
- Legends trickster stories,
- Fables, ghost tales
- Triumph over adversity stories (hero stories)
- Adventure stories
- Cautionary tale stories
- Morality stories
- Higher power stories
- Teaching ethics
- Stories to promote civil society and cultural norms
- Coming of age themes
The story was described by Reynolds Price when he wrote:
“A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens – second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our day’s events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths.””
Although we can’t be entirely certain it is likely that the use of stories is the sole preserve of the human species.
History of Storytelling
Historically stories have been told orally. And those stories have been handed down from one generation to another.
We don’t know exactly when storytellers were sharing their stories. But it may well be that stories were told in caveman days.
People were telling stories before they could write. They would illustrate their stories on rocks and cave walls. Symbolism was used by storytellers so they could recall each story. A good example of this is the rock paintings of the Australian aboriginals.
Before language capabilities were fully developed, the first storytellers also used gestures, music, carvings, tattoos, dance and noise.
Stories were told for different reasons. For instance, first families told stories to instill confidence in family members who may have been fearful about external threats. Storytellers who had the ability to inspire and toughen up their ‘audience,’ enjoyed high status.
Some of the storytellers acquired or inherited heightened status and told stories from the pulpit, the bench, and the throne.
Stories That Travel
Even in those early times, stories travailed as a result of small numbers of influential people visiting other countries. Fortunately, some of these early travelers also happened to be good story tellers. And of course when they returned they brought new stories from the countries they visited.
When early adopters started writing, more stories could be told and shared far and wide. This trend intensified when portable devices such as the early typewriter was introduced. But even before then, people used fabric, papyrus (early newspaper media, a bark derivative), parchment, and even silk to write their stories.
Story Telling In the Modern Era
The advent of film ushered in a new era in storytelling. People could take photos and record the moment. Then, moving pictures using celluloid film caused a stampede of individuals to newly constructed movie theaters.
With the advent of radio and TV, the ability for producers and the creative class to tell stories expanded significantly.
In recent times we’ve seen the massive growth of social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as video hosting sites such as YouTube. All of these platforms give ordinary people – the hoi polloi – the ability to tell stories using digital technologies.
Web Video represents perhaps the important change in the storytelling firmament. Anyone can tell their story now, through music, spoken word and imagery.
Storytelling has evolved into a bewildering array of storytelling categories including political commentary and personal narrative. Even the so-called culture wars and the climate change doctrine gained a lot of its power from the ability of influential people to tell stories.
The digital age infuses so many areas of our lives now. Think of kids and even adults who consume computer games. Many of these games include a narrative (e.g., good versus evil) which motivates players to give their best when playing the game.
How We Learn Through Stories
The key to active learning is understanding and retention. Stories kill two birds with one stone. Listeners will understand the point better when told in story form. But more than this: they will retain the ‘lesson’ for a long time. Stories facilitate engagement and concentration which is less likely to happen when using traditional methods of teaching and imparting information.
Good storytellers can stimulate listeners to move to higher ground. That can mean new ideas, innovation and imagining new possibilities.
Children get additional benefit in that they learn to respect the storyteller (i.e., the teacher). It also gives them knowledge about the social structure and the ‘ways of the world.’
Brands large and small are increasingly using stories to build their brands and increase customer loyalty and retention. People relate better to stories than to traditional sales pitches. People love to be entertained (there is an entertainment factor with stories). And they are far more likely to be engaged with a well-told story from a brand than from traditional messaging methodologies.
And engagement is essential. A lot of traditional advertising falls on deaf ears if for no other reason than it only engages the language part of the brain. There is no emotional connection.
Here are a few examples of Effective Brand Storytelling:
Steve Jobs and Apple
Steve Jobs was a master storyteller. Who can forget Steve strutting across the stage when launching new products? He was great at creating a narrative that had people riveted. Even though he was running a tech company, he kept his messaging simple – one of the essential requirements of great story telling.
Apple also built an efficient narrative with its advertising. Memorable campaigns showing Apple lampooning the ‘fuddyduddy’ Microsoft hit the spot and further built the Apple brand into one that became fun, bright, and hip.
Ronald McDonald and McDonald’s
Who DOESN’T remember Ronald McDonald? Proves the point right? Stories are excellent from a retention perspective. People remember stories for a lifetime, long after they’ve forgotten hard facts and figures. Millions of kids grew up with Ronald McDonald, and he represents a foundation stone for the McDonald’s empire.
Robert Downey Jr and HTC
Sometimes a brand will hire celebrities to tell stories. An excellent example of this is the celebrated TV ad featuring Robert Downer Jr.
What I like about this ad is that it is high on entertainment value but also very effective at getting the message across to viewers that HTC is a company worthy of their attention. There are lots of sight gags and with Downey mercilessly sending up the company (and getting away with it) is it any wonder that consumers love this great story telling ad?
Stories and the Workplace
Even if you have a small business with only a few employees, you can still use storytelling techniques to bind people to you and your company.
Here is how you can do it:
- To Build Team-Work. To get the most out of your team, you want a certain amount of esprit de corp or team spirit. This will lessen the incidence of conflict and keep motivation levels high. Share your vision with your team – and of course create a narrative (story) so your team buys into the idea and pulls together as a single unit.
- To Build Sales. Stories grow sales! Sharing customer stories and stories from your most successful salespeople as to how they made a difficult sale or overcame objections etc. will boost the motivation and confidence of your sales team. When you run a sales meeting, you should solicit success stories from your most productive sales people to inspire others in the team.
- To Resolve Conflict. Even if you have great teamwork occasionally, conflicts will arise. Try using ‘narrative discourse’ (for instance you could use stories of others and how they overcame the problem) as a way to end the problem without resorting to more formal methods.
- To Stiffen Backbone in the Face of Adversity. When your business takes a hit to sales or profits, you can use stories to toughen up your waverers and backsliders. Onwards and upwards should be the message – create a narrative by featuring examples of people who faced adversity and how they overcame it.
- To Improve the Reasoning Process. Use narrative to persuade others to your point of view – narrative will often be more efficient when dealing with complex scenarios and situations.
Two Personal Stories About Stories
Larry Thompson and Stories
A long time ago I met a sales trainer by the name of Larry Thompson. Larry was a master storyteller who used stories to illustrate a point. So effective was he that you could hear a pin drop when he was sharing stories with his audience. He obviously had an effect on me because I still remember many of his stories to this day.
Larry was also obsessed with the idea of using stories with prospects to influence them to buy. So he would regale us on the need to use our stories, or stories of others who used the product, then sharing those stories with passion and conviction.
Webster (Domain, Sydney) and Stories
When I was a teenager on Sundays, I often went to a place called The Domain (in Sydney, Australia). Back then The Domain was famous for being a haven for soapbox spruikers. The spruikers came in all shapes and sizes, male and female, black and white – it didn’t matter. They all had a point of view and were free to express it. Most of the soapbox pundits were ratbags and nut jobs. And standing head and shoulders above them all was a guy called Webster.
Webster drew the biggest crowds, got the biggest laughs and invariably had the audience eating out of the palm of his hand. Webster had the ‘it’ factor (despite the fact he was almost toothless).
Although he had crazy views of the world, in the heat of the moment people like me almost suspended our reasoning faculties because of the almost hypnotic effect he had on me (and most other people).
One of the reasons for this was that Webster was a master storyteller. He had an almost limitless number of stories he could pluck from the air to illustrate and validate the various points he was making.
How Storytelling Will Boost Your Sales
Do you want to make more sales? Become a master storyteller. It’s not enough to be simply a good talker – the sales masters go beyond that, and become awesome story tellers.
Rivka Willick is someone who knows a thing or two about the power of stories to influence buyers and prospects. She’s an acclaimed professional storyteller who now helps companies and salespeople create stories to boost their sales. She says that most sales people don’t understand it, even if they use it. One of her favorite quotes is this: “a good salesperson knows how to talk; a great salesperson knows how to tell a story.”
If you’re having problems making sales you could follow Willick’s lead. If your prospects are giving you objections, use a story to overcome it. As she says “when the mind and the heart refuse to hear, the story is the key.”
Why Stories Sell
Telling stories in a sales context works very well at convincing prospects (or even visitors to your website or blog) to make a purchase.
There are scientific reasons why this is so. In fact, researchers have found that our brain releases a chemical called Oxytocin and Cortisol which helps to build trust in the minds of the prospect. Publications like Brainpickings have reported on the results of this research.
The Best Stories Appeal to Both Logic and the Emotions
People buy on emotion and justify with fact. I guess you knew that already, right? And of course it IS true, but assuming you have the right product for your customer’s needs and wants, the logical justification side of things will take care of itself.
Which brings me back to the core point. Unless you move people and get ’em excited you won’t be getting as many customers as you would like. Nor will you have the opportunity to expand their vision, so they buy your big ticket product/service solutions either (assuming you have them to offer). So you lose in two ways.
On the other hand, if you construct a compelling narrative it will not only move people emotionally it will also back it up with real, solid, logic.
A double win for you and your customer.
The Best Story Tellers Use Metaphors and Analogies
What is a metaphor?
According to Your Dictionary, a metaphor is ‘a word or phrase used to compare two unlike objects, ideas, thoughts or feelings to provide a clearer description.’
A simpler definition is that it’s a way of explaining one thing by relating it to another thing.
A metaphor is a key that unlocks the brain so we can truly embrace what the storyteller is saying.
It enables us to completely relate to the important points featured in the story.
Metaphors are meant to create an impact in the minds of readers. The aim of this literary tool is to convey a thought more forcefully than a plain statement ever would.
They are exaggerated expressions no doubt, but their purpose is to paint a vivid picture and generate a response from the audience.
Examples of useful metaphors are:
- He drowned in a sea of grief.
- She is fishing in troubled waters.
- Success is a bastard as it has many fathers, and failure is an orphan, with no takers.
- The singer had a velvet voice
I am a metaphor user because they help to give firepower to my presentation.
If you use metaphors in a business/sales context. For instance, you can use them on your website and blog, and in sales copy generally. This is on the proviso that you use them sparingly and appropriately.
If you engage with people offline, you can also use them.
Here is an example:
The late Randy Pausch was a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. One talk he gave was about obstacles that stand in the way of making our dreams come true:
“But remember, the brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something. Because the brick walls are there to stop the people who don’t want it badly enough. They’re there to stop the other people.”
Can you use this example? I know I can. Just modify it to suit your business. You could use it in a variety of ways. For example, if you’re in direct sales you could use it as a closing device when faced with a procrastinating prospect.
The best metaphors are those that relate to your situation (e.g., if you love tennis use a tennis metaphor to give your point more oomph)
Write Your Story
Even if you don’t feel comfortable writing, you should do it anyway. The mere act of writing a story will hone your skills and get you very clear on a few things such as future direction, the value you provide, and your place in the market.
So that’s where you should start. Write a story about your business and your vision for it. Once you’ve done that you can weave elements of your story into your marketing. Ths could include your About page, and your blog (assuming you have one).
Of course, make sure your story is relevant to your audience which is always the golden rule of marketing.
When you write your business story the real value you provide will go deep inside your psyche. It will be core to you and will give you an additional impetus to drive your business forward.
How to Jump Start Your Sales With Powerful Stories
Rather than just launch into a full-on pitch for your product or service a smarter approach is to lead with a story first. You can then use your story as a bridge into your product.
Remember most people are not as motivated by hard facts as they are by a compelling narrative.
For instance, I often tell the story of my business downfall in 2006. I tell people how the walls came crashing down (yikes – a metaphor!) and almost in the blink of an eye, my life changed forever. I then flesh it out with some vivid ‘subplots’ which illustrated the pain I was going through at the time.
Knowing that everyone loves a happy ending, I then tell the reader (or listener) how I overcame the crisis and ultimately triumphed.
If you’re a public speaker, you can take the same approach – illustrate your relevant points with interesting and entertaining stories. But make sure you get the structure right – all good stories have a beginning, a middle, and an ending.
KISS Formula (Keep It Simple Stupid)
Think of Steve Jobs unveiling the iPad. It was both technical (equipment) and emotional (hip, cool, and visionary). But most of all, it was simple.
Above all be real, be authentic. People can spot a fake a mile off. Dig deep and share the real you with your audience.
Even if you’re selling a technical product, you can still use stories to add life to your presentation.
The End Of This Story, Or Is It?
Well, this blog post represents a beginning. I’ve kick started the topic to get you thinking, and hopefully to move you to the point where you’re taking some action, no matter how small.
As you develop the narrative for your business and products, you may well find that the vision for your business expands mightily. If yes, let me know about it – I too love a happy ending (or is it just the beginning?).
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