A beginner’s guide to storytelling

Storytelling requires finesse and practice this is why it’s related to art, and the most successful businesses have learned to master the art of storytelling to convey a story in a well-defined and flow-orientated way, engage customers on a whole new level, build emotional bonds with one another, and increase brand awareness.

Yes, great storytelling is the key to your consumers’ hearts, but how do you get started?

With an ever-expanding number of vendors entering the marketplace, the competition is fierce. It can be deeply challenging to build a message that stands out and entices people to your service or product.

With this guide, you’ll learn everything you need to know about storytelling so you can start produce quality and compelling brand stories and create an emotional connection with your audience.

What is storytelling?

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Storytelling is the act of telling a story to an audience using words. Defining stories, novelist Mark Twain said that “a tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.” In other words, a story has a purpose. Through a series of linked events, a story describes a beginning place, a middle place, and an end place. Of course, this can refer to physical places. Around The World in 80 Days, for example, is a story of travel from location to location. But stories can simultaneously describe a journey to ideas or realizations.

The same concept of taking the reader on a journey applies to business and marketing stories. The company Apple is a classic example. Instead of marketing their products by listing their features, Apple tells stories about a problem one of its customers faced, and how an Apple product solved it. Their marketing stories tell us that, thanks to Apple, we can improve our productivity with simple, reliable, human-friendly computing products. 

In other words, at its heart, a story describes a series of transformations. For a story to exist, change must happen. “Storytelling is the interactive art of using words and actions to reveal the elements and images of a story while encouraging the listener’s imagination”National Storytelling Network

The importance of storytelling in business

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Business revolves around money, and before money can exchange hands a few things need to happen:

  1. A seller needs to establish trust. They need to build confidence that they are who they say they are and that their product or service will live up to a buyer’s expectations.
  2. A customer or client needs to understand how the business can help them solve a problem. They need to see how parting with their money will make their life easier, more exciting — or a little bit of both.
  3. The buyer and seller need to have built a relationship. They need to share some principles, aspirations, or worldview that mark them as belonging to the same tribe. 

Storytelling is important because a well-crafted story fast-tracks each of these in a host of interesting ways. 

Why use storytelling in business?

  • Connect: Stories are about universally shared emotions: fear, hope, love, and everything in between. Telling a story connects your audience not just with your brand, but with you and your team as people — an ideal starting point for trust. 
  • Gain buy-in: It’s hard to change a person’s mind. When presented with a persuasive message, it’s very natural to put up walls of resistance. A story can bypass this reaction by inviting a listener to simply listen and form their own opinions. Instead of saying “you should think this,” you’re saying “this is what happened to me, and here are the conclusions I reached.” 
  • Build lasting relationships: A story places you into the picture. Your past, your struggles, your hopes for the future — all these contextualizing nuances forge bonds between you and your audience. 
  • Capture attention and engage your audience: Humans are hard-wired to think in stories. Our species has been assembling and curating knowledge using stories for thousands of years. Tell a story and you’re instantly speaking an instinctively received and powerfully persuasive language. 
  • Change minds: A typical persuasive message implies that you are the persuader and they are the “persuadee.” By dialing down the pressure and weaving a tale instead, you can persuade your listener to change their own mind about you and your product.
  • Inspire action: You’ve engaged your listener’s heart and mind, you’ve shown that you belong to the same tribe’, and you’ve given something real of yourself. What better way to inspire someone to leap enthusiastically at your call to action?
  • Bring facts and data to life: Harnessing the rational mind with facts and figures can be persuasive, but it’s only one part of the picture. Emotion is equally important. Stories provide that much-needed heart that statistics and graphs can rarely evoke on their own. 
  • Clarify challenging concepts: People have limited attention spans. Your audience will switch off if your message contains too much abstraction. Stories can clarify challenging concepts by offering a living, practical example of a complex idea in action. 
  • Pitch persuasively: When delivering a pitch, you have just a few seconds to grab your listener’s attention. There’s no time for cautious passivity at a time like this! Lead with a story that promises to take them on a strange and perilous journey.
  • Fundraise effectively: Raising funds using an abstract idea of generosity or the vague notion of “fighting poverty” fails to make an issue emotionally meaningful for many viewers. Telling the story of one person’s challenge brings these issues to life and inspires viewers to take action. 

Types of business stories

What does a “business story” look like? It’ll likely fit into one of four broad categories:

  • Vision stories: Anyone can tell you what they believe. A ‘what we believe story’ illustrates that vision with compelling and relatable examples. The trick with these kinds of stories is to reveal struggle and transformation. Values alone are boring. A story of principles arrived at through uncertainty and hardship can inspire.
  • Who am I: A who we are (or who I am) story creates a connection between your professional and your personal lives. This may include some anecdote around your deeper values, but it might just as easily paint a picture of your day-to-day life, and how your business aspirations fit into that picture.
  • Why am I here: This is a story that links your past to your future. Typically it would give your pitch a back story that sheds some light on now. You might, for example, talk about the key moments that led to your company being formed and then describe how that’s evolved.
  • Company stories: Hope is a powerful universal emotion. A “where we’re going” tale describes where you or your company are right now in the context of your future. These kinds of stories hinge on a “wow” moment of some kind — either by revealing an unexpected challenge you face or by showing a direction your audience might not have considered. 

When to use storytelling in business?

1. Recruiting. The goal of recruitment isn’t just to find someone with the right skills. You’re also looking for someone who fits. Stories can set the scene on how your company operates, what you believe, and where they fit into the broader picture. 

2. Public relations. Telling the public who you are will never be as compelling or revealing as showing them a story. The candor of a story can be surprising, particularly when your audience is more accustomed to predictable, self-promotional PR messaging. 

3. Networking. Another great domain for business storytelling is while networking. Telling a story about your company will help people remember you, and give them a better appreciation of who you are and where your company is going.

4. Within the workplace. Stories are also a great way for rallying support for difficult or complicated decisions. Merely listing the key points in a strategic plan describes nothing of the struggle that went into building your plan, let alone what’s at stake. A story can fill in these important gaps and encourage emotional buy-in.

5. In marketing, when selling a product or service. And of course, there’s story-driven marketing. The most difficult act of persuasion may well be the process of making a sale, especially today when advertisements saturate our media. Stories lend your brand a distinctive voice and invite potential customers to see beyond your logo and branding to the people underneath.

The four elements of storytelling

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  1. A great story is built around a likable hero. Your company can play a hero role, but the most effective marketing-driven stories paint your customer as the hero. Again, think back to Nike advertising as a great example. Their products aren’t the hero; the athlete wearing them is. Through struggles and trials (and lots of sweating in the case of Nike story ads), the hero transforms, and suddenly a way forward presents itself.
  2. The hero starts their journey in a recognizable and uneventful setting. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the story starts in a completely safe place, but it at least represents the protagonist’s version of normality. Good marketing stories have a before and an after: “Before our customer tried this product their life was like this. After they tried our product it improved to that!”
  3. Then something happens. Tension and conflict surround the hero, often channeled through a villain, or a large and unavoidable event (a chaotic moment in time.) For example, Allstate Insurance literally personifies their customer’s tensions and conflicts in the form of “Mayhem,” a mysterious figure who disrupts innocent peoples’ lives. This character graphically portrays what is at stake and why viewers should purchase Allstate insurance. 
  4. The story finds its conclusion when the hero’s transformation is complete. Their life returns to some semblance of normality (at least until the next ad campaign rolls around!) and they have a new understanding of themselves or the world around them

Why do we tell stories?

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Marketers tell stories to convey a business’s culture, history, and value with the goal to forge relationships and connections among people, build familiarity and brand trust.

But that’s not all, we tell stories to:

Create suspense. A well-told story holds the reader’s attention, keeping them suspended between fear of something bad happening to the protagonist, and hope that everything will turn out for the best. Much of Nike’s story-driven marketing, for example, describes the struggles of athletes to overcome their personal challenges as well as their competition — revealing only in the final moments if the athlete prevails and wins the day. 

Simplify complicated ideas. Stories work best when the storyteller carefully chooses what to say and what to leave out. They simplify reality, making it much easier for the listener to understand and remember the key points. Apple has mastered the art of telling simplifying stories about its product. For years their campaigns revolved around just two words: “Think different.” 

Add depth to simple ones. While eliminating unnecessary detail, stories also bring depth and focus to the most important ones. Story-driven narratives are a powerful way to emphasize and explore a chosen theme in greater depth than simple description could ever allow. TOMS clothing, for example. tells stories about how their clothing affects their customers’ lives. The company’s campaigns reveal that they sell more than clothes; they also sell the confidence that comes with wearing them.

Resonate with how we think. We think in stories. From every corner of history and geography, stories have helped us form, and hold onto, our most important ideas. 

Forge a bond. For a story to be complete, there must be a teller and a listener. By telling a well-crafted story, you build a connection with your audience. You’ve entertained them, you’ve convinced your audience to care, and you’ve shown your humanity. This simple connection of goodwill builds a powerful foundation of trust that your brand can continue to build on.

What makes a good story?

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There are a few rules of thumb that apply to most great stories. They are:

  • Interesting: No one wants to hear a story about how a person woke up, ate breakfast, had a completely normal day, and then went to sleep. 
  • Memorable: The audience sees the story’s world through a protagonist’s eyes and is emotionally vested in what happens next. 
  • Organized: A strong storyline will show how people think and feel about events. It’ll build a sense of meaning by revealing one or more characters’ inner lives.
  • Entertaining: A good story is crafted with a certain empathy. The teller will pace events to heighten the listener’s comprehension. They’ll make educated guesses about what their audience will recognize and enjoy. 
  • Respectful: Stories lead the audience through different realizations but leave the audience to form their own opinions. This is particularly important when telling a story about your own life or business successes, where it’s vital not to come across as a braggart or someone whose bias makes your account unreliable.

Storytelling techniques

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There is no single storytelling technique, and there is no right or wrong in how to tell a good story. However, we can now draw together some of the threads discussed this far to give a practical illustration of how you might weave together some principles of storytelling best practice to build your own story.

Let’s imagine you want to tell a story about a transformative moment as you built your business

#1. Start with a relatable hero. This is your brand. To make yourself relatable in your story, build in some universals. Be brave here and talk about how it felt in the early days of your business; your hopes of building a great business; your fear that you might not make it.

#2. Set the scene. Here’s where you’d lean on Pixar’s trick of describing the normal status quo. You might describe your daily routine, where you’d come from, and what a normal business day looked like. 

#3. Reveal a challenge or problem. All stories have to include some level of conflict and transformation. When the unexpected strikes in your story, be sure to signal it clearly. Be sure to show your audience what was at stake, and why your simple journey to success was suddenly turned upside down. 

#4. Resolve the story on a few levels. Being mindful that a story is never just about description, you might decide to end your story on a few levels. For example, in addition to describing what happened, you might also reflect on what it meant for you emotionally, and offer some reflections on why it happened. You might go on to reveal what you learned morally, ethically, or strategically. 

You might decide to end your story neatly, presenting a clear direction. Or you might opt to keep some of your conclusions equivocal. Either is fine, so long as your audience gains some emotional reward from seeing your adventure successfully resolved. 

Some examples of storytelling in marketing

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You’ll find storytelling marketing examples everywhere if you look! Some are subtle, adding just a dash of story elements to add depth to an otherwise routine advertisement. Other companies build complete campaigns around a storyline, online obliquely referring to their product and call-to-action along the way.

Here are a few recent examples of great storytelling:

Nike’s web series campaign

In this YouTube ad series, Nike builds an episodic story around two characters, Lily and Margot, who challenge each other to transform their lives. 

Lily challenges Margot (who is a bit lazy and socially retiring) to start up a fitness channel online. Margot challenges Lily (a naturally aloof fitness instructor) to make at least three real friends. Over eight episodes, both characters have to push outside their comfort zones, often with hilarious consequences. 

The striking thing about this story is that very little is said of sports equipment or apparel. The campaign is a story about people striving to grow, and Nike’s brand name is just sitting in the background as the teller of the tale, and a company that understands that sometimes you have to go out of your comfort zone and “just do it.”

The result? A keen sense of belonging with the Nike identity and tons of feel-good brand recognition.

Progressive’s commercials featuring Flo and Jamie

Progressive insurance commercials also lean on story elements to build strong brand loyalty. These commercials center around two Progressive employees, Flo and Jamie. With each new ad, viewers are dropped into a strange situation where Flo and Jamie are working as a team to keep a Progressive customer safe. 

A recent commercial begins with both characters talking about how they dealt with a difficult situation using advanced knowledge of Victorian architecture. No explanation is given, leaving the viewer (quite deliberately!) filled with burning questions.

Through Jamie and Flo’s stories, we’re invited to think of Progressive as a friend and protector, and perhaps just as importantly, as a group of people who represent far more than a boring insurance company.

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8. The storytelling process

The storytelling process is a checklist of tasks you can do to build a story around your business. By following these steps you’ll be able to start at a basic idea and end up with a well-defined story with a relatable protagonist, a compelling plot, and a surprising hook. 

1. Know your audience. Remember that good stories flow in two directions. The listener’s role in the story is just as important as the teller. So spend time thinking about who your audience is, what kinds of ideas will draw them in, and how best to tell your story in a style they’ll enjoy. 

2. Find the perfect story hook. Before you decide where to begin your story, think about your ultimate reveal — your twist. This may be something subtle, like a gradual transformation, or it may be a sudden change of fortune, as an unexpected disaster, or turn of events. Your whole story leads up to this crucial crescendo moment, so it’s important to understand exactly what that moment is before you begin. 

3. Define your core message. Stories are not just a description of events, so spend time carefully considering exactly what it is you’re trying to reveal through this story. Your message, ideally, will be closely tied to your hook. That way, the excitement you generate when you reveal your twist can flow directly into your message.

4. Determine what kind of story you’re telling. Now that you have your high points established, you can begin to think about the shape of your story. The most common kinds of business stories revolve around identity (who we are, what we believe) or transformation through time (why we’re here, where we’re going). Knowing this shape will help you craft your key story beats.

5. Structure your story. Here we hit on the fundamentals of three-act storytelling. You’ll require a beginning. As Pixar’s story spine would put it, this is the point where you describe your protagonist, and an ordered existence made suddenly chaotic by a change of some kind. Your middle should clearly signal conflict and struggle, charting the course of a growing threat. Your conclusion should introduce the climax to your story, the moment the threat was overcome, and some final reflections as the protagonist settle into a newly ordered existence. Many (perhaps even most) good story structures convey a cycle from order to chaos, and back to order again. 

6. Establish your call-to-action. The final part of your story should be what your listener should take away from your tale. This is the idea that will cling to them. Your call-to-action may be an invitation to purchase your product or service. It could be something as subtle as an invitation to see your brand as a friendly and reliable presence. Regardless of how tangible your call-to-action is though, your final statement should be one punchy statement about where to go next. 

7. Choose your story medium. By now you’ll have your story plan laid out. Now’s the time to choose where your story will live. Some stories are made to be spoken face-to-face, in which case your story medium might consist of index cards to help you practice your delivery. You might decide to tell your story through a YouTube video, or some other streaming media. Or, you may decide that old school is best, and tell your story in a blog or email. Be sure to write your story with the intended medium in mind.

8. Write. Writing is rarely a comfortable or easy process. Take your time, re-read your story as though it were someone else’s work, and know that there’s no such thing as perfect. Better than your last draft will have to do. While you write, remember these key principles:

  • Tell stories with data: Data needn’t sit separately from your narrative. Instead, turn facts and figures to your advantage, using high-impact visuals and imagery to show how it translates across to reality. 
  • Make the complex clear:  Identify the parts of your story that might bog your audience down or “lose” them. Work hard to distill these elements down to basic ideas with which they can emotionally relate. 
  • Combine the power of a story with simple visuals: Show, don’t tell. In place of dry exposition, illustrate your ideas with a vivid mental image for your audience.

Sometimes you have the story idea but do not have the knack for writing. This is where you bring in help. It’s perfectly acceptable to work with a copywriter who has a way with words to help you craft your stories. 

9. Share your story. This can be a tricky moment because when you share something it’s no longer completely yours. Conventional persuasive business messaging isn’t personal. Most good stories are, at least on some level. You may have last-minute doubts. Be brave and rip the bandaid!

Mastering the art of storytelling for business

Storytelling is a powerful way to get yourself and your brand noticed. Stories lend a distinctive voice to your message. They place you and your team right beside your call-to-action. Most importantly, stories can build a potently persuasive connection between you and your audience — a vital starting point for building trust. 

Everyone’s approach and style will be different, but if you stick to the core storytelling principles laid out in this guide, you’ll be in a good position to craft meaningful, unique stories that get you noticed.  

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