Every Business Has a Story to Tell

Storytelling isn’t just for kids. It can win the hearts, minds and wallets of customers. Here’s how to shape narratives that’ll help you and your business live happily ever after.

Lately, businesses are moving back to the future to improve sales. Instead of pushing more slogans or promises into today’s noisy channels, marketers are reeling in customers and investors with the quiet power of stories.

That’s because personalized fables and founder legends can warm prospects and lead to buy-in way more effectively than other marketing, including case studies or social media.

“Stories inspire us,” explains Sunny Bonnell, co-founder of Motto, a Myrtle Beach, South Carolina-based branding agency. “They are the emotional glue that creates meaningful experiences between brands and their audience.” Stories speak directly to the human condition, to our hardwired emotions and instincts.

And make no mistake. It’s feelings that seal a deal. “Decision-making is an emotionally driven process,” says New York communications coach Jane Praeger, who runs Ovid Inc. and teaches “strategic storytelling” to business students at Columbia University. “When people make a business decision, they start with emotions, and then post-rationalize the decision with facts.” She cites the work of neuroscientist Antonio Damasio to prove the point.

Head of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California and a best-selling author, Damasio investigates the neurobiology of mind and behavior, particularly decision-making. One of his projects focused on people who had suffered damage in the part of the brain that rules emotions. As it turned out, that damage rendered them incapable of making even the simplest decisions. “There’s a lot of science behind why storytelling is so effective,” says Praeger

The once-upon-a-time back story Of course, just any old tale won’t do. To command mindshare and memory, you need authentic, compelling stories that touch nerves and heartstrings. Your story must capture and convey the emotional DNA of your brand.

Examples? Think of Smucker’s jam and the founding family tale that bolsters it. Or the emotional bond forged by the Snugli baby carrier, invented in the 1960s by former Peace Corps volunteer Ann Moore, who saw how mothers cared for babies in traditional cultures. And don’t forget Ford’s daring storytelling about its past mistakes and new laser focus on quality.

Business stories are all around you, just waiting to be crafted. To begin, think about the following:

- Whatever sparked the idea for your business.

- How you began.

- What the launch was like.

- What obstacles arose early on, or even last week, and how you overcame them.

- How you dealt with failure or crushing competition.

- Who encouraged you and why. This could be a mentor, client, investor, teacher, family member or ancestor.

- Defining moments, including a deal, event or client contact, that made you understand the business would survive and thrive.

- What fuels your passion and determination when facing rejection or hard times.

Personal challenge. Struggle. Conquest. Triumph. Those are the elements of a good story.

Be sure to include some dramatic movement in your story. Take your audience on a journey, advises Suzanne Henry at Four Leaf Public Relations in Charlottesville, Virginia. “To move from being merely an anecdote to being an actual story, a person needs to have experienced change,” she says, explaining that’s where many business storytellers fall down. “They give the conclusion [the message] without the context [the story].”

Heighten the drama Once you’ve outlined story basics, focus on details to make it sing. Entrepreneur Romy Taormina learned that the story really generates sales when you not only resonate with customers, but also motivate them to spread the word.

Based in Pacific Grove, California, Taormina and partner Carla Falcone produce Psi Bands, FDA-approved acupressure wristbands that relieve nausea from travel sickness, chemotherapy and early pregnancy. The two friends discovered the drug-free wristbands when they were both moms-to-be suffering from debilitating morning sickness. But the only bands available then were gray and ugly.

So the women decided to produce stylish bands, launching in 2007. Today, Psi Bands have won several small-business awards, earned enviable national coverage and are sold in 6,000 stores, including Whole Foods, CVS and Toys “R” Us.

The founders’ story is printed on all packaging and promotional material, providing instant empathy for anyone who suffers from nausea or knows somebody who is. “The net result is sales, greater distribution and additional media exposure and word of mouth,” says Taormina.

Stories work hardest when they’re relevant as well as emotional. Use your story to enhance your product or service and to connect with why you started the business in the first place.

Other advice:

- Include colorful, visual descriptions. “Move away from conceptual language and into specific details,” says Praeger. Good stories are anchored by time and place.

- Hone the story for every audience. The 60-second sound bite in interviews or online videos should tell the same effective tale as the long version in the company press release and the informal one on your website. You also need a conversational version for networking events and investors.

- Allow your story to evolve. “As a business grows, the story will evolve to incorporate the experiences that the customer has had with the brand,” says Sophie Gold at Wealthy Women Inc., a London-based coaching agency for women entrepreneurs. As an example, she points to how Facebook began with the story of “connecting to students” and scaled up to “sharing.”

In the end, says Ron Cappello, CEO of Infinia Group, a New York-based branding agency, “Everybody likes to buy, but nobody likes to be sold. Don’t make your story a sales pitch.” Instead, use the story to turn your customers into brand evangelists.