Business writing

Storytelling in business: What’s your story?

- January 31, 2012 3 MIN READ

A week at a creative writing festival in Ubud got me thinking about the parallels between good copywriting and the craft of storytelling in business.

It felt rather self-indulgent to spend a week surrounded by inspiring ideas and mingling with creative minds, with daily massages thrown in for good measure – but it was just what I needed to recharge my soul and my laptop fatigue, and it also recharged my thinking about my copywriting business.

I’d always thought of creative writing as the opposite of what I do everyday, which is to write the persuasive messages that other businesses need me to write. I assumed that fiction authors get to write about whatever pops into their imaginations.

But I’ve now realised that the ‘rules’ for telling stories are the same across all genres, from novels to websites. And perhaps if we focus more on telling stories about our businesses, we might make our marketing messages more compelling, and less like they fell off a business jargon production line.

What is a story?

To make a piece of writing or communication a story, something has to happen. Let’s think about the typical ‘About us’ page, which is one place where a business can tell its story. Does anything happen?

More often than not, ‘About us’ pages are self-absorbed twaddle about ‘driving shareholder value’ or ‘delivering on our promise’. There may be unsubstantiated claims, or abstract ideas like ‘excellence’. Without a story these have no meaning to the reader, who has typically arrived on that page looking for a reason to be interested in what you do.

Don’t be boring

Business clichés like the ones above are boring and lack substance. Give your story a hook and lure the reader in with concrete examples.

I recently met someone at a business networking event who ran a small business developing software. Refreshingly, his first words to me were not “I deliver innovative end-to-end custom-built state-of-the-art software solutions”. They were “I just helped someone save two days a month on their accounts invoicing.” Now, that interested me – I wanted to find out more about how he did that and what his customer now did with those two days a month.

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Give your story context

One of my blue-chip clients just won a global award for best website at a US digital summit. I’m not going to pretend I wrote that site, although I wish I had. But I did ask them what made their site stand out, and the answer was story-telling.

They are part of a huge multinational business, but this site tells local stories in a local context. Real stories about opportunities, risks and issues the reader – their local customers – can identify with. Exciting ways this business is making an impact. Tangible results that have made a difference to their clients.

Instead of having long navigation pages about their products and services, they’ve brought the business to life.

They could have talked about innovation until they were blue in the face, but instead they simply illustrated the idea with a few good stories – the who, where, why, what and how of innovation.

Why are stories important?

Stories keep us interested. They make things clear and easy to understand. And most importantly, we remember them.

You can use them just about anywhere in your business. An elevator pitch in 30 seconds? The introduction to a proposal? Your business website landing page? A PowerPoint presentation? Yes please – keep those stories coming. Especially in presentations.

Putting your story together

Since time began, the equation for telling stories has been hero + obstacle + resolution = happy ending.

So, make your business the hero. Your customer’s problems or needs are the obstacles. How do you resolve them to create a happy ending? There’s your story.

How do you use storytelling in business, and what response do you get from your customers?