Garrett clung desperately to the cold steel platform of his tree stand, his feet dangling high above the forest floor. It was October 23, 2008, just four days before Garrett and Cheryl’s third wedding anniversary. Garrett’s life flashed through his mind. He saw Amber in her high chair at dinner last evening—her charming ice cream face. He imagined Cheryl’s widowed future . . . 

For the last fifteen minutes, Garrett had struggled futilely to wrap his legs around the tree trunk. He yelled one more time, even though he knew no one was close enough to hear. He felt the air chill as the sun sank behind the mountain. 

Garrett remembered Cheryl’s smile and quick hug before he stepped out the door that afternoon. His fingers, numb, began to slip. He felt himself falling.

Stories are powerful.

We are story-driven people, living out stories, remembering stories, and telling stories. We make decisions based on stories—what we’ve heard from others’ experiences, the stories of our own experiences, the stories of how we see ourselves, and of what we want to become in the future. 

Stories captivate our minds, teach us facts and wisdom, tug on our emotions, and help us understand our lives in a larger context.

Stories captivate our minds, teach us facts and wisdom, tug on our emotions, and help us understand our lives in a larger context. Stories allow us to share the characters’ experiences, helping us step into their shoes and see the world through their eyes.

Jesus used stories extensively in His teaching. Intellectually, we all understand that God’s command is for us to love our neighbors as ourselves. But who qualifies as a neighbor?  When asked that question, Jesus could have responded with an answer such as this, “A neighbor is anyone you meet who needs help–even your enemy.”

Instead, Jesus told a story that still reverberates around the world today–the story of the Good Samaritan. That story doesn’t tell us “What to Do When Encountering an Injured Person Along the Road in Palestine” (a situation you and I are unlikely to encounter). The story is much more powerful than that. It shows us how to behave when we meet someone—anyone—in need, whether in Palestine or Pennsylvania or Paraguay. 

The life of Dirk Willems is another powerful story. Willems is the early Anabaptist Christian who escaped from prison by letting himself down out of a window with a rope of knotted rags. He ran gingerly across an ice-covered pond, but the guard chasing him wasn’t so fortunate. As the man splashed helplessly in the frigid water, Dirk turned around. Should he help, or not? 

Dirk Willems rescued his pursuer, but his kindness was not returned. Instead, the merciless authorities locked him up again.

This story helps show us how to act when an enemy is in trouble. This exact situation won’t ever happen to us, but that is not the point. The point is that because we know the story, we know how to show love to an enemy, any kind of enemy at any time and any place. 

That’s one reason we say that stories are powerful—they inform and drive our behavior. 

People buy based on stories.

The best marketers understand the role of stories in people’s lives and decisions. As a marketer or business owner, you should understand two types of stories that help people make buying decisions. The first one is straightforward, but the second one is more abstract.

1. Other people’s stories about your business. These stories take various forms: some are customer-generated and shared, such as word of mouth or online reviews. The case studies and testimonials that you curate also fall into this category.  

2. The stories that people live in their minds. Some people see themselves as living the story of a sophisticated intellectual. Others see themselves as living the story of a rough and ready adventurer. These two people can even be neighbors on the same street, but they are telling themselves very different stories that influence the things they buy. 

Here are a few more examples of what I am talking about:

In his book Building a StoryBrand, Donald Miller tells how he was tempted to buy a Gerber knife at Home Depot one day, even though he knew he didn’t need one. Miller describes how Gerber’s marketing tells a story—a story in which people who buy Gerber knives are brave and heroic people who are prepared to overcome obstacles and trouble. 

Miller writes, “The aspirational identity of a Gerber Knife customer is that they are tough, adventurous, fearless, action-oriented, and competent to do a hard job.” He found that story appealing, and he wanted to buy a knife to help him live out that story. Perhaps many of us can identify with that story—buying outdoor gear helps us tell ourselves the story that we are bold and prepared.

The book jacket of Seth Godin’s book All Marketers Are Liars says it this way: “All marketers tell stories. And if they do it right, we believe them. We believe that wine tastes better in a $20 glass than a $1 glass. We believe that an $80,000 Porsche is vastly superior to a $36,000 Volkswagen that’s virtually the same car. We believe that $225 sneakers will make our feet feel better—and look cooler—than a $25 brand.”

  • Why do some people refuse to drive a minivan?
  • Why are some people willing to pay more for brand-name products? 
  • Why do some people buy only organic food?

These decisions often come down to the stories people tell themselves about the kind of person they are and the stories that marketers tell them. 

Be a storymaker.

Maybe you don’t see yourself as a storyteller. I understand, but even so, you can be a storymaker. Your business or your product is part of your customer’s story. Here’s how: stories are often structured around a character who has a problem and needs to overcome obstacles to reach a favorable conclusion. The story character is your customer, and the problem they have is the problem that your business or product can solve. 

Your business or product helps the customer solve the problem and reach a happy ending. That’s what makes happy customers like this one, who left this online review for a service business called “ABC” (name and details changed slightly):

“I used another company to try to find and fix a leak in our line. The other company overcharged me, only fixed part of the problem, and left without ensuring that everything was properly working. Lesson learned. However, ABC came out and used their tools to fully diagnose the problem, fix it and positively confirm that the system was working. Very satisfied. Thank you!”

Tell customer success stories.

Hearing stories like this gives confidence to other people to give your business a call. How can you use stories like this in your marketing?

Publish testimonials. Use testimonials from customers on your website and in brochures. Some testimonials are more effective than others. For example, “I love my new shed!” does not tell a story—a story must involve elements of struggle or conflict (note these elements in the ABC testimonial above). 

You can use questions like these to help customers formulate an effective testimonial (customize for your own situation):

  • What problem/situation led you to consider purchasing from us?
  • How did that challenge make you feel?
  • What concerns did you have about doing business with us?
  • Did those concerns materialize?
  • What results did you experience from doing business with us?
  • How do you feel about your decision?
  • Do you have anything to add?

Ask customers to leave an honest review for you on Yelp, Houzz, Google, or another relevant site. Many consumers today will research your business in advance and rely on these reviews in deciding who to call. 

Prospects enjoy hearing stories of how you have helped people in a similar situation or similar industry to theirs.

Create case studies. You can compile and publish detailed case studies of projects you have worked on. Make these available on your website and social media, or publish them in your newsletter or your email list. 

Before and after photos. Pictures can tell stories too. 

Use stories in your sales process. Prospects enjoy hearing stories of how you have helped people in a similar situation or similar industry to theirs. Another way to use stories is when a customer pressures you to do something that you know won’t work. You can say, “We tried that one time, and this is what happened. 

The rest of Garrett’s story

The story we started out with is fictional, but I know you want to know what happened to Garret. Did he survive his fall in the forest?

642 days after his dreadful fall, Garrett rolled his wheelchair over the threshold into attorney Lindeberg’s square office. On that day, a new business was born: Bear Hug Outdoor. And every morning since, when Garrett rolls his motionless feet under his natural oak desk, he remembers the purpose of Bear Hug: Protecting climbing hunters one family at a time. 

Garrett knows the importance of safety—not because he listened to a game warden instructing youngsters in a hunter safety class, but because he lives each day with the consequences of a poor safety choice. 

But Garrett is upbeat. He is grateful to be alive. He is thankful he can still draw a bow, and he is intent on sparing as many people as he possibly can from sharing his own fate. He knows that every season many happy stories are created as hunters safely use his Bear Hug equipment. 

About the Author: Marvin Martin is head of sales and marketing at Rosewood. The Rosewood team guides business owners through marketing challenges into sustainable growth. Contact Marvin at marvin@rosewood.us.com