“The podium leaned at 27 degrees.”
That’s the first sentence to a story. Well, really it’s the middle of a story. Let’s start at the beginning.
A few years ago my coworker, Matt, and I participated in a story writing class at the Writers & Artists’ Conference at Christian Light in Harrisonburg, Virginia. Samuel Coons helped us hone the skill of crafting captivating opening storylines.
I remember one exercise from the class. After explaining the fundamentals of writing opening lines, Samuel assigned us to write a strong opening sentence to a story.
We bent over our papers, wracking our minds for a powerful sentence. Samuel asked for three volunteers to share their sentences. (I won’t tell you what I wrote. It was embarrassingly bad. Why do you think I was in the class, anyhow?) Matt was one of the brave three who ventured to share his line: “The podium leaned at 27 degrees.”
If that was the first line of a story, don’t you wish you knew what happened next? Is this at school? at church? at a business seminar? What made the podium tip? Will it fall over or settle back down? Will someone get hurt? How many people are in the room? Is this a life-threatening conflict or a practical joke?
Benefits of using stories in marketing
What does this have to do with marketing? Well-written stories are a powerful marketing tool. Stories capture our attention, feed us information, build our trust, and motivate us to change our thinking and even take action. Let’s explore each of these benefits.
Stories capture attention. Those six words “The podium leaned at 27 degrees” open a “story loop” in our minds. We want to “close the loop,” which means we need to satisfy our curiosity by reading further. Writers know that if they dive into the middle of the action right away, readers will more likely keep reading. There are other ways to open a story, but stories get your attention.
Stories convey information. Stories are packed with specific and implied information. Our brains have an amazing capacity to create a complete mental picture just by reading a few words on the page. Because stories engage us emotionally, facts presented in a story are easier to remember than facts in a list. Does the number 27 stand out right now?
Stories build trust. Many stories follow a similar pattern: a main character encounters a problem and needs to overcome it. They also include conflict. This can be between characters, the character and nature, or the main character and himself as he wrestles with something difficult in his life.
As we read a story, we begin to identify with one side of the conflict. We instinctively trust the characters on whichever side we support. A story especially builds trust when it relates to our own experience or is something we are passionate about.
Stories sway minds. Stories give us a new interpretation of our world. Seeing life through the eyes of story characters influences us to expand or change our views. Jesus told stories to show people the better way of the Gospel. President Trump tells stories that resonate with his supporters, keeping them behind him (other politicians do this too).
Stories spark action. Stories affect our emotions, sometimes deeply. That leads to the most important thing a story can do. Move us to act. In marketing, our stories should move readers toward a good buying decision.
How to use stories in marketing
You may wonder how you should use stories in your marketing. Here are some ideas.
Present a customer testimonial. Testimonials are powerful because the author of the story is your customer. They can witness to the results they experienced. Prospects searching for a solution to similar problems identify with the testimonial.
The best testimonials are not the vague ones that say things like, “Bob and his team did a great job.” Testimonials that tell how you helped eliminate a specific problem or frustration for the customer are more effective: “I struggled for years to keep my landscaping looking nice, but I simply didn’t have time. Bob and his team have been outstanding. Because of their work I have more free time, plus my place looks great every week.”
Write a case study. Use a story to explain your client’s problem, how you solved it, and what the outcome was. This has a similar structure to the sample testimonial above, but is much longer and comprehensive. Case studies build trust in your process and illustrate your experience and competence.
Share your company history. Every business has a story, and telling this story can build trust with customers. Bare historical facts will fall by the wayside, but an engaging story with conflict your customers can relate to earns their respect.
However, don’t make your stories all about you and your success. You probably remember hearing how Sam Walton started a small store in Arkansas, and his passion for serving customers with low prices as his chain began to grow. Those stories are less about Sam Walton’s success and more about Walmart’s focus on keeping prices low for their customers.
In the same way, stories from your company history should show your core values and demonstrate how you help your customers succeed. People like to be a part of success.
Create bite-size stories. Writer Ernest Hemingway once bet some friends he could write a story using only six words. He won the bet with this: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
For marketing purposes, stories don’t need to be a complete sentence. For example, show a few of your client’s logos under the heading “Happy Customers.” This reassures prospects because they think, “If those customers were happy with the results, we will be too.”
Tell stories with pictures. The photographs used in your brochures, catalogs, and website should be carefully chosen to communicate your message. Sometimes publicly available stock images work well, but often they are less effective than an image custom tailored to your target audience.
Keep your promises. Remember. The stories you promote contain implicit promises your customers expect you to keep. Your stories should not lead readers to expect something you may not consistently deliver.
Getting started with stories
Do you feel like nothing interesting ever happens to you or your business? Maybe you’re wondering if you have any stories to tell. Follow these steps to start promoting your business with stories.
- Ask customers to tell you their stories.
- Identify how you help them solve conflict. What is the conflict? It’s the struggle, the frustration, the problem you can solve for them.
- Write your story in simple words. Open it in the middle of the action. Tell how the customer felt before doing business with you. Show the way you helped the customer. Close with your customer’s success (not yours).
- Distribute your stories. Tell your stories to prospects, print your stories, email your stories, and post your stories online.
- Pay attention to how people understand your stories. You may need to tell them differently so they understand them better.
Stories that customers tell
Whether or not you tell stories, your customers do. These are called “word of mouth.” The quality of your customer’s experience with your people or product has a direct relation to the stories they will tell about you.
A bad experience will result in bad word of mouth, the kinds of stories you don’t want people to tell. For example, A musician, Dave Carroll, was flying with his band in 2008. He had checked in his $3500 guitar. As the baggage handlers were unloading luggage during a layover, he heard a passenger exclaim, “They’re throwing guitars out there!” And when Dave picked up his guitar at his destination, it was broken.
Dave spent months contacting United requesting they pay for the $1200 worth of repairs to his guitar, but the airline refused. He then wrote a song called “United Breaks Guitars,” recorded it in a humorous music video, and posted it online. Millions of people saw and shared the video, creating a major public relations problem for the airline (as of 2019 the song has over 19 million views on YouTube).
Word of mouth is powerful. People believe their friends, family, acquaintances, or even just an “average customer” more than they believe what a company says about itself (this is why online reviews are so popular).
So even when our marketing is the best we can make it, the stories customers tell each other carry more weight than our own words. Work hard to give your customers outstanding experiences they will share!
Children love stories. Adults do too. Use stories to good effect in your marketing to help prospects envision doing business with you, to create emotional appeal, to convey information, and much more. Through word of mouth, your customers will spread these stories.
And now, for the rest of the story of the leaning podium—well, begin sharpening your story skills by finishing it. We would love to know how it ends, too.
About the Author: Roy Herr is the senior marketing consultant at Rosewood Marketing. The Rosewood team guides business owners through marketing challenges into sustainable growth.