Stories. You might think these are just for writers or movie-makers. Or those who want to pen the next 50 Shades Of Grey. But storytelling is also a vital skill in the world of business. If you get it right, your stories can convert customers, inspire your team and nurture a legion of raving fans.
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Why Is Storytelling So Powerful?
As humans, we're simply hardwired to share stories. Whether it's through cave paintings or Tweets, stories are how we communicate with each other and make sense of the world. They have the power to galvanise armies and inspire people to action. And yet they are one of the most under-utilised skills in business.
That's because we've been conditioned to work in a data-driven society. We obsessively check our blogs stats as if we're on crack, want to know the return on investment on our AdWords campaigns, and litter our PowerPoint presentations with an endless array of pie charts, graphs and statistics. We justify this by saying: "As you can see, the numbers speak for themselves."
Well, guess what? They don't! Numbers like this are very important, but they only tell half the story. If you're trying to grow your business, increase your sales, or persuade someone into action, then it's the story framing that data that will most likely get people over the line.
After all, while the numbers will register in people's minds, it's the story behind the numbers that will reach their emotions. It's the story that will move them.
What Kind Of Stories Do You Need?
I believe that a successful entrepreneur or businessperson needs an arsenal of several stories. Then you can pull out the one best suited to your circumstances at the time. Here are just a few essentials.
1. Your elevator pitch
I know; it's such a crass term (I mean, who ever pitches a total stranger in an elevator anyway?), but it's very useful. Essentially, it's your 10-second explanation of who you are and what you do. I've heard someone introduce herself like this: "Hi, my name is Laura. I’m a business coach and I work with small business owners and solopreneurs. I’m part of a worldwide network of more than 1100 certified coaches in 67 countries around the world. We share resources and I just returned from our international conference in Paris."
I was ready to yawn by the time she reached her second sentence. I could not have cared less that she was part of a worldwide network; if I'm working with a coach, I want to work with the same one each time. And the fact that her colleagues are in 67 countries is simply of no consequence to me
Laura was telling the wrong story. She needs to craft one that's going to be relevant to her prospective clients. Perhaps: "’I'm a business coach and I help small business owners and solopreneurs improve their profitability, get more customers and reduce the time they need to spend on their business." Simple tweak, but it makes a big difference.
2. Your customer story
These are the most powerful stories in your arsenal, so make you have some ready to use when the time is right. These are the stories about how your customers' lives have changed after using your product or service.
I knew my accountant, Tracey, for years before I finally became her client. We used to bump into each other at networking events and I always knew that she did tax returns, set up companies and provided accounting advice. At the time, I wasn't actively looking for a new accountant (mine seemed to be doing an OK job) but then she told me a story about one of her clients. He was a suburban butcher who took his little business from a small operation turning over $200,000 a year to a company turning over in excess of $1 million. She advised him during this growth period.
It was this story that resonated with me. After all, I already expected that she would be able to prepare a tax return. But that story showed me a real-life example of the impact of her advice. I could relate to the butcher because he was just like me — a small business owner trying to grow.
In addition to telling customer stories, it's also powerful to use testimonials and reviews on your website. But make sure they're meaningful.
If you're a gym owner, this isn't very useful: "Great gym. Love it!" This is more meaningful: "I lost 10 kilos in three months thanks to the support of the trainers."
When you're identifying the right customer stories to tell, ensure they clearly illustrate the tangible outcomes from working with you.
3. Your pitch story
I once asked a woman about her new business. She started talking and 20 minutes later I had to ask her to stop. I still had no idea what she was selling and knew that her explanation was going nowhere fast. Here, simplicity is the key. If you can't say it in a sentence then you need to go back to the drawing board and hone your story until you can.
Whether you're pitching someone to do business with you, or to investors to get funding, the people you are pitching to fundamentally need to understand what you're about. If you're a tech startup, you might be pitching an idea so new that there's nothing else to compare it to. In that case, make it easy for people by using examples they can relate to. "We're like Facebook for doctors." "We're like seek.com.au for bloggers". "We're like the eBay for renters instead of sellers." Hone your pitch story until you see those knowing nods from the people across the table.
What's Your Story?
The story you use can be the difference between whether you seal the deal, win that customer or get the girl. Okay, maybe not get the girl. But next time you go into a meeting armed with your pie charts, fancy graphs and reams of data, remember that the most powerful tool at your disposal could actually be . . . . a simple story.
Valerie Khoo is founder of Sydney Writers' Centreand co-founder of SocialCallout.com. She is an adviser and investor in businesses and startups. Valerie is author of the new book Power Stories: The 8 Stories You MUST Tell to Build an Epic Business.