Effective storytelling for business

I write about strategies to turn fans into customers and customers into fans. I also share ways to use real-time strategies to spread ideas, influence minds, and build business.

writing  |  Brand Journalism  |  Best Practices

As content takes its rightful place at the forefront of marketing, I'm seeing many marketers fail at basic storytelling.

Marketers are ineffective when they use the classic "customer testimonial" format and pop that onto their blog or make it into a video. "Here’s our product. It is great. Here are customers who say it is great. Now buy some of our product." This just doesn't hold people's attention.

How interesting would a book or movie be were it to have this plot?:
Boy meets girl.
They fall in love.
They get married.

That's what most people do with their business writing.

Effective storytelling

The best stories drip with conflict. They have a hero and sometimes a villain. There is a story arc. As a writing teacher once told me: "Writing without conflict is propaganda."

Movies and novels have these elements – the best open with conflict in the first scene, on the first page, or even the first paragraph. Usually, it's one character in conflict with others (Batman against the bad guys). Sometimes it's a character in conflict with herself ("I really shouldn't go into this bar, but...").

Example of a good storytelling TV ad

Here an example of a story driven TV ad Audi aired during the 2012 Super Bowl called "Prom". I really like this ad because it is an example of all the elements of a good story. A slightly insecure teenager is unhappy about going to the Senior Prom without a date. But when Dad lets him borrow the new Audi S6 for the night, he gains more and more confidence with every mile, arriving at the Prom a changed young man. There's a confrontation and a resolution. And it all happened in one minute.

Direct link to Audi Prom on YouTube.

Example of a good storytelling blog post

For an example of a story-based blog post, check out Weather Happens – Be Prepared by Kristiana Almeida on the American Red Cross blog.

Kristiana writes about her life as a kid on Cape Cod and uses that to educate on being prepared for a blizzard. Great stuff. What does the Red Cross really want? A donation. Is a donation mentioned in this post? No.

You too can be an effective storyteller

Here are a few ideas to get you thinking about telling stories that people will want to pay attention to rather than propaganda they will ignore.

- Instead of "creating copy", think about sitting in a restaurant with friends and explaining a little about your work to them. How would you say it? How would you hold your friends' interest? Write that down.

- Rather than talking about the features and benefits of your products and services, consider how you help people to solve problems.

- Who or what is the "bad guy" in your market? Is it the big, famous company that everybody does business with but nobody really likes? Is there some silly government regulation that holds buyers back? How can you weave those into a story with conflict?

- What is the status quo? Use that as the bad guy in your story.

Bonus for reading this far: Here's how I create many of the stories of success I share in this blog, in my speeches, and in my books: I think of the story as a movie or novel and cast the people from around the world whose success I showcase as my hero and traditional offline advertising and the PR pitching approach as the villains. That's what I did in this post. Audi and the Red Cross are my heroes and the traditional customer testimonial is the villain. (Shh... don't give away my secret.)

Want more?

Several years ago I wrote a free ebook Gaijin Male Model: A Case Study in Conflict-Driven Business Writing.

If you’ve got a few minutes and want to dig deeper into using conflict in your own writing, this is a good place to start. No registration required.