This article was first published by Entrepreneur.com on November 3, 2021
You’ve likely heard the saying that “Companies don’t sell products, they sell stories”, which is at least partially true. To seduce today’s consumers, it’s critical to show them more than flashy merchandise, as their Instagram feeds are already awash in glossy photos of the latest luxe loungewear, NFL merch, dating advice… a myriad of pitches. To differentiate a company, you need to tell a story, to engage their values, and to create a sense of community and connection. This is why Jack Daniels claims that it has been “turning nights into stories since 1866”, and why Ancestry.com promises that “behind every question is a story”. Even the U.S. Forest Service is in on the tactic, encouraging Americans to “make the forest part of your family’s story”.
But of course, storytelling can also run the risk of becoming another corporate cliché, an empty platform that entrepreneurs trot out to make their companies simply seem relevant. Savvy consumers and investors will then likely tune out, their eyes glazing over when they hear yet another warm and fuzzy invocation of corporate values in a shopworn yarn. Far too many companies tout “stories” without any substance or commitment, trafficking in a limited, and limiting, understanding of this actually nuanced communication technique. Entrepreneurs need powerful language and narrative to create meaningful connections, but to do so, it’s critical to think more intentionally about what storytelling is and how to do it in a way that will create lasting value.
1. DON’T TELL THE SAME OLD STORY
For all the emphasis business leaders place on innovation and disruption, we sure love clichés. Scrolling through LinkedIn is like playing buzzword Mad Libs. Another floundering founder turned serial entrepreneur, followed by another ex-private equity, ex-Facebook, ex-Google accelerator grad bootstrapping a way to fame and glory? So, first and foremost, take off the turtleneck and tell your story, not Steve Jobs’. If your business has a unique history or an uncommon path to success, celebrate that. Embrace what distinguishes you, not what reduces you to a predictable caricature.
2. SHOW, DON’T TELL
This was likely your creative writing teacher’s favorite lesson, and for good reason. However, telling a story isn’t like writing an English paper; you don’t need to have a thesis statement in the first paragraph, and you don’t want to hit your audience over the head with multisyllabic words that are too witty by half. Good storytellers show their audience instead of telling them. Use anecdotes instead of elaborate justifications, examples instead of conclusions. Follow this rule, and your copy will come alive.
3. BE REAL
Storytelling is about connection. Recent good examples include how Dollar Shave Club capitalized on a comic monologue to groom a dull topic (puns intended), razors, into an edgy backstory. Or consider how Milton, Delaware-based Dogfish Head Brewery, among the founders of the micro-brewing revolution, links its beers to things like the Grateful Dead. These are more than focus-grouped marketing decisions; they represent a company’s human realness in a way that creates connection.
4. … BUT NOT TOO REAL
You want to be honest and human with customers and investors, but you don’t want to overshare. It’s a fine line, and finding it takes time and practice. The more you experiment with a story, the more details will emerge that lend it life and humanity, and the more you’ll identify the duds: anecdotes that fall flat or sound whiny. To help, we designed the app Biograph to tell and gather stories in real time, since memory fades and never does justice to the vibrant reality of original experience.
5. IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU…IT’S ABOUT YOUR AUDIENCE
Storytelling takes many forms, but good practitioners of the art have at least one thing in common… they respond to their audience, shifting style, tone and narrative to meet — or challenge — its expectations and reactions. Because, the vibe of a room can shape or stymie an approach, and so can the zeitgeist. Witness the missteps of a company like Tushy, a start-up selling portable bidets. After the killing of George Floyd in 2020, it tweeted support of the Black Lives Matter Movement, smearing posts with toilet humor. “We stand in solidarity with the families and loved ones of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Keep fighting. We got your back(side)”, read one. Talk about not reading the room. So, be prepared to shift approach for different audiences and settings. Don’t get locked into one story or one way of telling it. Cultivate flexibility, and by the way, your mom’s golden rule still applies: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.
6. CONNECT WITH YOUR VALUES
So far, this creative process overall sounds great, right? You’re creating a connection, a community, with customers and investors. Every entrepreneur wants that, but unless the stories you tell reflect your core values, chances are the resulting narratives and tales will unravel. Good stories reflect, as well as create, our values; they’re how we know ourselves and others, and how we help others know us. Take the case of the jewelry brand Dannijo, which advertises its commitment to doing good in part by using the phrase that its, “label is rooted in philanthropy”. Sounds like another cliché, but listen to how the writer(s) weaves products and values into a meaningful story: “[Our] debut in 2007 was a fundraising project for the first health clinic in Lwala, Kenya. Danielle’s time in Kenya subsequently influenced the brand’s iconic collection of Maasai-inspired bib necklaces, usage of bright colors and its bold aesthetic”. Briskly worded, and compelling.
It’s not enough to say how important your commitment to philanthropy is. Unless you can connect it to your experience, values and story, it’ll ring false. So, before you start telling a tired corporate chronicle, spend time reflecting on your values as an entrepreneur and an enterprise. Assemble stakeholders and focus groups. Understand where you’re coming from and where you’re going. The best stories will grow from that.
7. … AND YOUR CUSTOMERS’ VALUES
What happens when a story really lands — when it lights a fire in an investor or inspires lifelong loyalty in a customer? How does that happen? It’s certainly part magic, beyond the boundaries of rational explanation, but part also springs from an elemental connection at the level of values. Take, for example, John Lewis Insurance’s YouTube 2015 commercial, in which music, humor and gentle risk are synergized as the camera follows a little girl dancing around the house, nearly colliding with vases and potted plants. Not exactly an inspiring business subject, but the company hones in on values that connect us to truly precious things. It also describes the freedom felt when people have the right insurance — transforming a policy from a depressing chore into something inspiring. You can create the same connection if you focus on your customers’ values and weave a tale from there.
8. UNDERPROMISE AND OVERDELIVER
PepsiCo’s Naked Juice recently got caught slinging fiction: the company claimed this product line was “all natural” and “non-GMO”. Turns out, not so much, and the resulting scandal de-fizzed its bottom line. It also soured relationships with customers — people who trusted PepsiCo to be open and honest. It’s always better to be honest from the first sip, because nobody likes a bait and switch, a broken vow or bubbly hopes flattened against reality. It’s part corporate strategy (you must first commit to honesty and transparency), but it’s also a narrative matter. Try turning down the volume. Avoid purple prose. Simple storytelling hits home and inspires trust… conveys that you’re not hiding anything in the thickets of language.
So, don’t promise that your scented candles will put consumers in touch with the eternal, or that your energy drink will turn teenagers into honey-tongued raconteurs. Customers and investors will know you’re telling a tall tale, and a stale one. Be honest about who you are and what your product or service does. Save your time and experience for when you can tell real, meaningful stories and truly deliver on their promise.