Human Resources, Marketing, PR & Advertising, and Small Business & Startups

Business as storytelling

July 31, 2019
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Stacie Scherman. Courtesy Michigan SBDC

Whenever I tell someone I have a master’s in English, I often hear some variation of, “Well, that’s a long jump from business.”

Yes, on the surface it may seem like my business and English degrees are totally unrelated, and that my time (and money) spent in grad school are lost on my career in small business ownership and consulting.

But what many people don’t see is that planning, launching and running a business is essentially a series of storytelling. The medium may differ (website and business plans vs. books and journals) but the main elements remain the same: Communicating a compelling message to an audience using one or more channels. If you start paying attention, you’ll see the most successful companies also are the best storytellers. Why? Humans are hardwired to be drawn into stories. And the most compelling stories are those that are about us.

The most obvious business function that uses storytelling is marketing. A successful marketing campaign will tell a story of your product or service from the perspective of your customers’ needs and values. They don’t care about what you’re selling; they care about what they are buying. So don’t waste your time telling them a story about you; tell a story about them, and how your product or service fits in that narrative. If you can nail down the story, then choosing the channel is just logistics.

Another important story is the one told to potential lenders and investors. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in; if you’re asking for $10,000 or $1 million; or if you’re talking to a bank or are on Shark Tank. The foundation of your story is the same: How is your business going to earn the profits necessary to provide the investment returns you are promising. Remember, just like your customers, investors don’t want to hear a story about you; they want to hear a story about how they are going to make some return on their investment, and how you are going to make that happen.

A third audience that may be the most crucial to your business is your employees. If you don’t share your vision of your company’s story with your employees, and their roles within it, they will make up their own story — and it may not be a good one. Just like your story to customers and investors, your story to employees should be about them — how their role as a main character in your organization supports the company mission and also affirms their own identity and fits with their values and goals. Master this, and you will create buy-in, job satisfaction, high retention and a coordinated, concerted effort toward company goals.

Your employees also are storytellers of your company. Even if they don’t interact directly with your customers, they all ultimately contribute to the customer’s experience with the final product or service. Your employees also communicate your company’s story through interactions with vendors and conversations about their job with friends and family. The more effective you are at creating a unified story that your employees feel a part of, the more control you will have over the outward representation of your company.

So what makes a good story? The most basic, fundamental elements of any story are the protagonist (good guy, main character), antagonist (bad guy), problem/conflict, resolution, and inciting action (motivation for main character to act). These literary terms easily translate into recognizable business terms. The protagonist is the main audience of your message — customers, lenders, investors, employees. They are the heroes of the story. The protagonist has a problem or conflict brought on by an antagonist (which is not necessarily a person). Your company has the solution (resolution) and your story will direct the protagonist to take some action (inciting action).

Let’s say you sell coffee. Your target customer (protagonist) is a hard-working mom who needs morning energy but can’t find an affordable, good cup of coffee (problem) because all of the options are expensive or taste bad (antagonists creating the problem). You understand her needs and offer a resolution: a smooth tasting, affordable cup of coffee conveniently located near the local school. All she needs to do is drive through on her way to drop her kids off (inciting action).

You want to open a second location in the next town over but you need a loan. The loan officer (protagonist) at your bank wants to add more business to her portfolio, but has to weed through a lot of weak applications (problem) submitted by unprepared businesses (antagonists). You write a business plan that includes financial history, projections and market research to clearly demonstrate your company’s ability to make the loan payments (resolution) and how you will use the funds you are requesting (inciting action).

Once your loan is approved, you need to hire new employees and promote some existing employees to manage the second store. Your employees (protagonists) all have individual needs, but generally want to feel valued, use their skills, and meet their financial needs (problem). These needs may not have been met in previous jobs (antagonists), which is why they are with your company now. You communicate how the expansion plan will lead to advancement opportunities with increased wages and benefits (resolution). In return, you are relying on them to help train new employees, manage the new location, and support the company’s vision (inciting action).

Replicate this model for all of your audiences and you will have compelling stories that create strong connections with all of your stakeholders.