No matter what business you’re in, you also have to be able to tell a story. No, that doesn’t mean you have to make up “Once upon a time…” tales or spooky ghost stories by a campfire—but you do have to be able to tell a powerful story about your business—or rather, two types of stories that communicate the possibilities your business offers to two different groups.
Your Internal Stories
One of the stories you have to tell is internal—it’s the story that you are telling to your team members, partners, and others affiliated with and around your business. This has to be an inspiring story about both your mission and your vision.
First you have to get others excited about your mission for the business. What is it you’re really all about? What is your purpose? Simply put, your employees have to be doing more than just fulfilling a list of tasks and duties. They need to understand the ultimate outcome of what they’re doing. When they do their job right, what happens? Who is helped? How does their work make a difference in someone else’s lives?
Adam Grant from the Wharton School of Business wrote about an example of this he personally witnessed while working with a call center—an industry that is perennially challenging for its employees. Instead of relying on incentives or punishments to motivate employees, however, Grant and his team found a beneficiary of the call center, which raised funds that were used to give scholarships to students. Grant brought in a student who was receiving one of those scholarships to come in and talk about how important the scholarship was and what it meant for his life. After this session, the call center’s results skyrocketed—the number of calls increased, and the calls themselves yielded more results. It worked because the team was given a glimpse of their mission. They were told a story of how their effort mattered, and it made a huge difference.
Second, you want to have a story that communicates your vision. The two questions you need to answer are:
- Where did you come from?
- Where are you going?
Can you tell your story in a way that gets people passionate about what you’re doing? Give people a destination that they want to go to, and then show them how you will get them there. Starting the story with your (or the company’s) beginnings helps give the story momentum—people don’t need every detail of your life or the company’s history, but a sense of progress from Point A to the present helps people better understand what is needed to get from where you are now to where you want to be. They inspire employees to commit to the company, and inspire partners to jump on the bandwagon. Those are stories that you need to be able to tell—and inspire passion.
Your External Stories
The second story or set of stories you should be able to tell are external stories. In fact, these are probably stories you’re more used to telling. They are customer-oriented stories, designed to help customers and prospects better understand your business and how you can help them. Marketing and branding messages should help tell the story of your business, along with personal communications with customers who come into your store or contact you in some way.
While you might have some external stories that focus on telling your own story, the stronger emphasis will be on customers themselves. Instead of purpose and vision stories, you’re telling problem–solution stories. How can your business benefit someone’s life? What problem can you solve for them?
The basic format of these stories is to start with a problem that someone has. You don’t need to dwell on the problem (the classic move of the infomercial that lingers on and repeatedly goes back to the cheesy footage of people frustrated beyond all reason by small problems), but you need to make it clear in a concise way. Once the problem is on the table, you can transition the story to you and what you can do to solve it. What is it that you do, exactly, and how do you stand out from competitors who solve the same problem? Solution, benefits, differentiation. Right now, you’re here. If you do this, you’ll be there.
Key to making this story work is to get the customer to occupy the story. They need to see themselves in the story you’re telling, because otherwise it’s a lot of words that don’t apply. You can have a cool product or service that solves a particular problem in a unique way—but if it doesn’t apply, then the listener isn’t interested. That means you really have to understand your audience, and customize your story when you can to best fit the particular person or group of people you’re communicating with at a given moment. So first target your messages so that the people you’re talking to have a reason to be interested in what you’re saying, and then further hone your story. For example, if there are three primary benefits you talk about with your product, you might put more emphasis on one or another of them depending on who you’re talking to—depending on whether you’re talking to someone who’s more price conscious, more interested in unique technology, or looking for convenience, say.
As human beings, we naturally are drawn and respond to stories. We are each the hero of our own life story, and we have an amazing capacity to place ourselves into stories told by others. A business that can tell a compelling story to both its customers and its own members is poised for growth.