Once Upon a Time: The Importance of Stories for Your Business

by Ken Mueller on January 19, 2012 · 42 comments

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Heard any good stories lately?

Not long ago a man walked into a store here in Lancaster where my wife was working. He told her that he was visiting from Hawaii, but had actually grown up in Lancaster. He proceeded to tell my wife that when he was about 3 or 4 years old, there was a tobacco warehouse just a few blocks away from his home. (At one time Lancaster was a booming tobacco town, with the crop being grown by the Amish outside of the city, and warehouses inside the city). He told my wife that during WWII, the basement of this particular warehouse was used to house German POWs. Once captured, some of those German soldiers were brought to Lancaster and were held in these warehouses, where they were given various tasks related to the processing of the tobacco. This gentleman told my wife that he and his young friends would go up to the windows that led to the basement and offer candy to the POWs who were living and working there.

As a history buff, this sort of thing fascinates me. It’s a part of our local history of which I wasn’t aware, and I would bet that very few other locals are aware of this, either.

In a world filled with sound bites, ad slogans, and 140 character tweets, we seem to forget the importance of stories. But we need to regain the art of storytelling, understanding the importance of stories, as well as the power they wield. Businesses need to tap into these stories as they seek to create content and campaigns for blogs and both traditional and social media outlets.

Here are a few characteristics of stories, particularly within the framework of how we do business.

Stories often surprise us – I love when I find out something new and interesting about a friend or a business. We all have those things that others might not know about us. Sometimes the history of a business or the history behind a location or product might be of great interest to customers.

Stories leave us wanting more – I want to know more about these soldiers. How many of them were there? Where else in Lancaster or in the U.S. were they housed? After the war did they stay here or were they sent home? Also, did the general public realize they were here living in our midst? A good story begs for more. As you tell your story, you may find that your customers ask for more details.

Stories come from multiple perspectives – In this particular case, we heard the story from the perspective of an American remembering back to his Lancaster childhood. But what about that same story from the perspective of the POWs or even the perspective of the tobacco business men or Amish farmers who may have come in contact with them. The story of your business can, and should, be told from your own perspective. But don’t forget the perspectives of your employees, customers, vendors, and others who have been affected by your business in some way.

Stories allow for deeper connections – We talk a lot about how one of the goals of Social Media is relationship building. Well, the way in which we build relationships online or offline is based on how well we get to know one another. Stories are a big part of that. I’ve read a few personal blogs recently made me feel closer to the author because of the details they dared to share. By telling your story, you are becoming the proverbial “open book” and are therefore more approachable. That allows for deeper connections.

Stories can make you vulnerable – I have one friend who works with a non-profit foundation that relates to autism. Jackie’s passion for the organization comes from the fact that her own son has this particular form of autism. I’ve been encouraging her to blog about her experiences – both the frustrations and the joys – on behalf of the foundation. One of her biggest questions is, “How much should I share?”. Obviously she’ll need to set her own boundaries and discover her own comfort level, but she understands that there is an increased level of vulnerability. And vulnerability is a great character quality that is endearing and creates a higher degree of trust. I have no doubt she’ll do well when she starts.

Stories humanize – The beauty of becoming vulnerable through stories is that you can put a human face on things. Jackie, by being vulnerable, is putting a face on autism. When we hear that there are 8-thousand or 5-million or some number of people suffering from a particular disease, we understand that it’s a lot, but then…it’s just a number. By telling stories…our stories, we turn each of those numbers into a name or a face. We can’t identify with numbers, but we can identify with names and faces.

Stories are memorable – My wife could have just met that man in a store, and he would’ve just been another customer. But by telling a small portion of his story, my wife will remember him, when all of the others who come through the doors might just be nameless, faceless individuals who drift off into the streets of Lancaster.

Quiz time: Who is the spokesperson for Quiznos? OK, that might be a trick question, because I’m not even sure they have a spokesperson.

Now, who’s the spokesperson for Subway? I would bet that most of you answered Jared. Why? We remember him because of his story. Subway was smart enough to grab on to Jared’s story and put it at the center of their branding. Jared’s story is prominently featured on the Subway website, even though the campaign is nearly 12 years old. In fact, what makes his story great is that it actually began a few years earlier in 1998 and wasn’t “created” by Subway. It really is Jared’s story. And we remember it.

Stories connect and empower us – When we tell our stories, there is a greater chance that we will find others who share some of our story. Again, one of the reasons why I’ve encouraged my friend Jackie to share her stories of raising a child with autism, is that there was a point when she probably thought she was the only one in her particular situation. But she’s not, and by sharing her story, others who think they’re alone will realize that there are others are dealing with this as well. They’re not alone; someone else understands. That in and of itself can be incredibly comforting and empowering. And it’s a great way for a business to connect with potential customers.

Customers like telling stories – As a consumer, you’ve probably told stories about businesses which you patronize. Some of them might be positive, some might be negative. I could tell you stories about my good experiences with particular businesses, and I could certainly tell you some stories about businesses that would shock you. Your customers are already telling stories, and some might be about you. Hopefully they’re stories with a happy ending! Why not give them a platform to share those stories with others?

Whether you run a business or a non-profit, look for opportunities to tell stories. Tell your story. Let your customers tell their stories. The beauty of stories is that there is a never ending supply of them. You’ll never run out. You can tell them via the printed word, or via audio or video.

How are you using stories to connect better with your customers? Have you found that any sorts of stories are better than others?

 

 Once Upon a Time: The Importance of Stories for Your Business
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37 comments
belllindsay
belllindsay

Super post! Of course, you had me at "story" - lol - and thanks a bunch for the link back. I understand 100% the drive you felt to learn more about that particular story. I'm the same. I suppose that's why I read so much history/non-fiction. I have my own story (which I'll be blogging about) - my great grandfather was quite an established American portrait artist - he chummed around with the Faulkners (yes, *those* Faulkners) and was chosen by Faulkner himself to paint the portrait that hangs in the University of Mississippi (and was used when the U.S. Postal service issued Faulkner's commemorative stamp). It's just the coolest bit of family lore, and I am dying to know more about those times, the parties they must have attended, the stories that must have been told, etc.. Anyhow, I digress, really enjoyed this post Ken!!

Tyler Orchard
Tyler Orchard

Good post, Ken. We tend to forget the impact that making a personable and emotional connection through the art of storytelling offers. This is true creative content. I won't go as far as to say that other forms of messaging or advertising aren't creative, but the effort, research and engagement that goes into making a story resonate with the public is an art form in my eyes. Not to mention the best story comes from the people who are your customers. Although there are so many commercials out there that need the disclaimer "these aren't paid actors". There is a difference between just a story and a story that connects with people. I wonder if we have lost the desire for this type of engagement because there are simpler and more convenience ways, albeit, not as effective.

3HatsComm
3HatsComm

I relate to stories more than celebrity endorsements or random facts. People, like me, with similar experiences - I think that's why so many of the DIY review sites are so popular, we can relate to those stories. Like @ginidietrich mentioned with the building of stories over time, it's much harder to do these days.. we all suffer from SMADHDTV or something. I'm old enough to remember the old Taster's Choice ads (w/ Anthony Head, Giles on Buffy) with that couple, always wanting to know what happened next; we paid attention. Or the other day, a radio spot pulled me in via a funny, irreverent narrative. Absolutely, this is a good time for more - and better - storytelling. FWIW.

Amy Peveto
Amy Peveto

This post fits in nicely with the webinar I was in earlier today, "Telling Your Story Without Advertising." I think people forget that storytelling was one of the world's first creations ("Look! Here's how I invented fire!"), and that it can have a powerful impact on just about everything, including how and where we spend our money. The sharing of mutual (or varying) experiences is what gets us through parties, ice breakers, job interviews, family holidays, and a million other things. Without stories, connecting is difficult. And since people usually spend time with, do business with, and recommend/refer companies and organizations with whom they connect...it's time for people to hop on the bandwagon, or get left in the dust.

ginidietrich
ginidietrich

Really great example of Subway vs. Quiznos. I feel like stories through advertising, and jingles, are a lost form. Too many of us want to start at the beginning and tell the long-drawn out history of something instead of getting to the interesting parts first. I agree with you - let your customers tell your story. And get it on video!

kmueller62
kmueller62

@digett hey, thanks! I suppose I should ask who you are behind the logo etc. Who am I talking to?

Mark_Harai
Mark_Harai

Not being a natural writer or story teller, you've given me some great food for thought here Ken.

Thank you.

Shonali
Shonali

I think one of the reasons businesses are hesitant to tell stories is that they think, "Why would anyone care?" The reason people would care is because of what you've said in your post - it helps them to get to know the business better, it makes them feel like there's a person (or people) behind the business. Sure, not every story will resonate with everyone. That holds true for pretty much anything. And some stories just won't work, because they're not told right. But they've got to start trying, else they won't figure out how to tell their stories to cultivate those relationships and build a long-lasting customer base.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@belllindsay Thanks, Lindsay. I would bet most of us have stories like that, even if they may not seem as glamorous. We recently started digging into some family history on both sides and found some interesting little tidbits. And that's without doing more than a few cursory online searches. Who knows what else we might find.

And even for big corporations or businesses. We are now in a phase of being rather nostalgic. It sells. Businesses should dig into their histories and tell us about them. Probably some great stories out there!

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@Tyler Orchard Thanks, Tyler. I think there are all types of creativity. For a few years I was on the judging board of the Mercury Awards which was for creativity in radio commercials. Some of the best 30- and 60-second commercials were able to communicate stories.

And I think you're right about convenience. It's what we do. We go for the fast results and quick fix. We think short term. And yet a story has legs and staying power. I'm sure Subway had no idea what they had with Jared, but it has resonated, and after a dozen years, he's still around. And because of Jared, they are now using other folks, like Charles Barkley, to tell their variation of the same story. And if you look at their website, they enable all of us to be a part of that story as participants, not just an audience.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@3HatsComm@ginidietrich And that's the thing: good story telling transcends the medium. The stories can work on radio, TV, print, etc, as long as they are tailored for their particular medium. We need more of this.

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@Amy Peveto I love the way you sum that up. All great points. And we also need to remember that stories don't even have to be long. Some stories can be told in just a few sentences!

suddenlyjamie
suddenlyjamie

@kmueller62 You're welcome, Ken. That one's a definite keeper ... filed away for future reference when I need to "sell" story. :) TKS!

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@ginidietrich True, a story doesn't have to be a novel. But great segments or short stories. Vignettes. And the video is important. So many small business folks dread writing and blogging, but a video does the work for you. And it makes them more real and personal. And with the cost of the technology nowadays, there's no reason to worry too much about the quality. Heck, even a video with a fan reflecting light in the background is acceptable these days!

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@Mark_Harai Thanks, Mark. And I think your experience is normal. Or at least we don't think we're story tellers. But, when we talk with friends, we do tell stories. Work backwards from there!

KenMueller
KenMueller moderator

@Shonali Great points. It's not just the content of the story, but HOW you tell the story. And we should never expect everyone to connect. Some stories certainly connect better than others. So many different factors come in to play, but like you said, we just need to start telling them and finding our voice.

Amy Peveto
Amy Peveto

@KenMueller I completely agree — as long as the story is well-crafted, true, open and honest (dare I say "transparent"?). Which is where some companies run into trouble. Hopefully as online interaction and social media become a more normal part of marketing, companies will come to understand the importance of storytelling.

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