Alan Steele – The big topic in marketing in recent years has been social media, and the popularity of social media is easy to understand. Humans are relational beings who thrive on communication and relationships, and we have experienced an explosion of new tools that allow us to stay connected. Social media has been a major force in reshaping the marketing landscape and challenging our thinking about how to relate to our customers, but have we perhaps lost something in the process?
We have all invested time in learning about and experimenting with social media, but much of that attention has gone to learning the ins and outs of platforms like Facebook and LinkedIn and tools like Tweet Deck and Hoot Suite. Perhaps it is time to think beyond the tools and to devote more time to the message and, in particular, to stories.
Throughout history man has used stories as a fundamental means of communication. Today we live in a culture of sound bites and 140 character messages. Our hyper-connected world has provided tools that enable us to build and maintain vast numbers of connections. We have gained quantity, but are we sacrificing quality? We have breadth, but do we have depth? Are we finding meaningful engagement or simply shouting for attention? Stories give us an opportunity to connect on a deeper and more meaningful level.
So, what exactly is a story? The famed screen writer Robert McKee says that a story is “a fundamental conflict between subjective expectation and cruel reality, about an imbalance and opposing forces. A good storyteller describes what it’s like to deal with those opposing forces, calling on the protagonist to dig deeper, work with scarce resources, make difficult decisions and ultimately discover the truth.” Doesn’t the last part of the quote sound a bit like starting and running a small business? Digging deeper? Working with scarce resources? Making difficult decisions? Ultimately discovering the truth, i.e. what works and what doesn’t? Every small business has a story waiting to be told.
One of the great privileges in working with entrepreneurs and small businesses is having the opportunity to hear their stories. Guy Kawasaki, in his book “The Art of the Start”, argues that making meaning is as important a reason to start a business as making money. I find that many entrepreneurs have a passion and a purpose beyond financial gain, and that passion is the force that motivates them to embrace the challenges and risks inherent in starting a business. That passion is also the root of a great story. Like the cancer survivor starting a company to educate cancer patients so they have a better understanding of their options and someone to help them navigate the treatment process. Like the single mom bravely balancing entrepreneurship and the needs of an eight year old child. And like the woman establishing a business to help children and caregivers work through transitions with aging parents, improving the quality of life for all involved. Those are great stories. You have a story too, and it needs to be heard.
Stories all have plots, of course, and small business stories can be built upon several common plot lines:
Who I Am…Stories that enable the customer to connect with who you are or who the company is.
What I Do…Explaining what you do in a way that gets at why you do it. Share your passion for the business.
Vision…What do you plan for the future? People like to hear about aspirations and beliefs.
Values in Action…How you live out the principles upon which you built the business.
David and Goliath…People like to root for underdogs. It’s exciting to hear the entrepreneur talk about taking on big challenges and changing the world.
When you have identified your plot line, and begun to craft your story, remember to think about inciting incidents. Most stories are sparked by a particular event or circumstance. What is the key moment in the establishment or evolution of your business? Think also about conflict and about overcoming adversity. Conflict drives stories because it drives transformation. People and companies grow as a result of overcoming challenges. Remember also that companies have internal stories. Those stories help form the company culture, a culture that is experienced by your customers in every interaction they have with your organization. Don’t forget to nurture the internal stories that give your customers a deeper look into, and greater emotional connection with, your company.
Finally, a few guidelines to keep in mind. Here are five important attributes that are important to a good STORY:
S = Succinct. Get to the point and be easily and quickly understood. Clear and concise stories are easily shared, and that is one of your goals. Make it easy for customers to share your story.
T = True. Consumers are savvy and will sense any lack of authenticity. Unless you are creating an obviously fictional story to educate or entertain, it is vital that you are credible.
O = Objective. What is your objective in telling the story? Are you teaching? Motivating action? Clearly understand your goal.
R = Relevant. Why does the story matter? Understand your audience and tell a story they can connect to on an emotional level.
Y = Yearning for more. A great story makes the audience want to engage. Give them an opportunity to join in the story.
While stories have endings, remember that storytelling is more about the process and the journey. Regardless of success or failure, there are more stories to create and tell. Take time to nurture your stories and connect with your customers on a deeper level. In the words of one of the great thinkers of the 20th Century, Mr. Rogers, “It’s hard not to like someone once you know their story.” Do your customers know yours?
Alan Steele is a Business Advisor with the North Central Indiana Small Business Development Center. Prior to joining the ISBDC in 2008 he held a variety of senior level marketing and business development positions, working with both products and services in B2B settings.