We are the change

Once upon a time…

Harnessing the art of storytelling in your sales and marketing

In March I received two similar looking magazines, slightly unexpectedly. One was a freebie from a lifestyle magazine I subscribe to and featured short stories by five authors, three of whom I had previously read and enjoyed. The other was a brochure from a serviced office company I was interested in and had enquired about. As I was busy at the time, both went into the magazine rack. Which one do you think I retrieved more often in the next couple of months? Which can I tell you most about today?

So what’s my point here? As a popular after dinner topic, which scores most highly – what’s your favourite book, or what’s your favourite brochure?

Customers are now very savvy, not only to sales ‘speak’, but also to sales ‘look’.  They judge in a matter of seconds whether a marketing or sales communication is worth their interest.  The look, choice of words and language are quickly processed through their ‘read it’ or ‘bin it’ filter – how many pieces of direct mail (electronic or paper) did you choose to open this week? And how many did you reject at a mere glance?

Of course this is tough for businesses looking to market and sell their products and services.  So how can we capture people’s interest and how can we be successful in that rejection vs engagement process?  Let’s go back to those magazines.  It was the freebie of short stories that I read from cover to cover and it’s still kicking around the house today.  I’m afraid I can’t remember where I’ve put the brochure from the serviced office company.

We love stories

Humans love stories. It’s built deep within our psyche and comes, not just from the books that were read to us as children, but also further back into our ancestry.  This is to a time before books when friends and family gathered by the fire and told each other stories.  The love and comfort of being told a good narrative has filtered through the genes and is still with us today.  I can still tell you how leaving a cup of tea saved my Grandad’s life in the blitz. And he loved his tea.

How to use stories in business

But how does this relate to business? Well if human interest is engaged by stories, why don’t we use more storytelling tactics in our marketing communications?  Case studies, customer anecdotes, product or service descriptions are just some examples that are ripe for a storytelling makeover.

The classic structure of a story is a simple one to follow.  Invariably it begins with an introduction to key people in the narrative and their situation. Then a drama of some kind occurs, which is followed by a period of trying to solve it (typically a fight between good and evil in most tales).  Finally the hero/heroine /main protagonist usually wins in some way and lives happily ever after. It may sound boring laid out like this, but the way in which the story is told can turn this structure into a gripping drama, a tearjerker, a period classic and yes even a piece of marketing. If you’re really interested there are apparently 7 great and universal plots and by the way, the film Casablanca is supposed to have them all.

As customers, we connect with descriptions of

  • people in a similar role/business stage to our own
  • those we aspire to be
  • those who face a similar challenge to us

We are also interested in how the protagonist solved their problem or achieved their success and we want to know if they lived happily ever after (ie. what the results and benefits were of their actions).

Now, I’m not suggesting that we all start writing novels about our products or services.  People are also very busy now and want short, pithy pieces of information. But we can harness story structure and the type of language stories use to engage a customer’s interest.  Remember, that customers know what ‘sales’ speak looks and feels like and equally they know what ‘storytelling’ sounds and feels like.  Put storytelling into a marketing/sales environment and a customer’s brain will do a double-take.  There’ll be something different here that they haven’t been able to sort/sift/file so easily and already you’ve gained further seconds of their attention.

Language makes the difference

So what sort of storytelling language should you employ? lt needs to be simple, in places it needs to be descriptive, there needs to be action and above all it needs to feel very human. There has to be a credible and sympathetic protagonist, who makes other people’s lives better. That’s you – or your product or service. Pick up your favourite book and look at the language in that.  What sections stand out more and which bits did you skim read? What’s the language doing in those parts of the story?

Some companies and organisations are grasping this very well.  There have been examples of case studies built up over instalments (like a serial) to tantalise customers’ interest, others have used storytelling through the web and video to attract attention.  I’ve seen turn page technology and storytelling working really well together on the web to create a marketing communication, which is both engaging and interactive for the customer.  Combined with great visuals and a strong creative execution, business stories can stand out a mile.  And of course on numerous product/company pages on Facebook a whole compendium of stories are being created by the customers themselves. And as well as getting ideas from stories in books, look at the way newspapers and magazines construct their reports of the news.  We engage with these just as much as books.

What’s your story?

So if you’re about to invest in a new website, a new piece of direct mail, a new brochure or newsletter, please just pause and think about using storytelling techniques to harness your customers’ attention.  Make sure you fall into the read-it camp when they see your communication, rather than the bin it.  Who knows, it may help both you and them to live happily ever after…


About the Author: Michelle Daniels,  Managing Director – Extended Thinking. An experienced and effective business development and marketing strategist, Michelle has built a successful career increasing top line growth for service businesses and organisations. She helps her clients turn their marketing, business development and thought leadership plans into reality with her ‘hands on’ support and practical advice.    A prolific writer, Michelle also combines creative flair with business nous to produce highly effective results.  She has written (and ghost-written) for many professional and business publications and is a chartered marketer and member of the Chartered Institute of Marketing.

Extended Thinking is a hands-on marketing and business development consultancy.  Bringing together great minds and great ‘doers’, we help our clients devise and implement plans that achieve real business growth.  Our clients come from a wide variety of backgrounds and sectors, but invariably are those who are too busy or lack the resources to action their marketing and business development plans.  We roll our sleeves up and muck in to free them up to do what they really want to do and are good at doing.

To find out more visit: www.extendedthinking.com

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