10 Storytelling Tips for Businesses
Once upon a time, I made my living as a journalist. For The New York Times, Time and other newspapers and magazines, I helped tell stories that made people aware of things they didn’t already know, helped them to understand why those things matter, and made them want to know more. At least that was the idea.
Today my job is very different, managing a creative agency that makes apps for Fortune 100 companies. And in many ways it is very much the same.
Storytelling has changed the way businesses communicate. Look no further than the Coca-Cola Company home page, where sugar water takes a back seat to storytelling. “Refreshing the world, one story at a time,” Coca-Cola trumpets. The Chase home page is another example, where the bank presents a dozen stories intended to engage customers more deeply than deposits and withdrawals.
How is your business telling its story? Here are 10 suggestions on how to step up your game:
- Think aspirationally. Harley-Davidson doesn’t just sell motorcycles. It sells freedom. Patagonia doesn’t just sell parkas. It sells adventure. GE connects its disparate businesses under the umbrella of life-changing inventions. Declare a simply-stated value proposition that aligns with customers’ wants and needs and make it part of everything you sell.
- Make your stories relatable. Instead of focusing on products and services, tell stories about the impact your products and services have on others. Tell your story through everyday people, or better yet, have everyday people tell your story using testimonials. Another technique: Leverage social media to allow anyone to tell stories that build upon your own.
- Pull back the curtain. Tell your story by showcasing the people who work at your company and the processes they follow to deliver your products and services.
- Use metaphors to simplify complex ideas. A custom application becomes a tailor-made suit. A cloud-based content repository becomes a filing cabinet. A permissions-based authentication system becomes a keychain. Make sure that people understand the overarching concept before diving into details that differentiate your products and services.
- Don’t use PowerPoints. Bullet points and bar charts overload the audience with data, often with little connection between one slide and the next. Stories can deliver the same information with considerably more resonance. They are easier to follow and, importantly, easier to retell to someone who was not in the room.
- Do use tablets. Involve the audience by providing them with a role. Hand a tablet to a customer and they are immediately engaged, much moreso than when looking passively at a projected display. What’s best is that these engagements can happen anywhere — in a coffeehouse, on a plane, at a trade show. Anywhere.
- Properly introduce yourself. Make sure your audience understands who you are and what you do before you barrel into a story. A short but solid introduction ensures that your audience can connect your story to your capabilities, and ultimately to what you can do for them.
- Know your end game. After your story delights your audience, what do you want to happen next? Possibly it’s a transaction, or a meeting or appointment that results in that transaction. Create storytelling experiences that flow toward desired outcomes, through apps and websites with calls to action that make that next step as frictionless as possible.
- Go beyond words. Leverage photographs and multimedia to make your stories more dynamic. Often these elements already exist, scattered across websites, printed materials and social channels, just waiting to be repackaged. Other ways to add spontaneity and relevance: web views, live feeds, location-based content.
- Turn presentations into conversations. Know going into any selling environment that the most important voice in the room is that of the customer. At their best, your stories prompt their stories. The point of a business presentation is to get other people talking.
Joe Zeff is President of Joe Zeff Design, a boutique agency in New York City that blends software with storytelling, helping the world's largest companies tell their stories more effectively. He previously worked as The New York Times' first presentation editor, Graphics Director of Time magazine, and President/Chief Creative Officer of Scrollmotion Blue.