Storytelling: Sparking Imagination in Your Business Writing

Manya Chylinski

Manya Chylinski

Thank you to Hired Pen Manya Chylinski for sharing this post. Take it away, Manya … 

Storytelling is one of the big buzzwords in content marketing and thought leadership these days. For good reason. Rather than just stating facts or advertising your product or service, why not use words and images to simplify concepts, evoke emotion and engage the audience?

We know storytelling works in our personal lives — the novels we read, the movies and TV shows we watch, the tales we tell by the campfire.

Companies that make widgets, make widgets, and people who need widgets know about companies that make widgets. Right? So why would stories make a difference? To figure out how to translate storytelling to the business world and why it works for businesses, we need to understand why stories work at all and why we humans are so attracted to stories.

Humans Are Wired for Stories

Storytelling is part of every culture and has been throughout history — from cave paintings to the oral tradition, to the written word and printing press, to our digital world. Stories are a way to help us make meaning of our world. Our minds look for patterns and structure and have been known to create them even when they may not exist. And stories give us patterns. (If you’ve ever seen a famous face in your morning toast, this is an example of how much our minds want to recognize patterns.)

There is evidence that storytelling is evolutionary — it helped our ancestors survive. And while it’s easy to think of business and personal as separate, emotions and meaning are part of business, because they’re part of us as humans.

Storytelling Basics

At a fundamental level, a story is about change — dealing with a challenge and coming out the other side, hopefully better for the process. Good stories have three elements:

  • Plot: what happens and when, the sequence of events
  • Characters: who and how they relate to each other
  • Point of view: who is telling the story

One basic storytelling technique in business is a case study. It can be dry, bulleted facts: A client had this problem and used this particular solution to solve it. Here are some stats about how rosy the business is now (increased customers, dollars saved, etc.).

Or, those very same facts can be used to weave a narrative arc: telling the story from the customer’s point of view, for example, with details about when and how the problem started, decisions the business owner or employees had to make and how relationships changed.

Rules of Storytelling

If you’ve ever seen a Pixar film (the Toy Story series, Monsters Inc., Cars, Ratatouille, Up) you’ve seen good storytelling. An artist working at Pixar once shared 22 rules of storytelling, and many are good to keep in mind as you think about your business content and the stories you want to tell.

  • #4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day ___. One day ___. Because of that ___. Until finally ___. These standard formats work because they’re based on a pattern we recognize. Think that doesn’t apply to your business? Take away “Once upon a time …,” and that’s the format of a case study.
  • #5 Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel you’re losing valuable stuff but it will set you free. In business, especially technically oriented businesses, there’s a tendency to want to include every detail and specification to show that you’re the experts. But that kind of writing loses all but the most dedicated readers. How can you simplify your message? What’s the one thing you want your audience to know? Start there.
  • #11 Why must you tell this story in particular? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it. “My competitor has a white paper” isn’t the reason you need to write one. Think about why this information, from your business in particular, would matter to your customers or potential customers. Then think about what’s important right now — what’s happening in the world, their business, their lives that will make them care?
  • #17 No work is ever wasted. And if it’s not working, let go and move on — if it’s useful, it’ll show up again. As true in business writing as it is in creative writing.
  • #21 Identify with your situation/characters. Don’t write “cool.” What would make you act that way? Remember that you aren’t necessarily your customers — they may not think like you do. To tell them a story, put yourself in their shoes and understand what they need. This is where personas come in handy — to enable you to look at your content through the eyes of your audience.

Not Just for the Campfire

Telling stories isn’t just for sitting around the campfire or over dinner with friends. It’s for sitting around the boardroom. And communicating with your stakeholders. Businesses that understand the importance of storytelling, who have a genuine culture of storytelling, use this art form to their advantage. Compare content for Microsoft and Apple. Both big, worldwide brands. Which one has messaging designed to pique your human emotions?

It’s possible to create content that isn’t focused on storytelling. But we’re wired to get information from stories. As a business, you’re missing so much when you don’t add this technique to your content toolkit.

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