3 Things you have to get right when selling with stories.

Selling with a good story

Recently I’ve been seeing a surge in the number of companies jumping on the “story” bandwagon.

A few days ago I was traveling back from the UK. At the airport I saw three references to story. One on a poster, one in a duty-free flier that was thrust into my hand just after I got through security, and the one you see in the photo above, on the pages of an in-flight magazine.

All mention story, but not one of them actually told a story.

It’s as if the writers believed that just using the word “story” would make some kind of difference.

It doesn’t.

If you want to tap into the true power of storytelling in your marketing, you have to actually tell and share a real story.

And to give your story power, it has to get three things right…

First, something has to happen.

Whether it’s in a novel, a movie or just shared in a conversation among friends over coffee, a story describes something that happens.

Every story has one or more characters, whether those characters are people, animals, robots… or some other invention from the imagination of the author.

And within the story there is a passing of time… a beginning, a middle and an end.

And over the course of that period of time, things happen to the story’s characters. There’s tension, there’s a denouement.

Stuff happens.

If nothing happens, there’s no story.

Second, the reader has to CARE about what happens.

This is about empathy.

If the reader, listener or viewer doesn’t care about what happens to the central characters, you’ve written a bad story.

I see this happen all the time with business stories.

The story unfolds, but doesn’t trigger empathy. And that means the story has no power. It fails to engage the reader in a meaningful way.

Let me give you an example.

As you may know, I’m fairly well plugged into the coffee industry. I’m interested in coffee, and I’m also interested in how companies market their coffee.

One of the favorite stories told by small coffee retailers and coffee roasters goes something like this…

“We source only single-origin coffees from small coffee farms or cooperatives. We believe in supporting coffee-growing families and paying them fairly for their hard work.”

The marketers then try to bring the story to life with photos of those coffee-growing families.

But… what do you feel? Do you truly empathize with that family? What are our points of shared experience? How can we feel a connection with their experience of life?

If you fail to create that connection – and most coffee companies do fail – then you have told a weak story that will do you very little good.

I’m not saying for a moment that a good writer couldn’t make you feel empathy when hearing about coffee farmers in far-off lands.

It’s entirely possible.

Have you seen the WALL E movie? Its creators managed to make us get all emotional over the struggles of a small metal robot.

If you can create empathy for a cartoon robot, you can certainly do it for a family that grows coffee.

The trouble is, most coffee companies are just really bad storytellers.

They fail to make us care.

Third, the story has to contain a message or a learning moment.

When you read a good novel or go to a movie, it’s enough simply to feel entertained.

But within a business context, a story is wasted if it doesn’t make a point.

The reader needs to be engaged by the story, feel one or more emotions, and then “get” the message and take an action.

Going back to the coffee story…

If you tell me a really good story about a family growing coffee, and engage me emotionally, I’ll get the message that by purchasing your company’s coffee I’ll be impacting that family’s life in a positive way.

Now I’m going to buy my coffee from you, and not from one of your competitors.

In other words, there has to be a business reason for sharing a story, and the message I get from your story has to result in me taking the action you want.

This sounds obvious, but I’m constantly coming across business stories that seem to have been written simply to entertain and not to make an important point, or drive a sale.

Wrapping it up…

Stories are a powerful way to sell online, principally because they provide a way to connect with an audience at an emotional level.

But when you’re selling with stories you have to create a true narrative – by making something happen.

You have to make your reader care, by creating empathy.

And you have to give your story a purpose… so your readers will feel compelled to do something after reading the story.

NOTE: If you’d like to use the power of storytelling to increase your skills as a web content writer, online copywriter or social media writer, learn more about my course… Selling With Stories…

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3 thoughts on “3 Things you have to get right when selling with stories.”

  1. Hey Nick, great article. I’d add a fourth… the story you tell should relate to your product. I know you’ll tell me that’s obvious. But that leads me to a question…

    I imagine you’ve seen plenty of ads that tell a pretty good story, but leave wondering what the heck that ad has to do with [insert product here]. Why do think that is? What purpose can a business possibly believe a story has if it doesn’t make folks remember their product?

    • I guess I intended for the product relevance message to be part of my third point – for a story to have a message, point or purpose. But I agree with your point that a lot of stories in advertising fail that relevance test… and when that happens it almost completely negates their value.

  2. Hi Nick,
    Selling With Stories is definitely my favourite too. That course had a huge impact on me – so thank you.
    To Stephen’s point above – yes! Probably like most of us, I can remember quite a few stories, without having any idea what the product was. I always appreciate the ‘cute’ stories, but as Stephen says – what’s the purpose from the perspective of whoever paid for the stories?


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