Ten years ago, businesses took out magazine and TV ads to captivate their audiences. Today, that model is being disrupted by digital media. Brands must now tell their stories across many platforms—online and off—and to many fragmented audiences. Entrepreneurs, as a result, are being forced to hone a skill that has long been void in the business world: The art of storytelling. It is more important than ever, then, to understand how to captivate an audience.
So, how do you tell a good story? To find out, I spoke with some of my favorite storytellers in business, a group of seasoned entrepreneurs who understand the art of language and the power of stories.
The art of business storytelling, it turns out, boils down to two exercises: 1) Figuring out your message; and 2) Constantly testing and iterating upon it, so that it fits whatever conditions you find yourself in, regardless of audience or platform.
Figure Out Your Story
Having a great story starts with understanding your company's past, present, future, values, and beliefs. How did it start? What's interesting about it? Who are the people behind it? What's the mission, the vision?
"Remember that a story is something that is interesting to hear for someone who has nothing to do with your business," advises Nataly Kogan, co-founder and chief happiness officer at Happier, an app focused on enabling people to collect and share the "happy moments" in their lives. "And probably more important than interesting, your story should elicit some emotion from someone who hears it—that's what makes stories great."
Alejandro Russo, founder and CEO of Klooff, a social network for pet owners, recommends entrepreneurs identify connection points that resonate with their listeners. "Know your audience," he says. That will help you understand what to say in order to get them nodding their heads in agreement. "When you make people [nod], your story is validated." If you notice something sticks, build on and repeat it.
A good story, Russo adds, is one that is concise and genuine. "Make it real and cut out the fat," he says. "People only care about genuine stuff. And they don't like to get bored." Try to condense your story into as little time as possible. "This applies to speech, video, design, pitching, everything," he says. I, for one, am a huge fan of the one-sentence pitch—if you can fit your story into one sentence, you're in a good place.
Building on the importance of eliciting emotions, Russo says that entrepreneurs should stick to the old journalist adage—show, don't tell. "When your story is filled with imagery and colorful adjectives, you help the listener recreate the story in their minds," he says.
The Tools for a Great Story
"Storytelling," Russo says, "is an art that can be scientifically (and methodically) improved," and there are a lot of tools that can help achieve that.
Storytelling is about blending science and art, says Shane Snow, co-founder of publishing startup Contently, which helps websites and other publications, including this one, create and manage content. (As an aside, I used to be Contently's director of community.)
"Science is easy, it's the technicalities of how to publish, when, where, and in what form," Snow says. "For that, my go-tos are Copyblogger, Mashable, and Digiday, and any blogs that deal in education around content and marketing. The art of storytelling is tougher; it's about consuming a lot of great stuff from disparate corners. Listen to This American Life, read great narrative journalism—Gene Weingarten and Jon Ronson are two of my favorites. Gobble up books and great television and movies and pay attention to how the authors create the narrative."
"Watch TED talks and listen to inspiring podcasts," Soraya Darabi, co-founder of online retailer Zady, suggests. "By listening to great storytellers—from [radio personality] Ira Glass to [Facebook COO] Sheryl Sandberg—we develop best practices that will help us communicate our own values and missions effectively," she says. Kogan adds that the book A New Brand World, by Stephen Fenichell, is an invaluable resource in crafting a brand's story.
Remember, though, that storytelling is not only about what you say, but also about what you do. Online retailer Zady, for example, is as concerned with creating quality articles and stories as it is with finding and sourcing the most beautiful products from around the world, Darabi explains, pointing to the company's lifestyle content section, Zady Features. "We commission professional journalists to write articles for us that don't necessarily push product," Darabi says. "It's our goal to define our brand over time with what we buy and sell, but also by creating stories our readers and shoppers can relate to." These lifestyle features focus around fashion, food, and travel, strengthening the message that Zady cares about international, sustainable goodness.
Test and Iterate
Once you've got the foundation for a story, test it. Share it with everyone and get feedback about how you could improve it. "Tell it to a kid," Russo suggests. "If a 10-year-old doesn't get it, make it simpler." "Find someone who has no idea about your business," Kogan adds. "Tell them your story. See if they feel anything. Ask them to tell it back to you. Improve it. Do this about 1,000 times."
Secondly, scale the feedback process. Along with getting feedback through your personal efforts, place your story at every touchpoint of your business. "Our story is on our website, in our product, on all our social media outlets," Kogan says. "It is in the press coverage we get and part of how everyone in the company talks about Happier. We share it with our users after they register, right in the app and online. It is literally woven into our user experience."
Iteration will bring you closer and closer to a story that jives with audiences. What is it that stuck with the audience? Play that up. What didn't they really like? Cut it.
Throughout the entire process, remember to share wide and strong. Internalize the message with your employees. Make it part of your mantra, the way you do business. Evangelize your company's way of doing things through thought leadership pieces and speaking opportunities. Make sure your story is clearly present on your company's social-media channels, its website, its printed materials. Kogan couldn't have said it better: "Our story is our brand, it is the heart of our company, and it is the inspiration and the emotional fabric of everything we do."
What's Your Story?
"Stories make presentations better. Stories make ideas stick. Stories help us persuade. Savvy leaders tell stories to inspire us, motivate us," Snow wrote in a recent post about the importance of storytelling in business. "Fact is, no one cares about your marketing goals. But everyone likes a good story."
When Darabi speaks, she tells us of Zady's mission to help people look stylish while feeling good about the clothes they are wearing. Snow, too, speaks of Contently's shared passion to help freelance writers succeeds while also providing the world with engaging, brand-powered content. Russo brags not about the massive stock of user photos the app is generated, but of the app's power to connect pet owners worldwide.
The next time you're giving a presentation, leading a meeting, or chatting with customers, consider the power of storytelling and how you can elevate your message with a story. Make it inspiring, memorable, and engaging. Tall order, but with a little elbow grease, it's doable.
Some Final Inspiration
Happier founder, Nataly Kogan, believes that all stories should be written like screenplays. "There are three acts," she says. "In the first act, you meet the hero and her obstacle. In the second act, she works to overcome it. In the third act, you realize that the original obstacle was just part of what the hero has to overcome, that the bigger part is in herself. The best third acts have some triumph, some real honesty. If you try to write your story in this format, you will be able to pull out the best parts. It doesn't mean that your story needs to have three parts when you tell it. But when you are creating it I find it useful to think this way." And so the Happier story goes:
"Happier is on a mission to make millions of people happier. When I was 14 years old, my family escaped from Soviet Russia. After months of living in refugee camps in Europe and then a year of living in the projects on welfare and food stamps in Detroit, I decided to make up for the hardship by chasing the American dream of becoming happy. Over the next 15 years I had a series of impressive jobs and made a lot of money—all of which I thought would make me happy and none of which did. So I turned to the science of happiness, had a holy crap moment about having done it all wrong, and was inspired to start Happier to get people to stop saying "I'll be happy when," and start saying "I'm happier now because." Research shows that appreciating and capturing a few positive things every day and sharing them with others makes you happier and healthier. Our first product, an iOS application and online community, encourage people to do just that."
Business storytelling, at its core, is simply storytelling as we've always know it. It's real, raw, and relatable. So, what's your story?