Why do those ancient cave paintings, with their crude renderings of animals and people and symbols, intrigue, draw us in, and provoke a sense of wonder?
Because they tell a story. They tell of deaths, births, times of feast or famine—the gritty and sometimes grace-filled stuff of life.
People are storytellers (and story listeners). They have been for ages, whether the words were inscribed on resistant stone, delivered in a lilting voice or scanned on a Kindle’s screen at 30,000 feet.
As Joseph Campbell said, “Everything begins with a story.”
Many cultures have creation myths: often grandiose, extravagant tales that embody idealized concepts critical to a people’s sense of self—the noble warrior, the self-sacrificing parents, the wise witch. Even the most impossible, implausible accounts are grounded by human elements: the basics of love, hate, greed and generosity.
Ghost tales grab us because they were us.
The lack of a story is where many businesses falter, and fail to reach their customers. They may have a great product, i.e., “The ergonomic design of this shoe results in the absorption of 93.7 percent of all heel-strike shock,” but their products—or more tellingly—their business itself, doesn’t put a picture, a story, in the customer’s mind.
There’s no cave painting, no ghost story, nothing at stake where the customer’s imagination is engaged, where they nod in agreement or ask for more.
Stories sell before products.
Does Your Business Fail to Tell a Story?
Businesses often have a perception problem: the public looks at them as soulless boxes. When people think of a General Motors or an IBM or even smaller businesses, they rarely consider them to be dynamic, thriving hives of activity, where dramas (or comedies) unfold.
Rather than inviting customers in, the typical business face erects a wall between its message—its story— and the listener, the customer.
Creative storytelling can dissolve the wall between your message and your audience and overcome their initial defenses of skepticism or doubt.
Of course, you probably don’t want to make up a story out of whole cloth—“Our natural spring water comes from the exact center of the earth, delivered in clay vessels by naked nymphs”—but you need to place your reader, your customer, in the dramatic arc of your tale.
Use the classic elements of storytelling: drama, humor, mystery, surprise, peril, renewal. Your goal shouldn’t be the selling of widgets, but the initiating of a relationship, where your business and your products are customer-centric, and the customer can step into your story.
For instance, has your business overcome great challenges? Let your prospects know that you stumbled, reversed course, burnt the midnight oil and then, eureka! Tell that story in your “About,” or elsewhere on your site.
It’s often friction, obstacles or unforeseen, secondary paths that make a reader hunger for more, that they can relate to in their own struggles, and gain an emotional toehold on your products. (That toehold might turn into a whole foot later.)
Obviously, don’t be falsely manipulative, attempting to force an act on a call to action, but rather pose an opening, a door into an idea about your company that brings light, strikes sparks, paints pictures.
Stories Are Living Things
Because stories are living things, it’s great to present your business bio in video form, or perhaps as a podcast. Sincerity is more important than looking like Angelina Jolie, though it can’t hurt if you do.
Make your Contact page big, fat with invitations to shake electronic hands. Or if it could work for your business, perhaps have a forum or some other means of interaction for people to talk about your stuff, how they use your stuff, how your stuff makes them feel.
They’ll talk about it elsewhere—if it’s worth talking about—but if you can get them to drop the curtain on their ideas right in your backyard, you can invite them in closer to the campfire.
The important thing is to connect, as people do, by telling stories.
Maybe your parents’ parents started the business in their cellar those many years ago, maybe you tried a thousand formulas for getting ink to stick to your paper and were days from quitting, when formula one-thousand-and-one worked, maybe you graduated from veterinarian school and realized that you really wanted to design and sell bespoke picture frames.
There’s a story behind every business, and there are people behind every story.
Share your stories with your customers. Ask them into the conversation. Put your products into that story, and populate it with your customers as the characters, showing how they can plant your heirloom seeds in their own gardens, use your software to research their ancestors, handle your hammers to reframe their houses.
Just start your “once upon a time…” and watch them lean in. Everyone loves a good story—and especially one in which they play a part.