Why You Should Invite Your Customers to a Campfire Storytelling Session

Why You Should Invite Your Customers to a Campfire Storytelling Session

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.

Post by Tom Bentley

When words fail us all, Tom comes to the rescue with a good story and smart business advice. To learn more about Tom's sharp wit and sharper wordsmithing skills, visit his site at The Write Word.

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  1. Indisputably true! Yes Tom, this is a much neglected feature of exceptional business practice.

    Years ago I had to accompany a real marketing guru in a cold-calling campaign. He had to teach me — not to the tricks of the trade, but the real trade. I immediately realized that he badly needed a course in ethics, but that’s besides the point.

    This guy straight away got a foot in the door with his charm and once inside the prospect’s house, he started telling the most mind-boggling stories, obviously most of the time a lot of gibberish sucked out of his thumb, but with such passionate feeling that I often saw the prospects picking away a tear or two, trying to swallow a lump in the throat. The guru made a sale time and again.

    I’m not propagating this kind of unethical practice, but what became quite apparent right at the outset of my career was that stories sell before products.

    • Pieter, your account makes me think to paraphrase a maxim: “with great storytelling comes great responsibility.” Not that embellishing a tale with a few explosions, kidnappings and rocket ship rides is necessarily a horrible thing, if the aim is to entertain. But if some grifter is selling snake oil to the innocents when simple aspirin would do, that ain’t right.

      We’re all telling stories, all day, every day, to sell our points of view, but some points might be poison-tipped. Your guy had learned to work his prospects with manipulative tale-telling, but there are so many more ways to invite a hearer to the table to share in stories with higher nutritive content (and still sleep well at night).

  2. Though I have been carried away by the headline “Campfire Storytelling ” but I strongly believe that in every story heard , There’s always another story behind every story business, and there are people behind every story events. That is why sharing stories with your customers through campfire events always looks beautiful to hear these stories. It keeps younger for those people doesn’t want to get old.

    There are people out there with the same vision as Joseph Campbell : ‘ Everything begins with a story” but in different language.

    Ntarugera Mazimpaka François

    • Ntarugera, I think you caught the lit match behind every story: people. Even if the story heard is one where the central characters are animals, we project our human values, desires and motivations into those creatures. Stories investigate, question and elaborate on the things that make us human, and if well-told, are fascinating, because we compare our own specific experiences and reaction. I can tell stories of several summers of picking apples many years ago in Washington state, of the cuckoo characters I met there, and someone in Chile might relate that to their experiences picking grapes. Or catching salmon in Alaska, for that matter.

      You also bring up another interesting thing: the language in which we tell stories. I wish I knew another language, because word choice and syntax are indicative of the very texture of how you think, and by extension, how you perceive the world. It has to be a gift to be able to write and think in another language, because the skeleton of the language is different, and thus that of the perspective expressed.

      Thanks for bringing that up!

      • Tom : he skeleton of your language doesn’t matter much for if the ‘story is well-told’ as you said, it becomes so fascinating, when we compare our own specific experiences and reaction.It doesn’t matter if you tell people your own stories of every move you make from one place to another , whether in Washington state or in capital of Kigali -Rwanda where I stay.
        How you perceive the world from where you stand . It has to be a gift from the Almighty to be able to write though you think in another language.The skeleton of the language will carry it to a \ different place because that the only vehicle that we have been given. Were are you aware of that Tom?

        Ntarugera François

        • I’m with you on the language being a vehicle that carries us to a different place, Ntarugera. What I was also saying is that it must be nice to have several vehicles to drive to the various places, because the experience of the drive—what moves the language—uses different speeds, the windshields might be shaped differently, the leather have a more supple feel in one vehicle than another, so that the character of the drive is quite different.

          And now I think I’ve exhausted the “vehicle as language” metaphor and should probably move on to fruits.

  3. Yep. Story is critical to people’s understanding and appreciation for most persons, places, and things. Themselves included.

    • Jacob, true. I keep re-telling my own story, just to get the details right (and to make myself taller, smarter, wittier and able to play one-handed banjo in my own imagination). Stories can both wrap something up in an image, or else unwrap it by making us connect with a metaphor, a moral, or a meaning.

      Sometimes it takes a story to see a concrete thing more clearly. (Or in the case of my own delusions, see myself more glitteringly.)

  4. nils dahl says:

    A good story doesn’t necessarily have to be long. Songs do that to us all the time and the emotions connected to them stay with us for years. Amusing things are like that as well. Laughter is something we all want to share in. It always feels good to make others happy, even for a few moments.

    Nice post, it gave me much to think about. Of course, now I have to go edit all my own posts.

    • Nils, yeah—if you’re after some kind of commercial prospect, it’s good to note that you don’t want to bring out the 10GB slideshows of your family, your recording of Uncle Rosco playing his harmonica, AND all the photos of the family hamsters, from Ding-Dong 1 who begat Ding-Dong 2, and so on. And if you’re not after a commercial prospect, throwing in the Rosco’s recording will only work as filler for your fourth round of stories. (And maybe after a fourth round of drinks.)

      So true about the musical aspect too—a single guitar line can set an emotional context for me. There’s undoubtedly a different interpretive mechanism in the brain for the emotional charge that’s associated with music. The one that registers and reacts to a good story probably isn’t that instantaneous, but there is a hunger satisfied there as well.

  5. Well said.
    We love to do business with real people.
    We love to do business with a store with the owner’s face and story.
    Great post.

    • Thanks Jeff. Anything that bridges the distance between people, whether talking to a stranger at a party about not liking onions on your burger, to having the same conversation with the grocer who sells onions (and who tells you of his mother’s cooking technique that makes anything with onions taste heavenly) brings the parties that much closer to some kind of collaboration, whether sitting together at the burger-eating table, or tentatively trying the grocer’s mom’s recipe (and thus his onions).

      And now that you brought it up, I like my burgers (and some of my stories) without onions.

  6. Great post Tom. The other day I bought a puppy and had to pick up puppy chow. On Walmart’s brand of puppy chow, branded Ol’ Roy, they have the story of Sam Walton and his dog Roy. It is a feel good story that makes you want to stick the bag in your cart and go home to your dog! I read right through it and know that the story is bogus, and bought a different brand. That said, I am not the average Joe and I am sure that it does sell.

    • Jim, I get the same sense from reading the labels of certain microbrewery beers, about the precise selection of the small-farmer’s hops, the handcrafted care of the distilling process, the collective heart expressed in all the employees’ combined efforts—and then you find out that the “microbrewery” is owned by Budweiser, and that they use the same factories that churn out Bud. That removes all the bubbles from the beer.

      Ol’ Roy does smack of an old ploy made new.

  7. Watched a fascinating TED talk this week about the danger of reducing *everything* to a story, or of expecting every life experience to be reducible. Stories can get us in trouble, oversimplifying life’s innate messiness.

    But as vehicles for communicating emotion, they can’t be beat. You could learn more about my Dad in a single story I tell than if you’d known him for years.

    How can I get regular delivery of that clay-vessel nymph water, Tom?

    • Joel, yes, sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. (But I’ll bet Sigmund F. could make a story about the time he filched one from Albert Einstein’s humidor when he wasn’t looking.) Wasn’t there an old Saturday Night Live routine about the guy who always said, “So I wrote a song about it” in reference to any incident in his life, like putting on socks or scratching his noggin? (Not that YOU couldn’t write a spiffy song about those very things.)

      As for the clay-vessel nymph water, we are sold out until summer. Scarcity, baby, scarcity.

  8. Excellent points, Tom.

    What strikes me is that not only do big businesses erect that wall between themselves and their customers- many small businesses do too. Is it perhaps simply that the small busniess owners and employees are exposed to anonymous, interchangeable treatment in so much of their lives that they begin to assume “that’s just the way it is”? Do they come to believe that a wall between themselves and their customers is the way to success because that’s how GM and IBM did it?

    Well, here’s hoping your post gets widely read, and it steers some folks away from all that and towards telling a ripping good yarn. One with the truth wrapped up inside.

  9. Rick, it may well be that “going with the flow” seems a natural course to take for businesses of any size, since big or small, many are risk-averse. But there’s a definite trend these days that seems to recognize that authenticity in a company’s story and customer communications can break down the formal “we sell, you buy” exchange into more of a conversation.

    At the same time, within that movement there’s a shake of the “I’m more authentic than you” wiggle, which might be worse than the “I am the towering edifice of standard business practices” approach. Dunno.

    I do think it’s good to see some consciousness of any kind in regards human connection; someone will always exploit it, nonetheless.

    • Tom & Ric :

      It may well be good when small or big business communities understands that we do not become big children before childhood. Going with “going with that flow”of understanding seems a natural course to take for businesses of any size, since big or small starts with the same step ,when the risks comes , it may look the same any one starting any kind of business. As you said there’s a definite trend these days even now that seems to recognize that authenticity in a company’s story and customer communications can break down the formal “we sell, you buy” exchange into more of a conversation.

      At the same time, within that movement there’s a shake of the “I’m more competitive , vibrant and even more professional than you”” which might be worse than even the “I am the towering edifice of standard business practices” approach.

      Ntarugera François

      I do think it’s good to see some consciousness of any kind in regards human connection; someone will always exploit it, nonetheless.


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