Storytelling is a trending topic among businesses and nonprofits. But it’s one thing to tell a story and another to move people to action. Just because we can write or make a video doesn’t mean we can captivate readers or listeners. What’s the formula that’s going to make people open their wallets?

We took the question to Karen Dietz. She’s a PhD, folklorist, trainer, storyteller and curator helping companies large and small create stories that influence, engage customers, and grow their businesses. We know her from her curated collections Just Story It on and Storytelling to Grow Your Business on which we follow avidly. Oh, and she doesn’t really favour the word “storytelling” …

What makes a story so compelling and memorable that it provokes the result businesses want?

There are two things: one is the way it’s crafted, and the other is the storytelling dynamics – what happens when the story is shared. They’re connected, but let’s parse them out.

The essential structure of a compelling story is setting a context, a problem and some sort of resolution. Many people think storytelling is a simple narration of events. But to provoke action you need drama, tension and conflict which comes with the problem-resolution idea.

So “I went to the store, I did some shopping, I came home” is not a story. But “I went to the store, and while I was there, there was a robbery…” is a story.

Business stories need to be very tightly focused around a key message. The message communicates what we’re offering people. The ending is critical, particularly in business. It needs to deliver an insight, wisdom or inspiration – something which will provoke the listener to interact with us, whether it’s signing up via a contact form or making a purchase. Problem-resolution, conflict-resolution, challenge-resolution are all crack cocaine for our brains!

What’s an example of a business crafting stories well?

Nike is doing great short video stories. They’re not selling you a shoe by telling you it has a great structure or red laces. Those are features. They’re telling you a story about how you’re going to achieve your inner greatness. The underlying key message is that wearing a Nike shoe allows you to do that. That’s very inspiring – who wouldn’t want a pair of Nike shoes?

What about how the story is shared?

What many people in business don’t take into account is that advertising and marketing up until this point have been very focused on pushing messages to people. But storytelling is a ‘pull’ technology because when you capture someone’s imagination as you share your story, you pull them into your world.

People’s imaginations get fired up. They remember similar experiences to those you’re sharing. They want to share their story in return. I don’t really care for the word “storytelling” because it creates a picture of someone standing up and telling us things.

The dynamic we want to create is one of story sharing, where the stories go back and forth. That’s what people really mean when they talk about engagement.

This requires a shift in thinking. Companies need to learn how to evoke stories from their customers or their community. Sometimes they can’t achieve this and they end up in a dialogue. That’s 10 times better than no dialogue.

But if they really want to understand people’s experiences of their products or services they need to learn how to evoke stories.

What tactics do you suggest?

Learning how to listen. This is the one skill every storyteller needs to learn fast. Listening is on two levels. One is to listen to see what your audience needs to hear.

You also need to listen on a deeper level to understand what they’re looking for. When you know that you share your stories and they share stories back.

Most of the listening we do is based on gathering information. We are less practised at evoking and listening to experiences. That is the kind of listening that lets us understand the other person’s point of view.

How to develop those listening skills?

Usually when we listen we’re working out how we want to respond: what advice are we going to give? We’re having a one-way conversation in our thoughts. We need to interrupt that conversation and sit back and listen without an agenda.

Then to deepen our understanding we can ask reflective questions. Often when we listen we ask informational questions, like “when did that happen?”. Reflective questions take us deeper into understanding the story. We might ask “what do you think that experience mean to you?”. These questions help the teller reflect more deeply about their experience. They learn things and you learn things.

Another important thing is to express appreciation for what the other person has said. You might say “When you said X, it really resonated with me”. the person feels truly and deeply listened to. That’s rare in most people’s lives.

To create trust, spark feelings of loyalty and deepen connections – the whole concept of relationship marketing – if you can do this kind of listening you are way ahead of the game.

This sounds like a one-to-one interaction. How can businesses scale it and bring it into all their activities?

One way to do it is to use several platforms, whether social networks or blogs or curated collections. When people comment on any of them, ask them a question back. If they say, “Great article,” ask them  “Thank you! What really struck you about it?” or “How do you think you’re going to apply this in your business?”

Another way is to try to develop empathy with your community. Put yourself in their shoes. If they’re a small business, try to understand what life is like for them.

What are the essential stories for businesses to be able to tell?

There are four core stories, whether you’re a solo entrepreneur or an enterprise.

  1. How you got started and your solution – what obstacles did you overcome?
  2. People and results – who do you serve and what do you do for them?
  3. The future – what’s your vision and what are you struggling with and overcoming?
  4. My story – what’s my committment, why do I do what I do, what keeps me going?

You talked about the need for some companies to make a shift in thinking. Is that happening in general?

It’s hard for people to change. But we’re seeing a shift away from focus groups, where you ask information questions, towards story sharing groups. Some organisations are embracing this and others are struggling.

Storytelling is becoming a core competence for many organisations – it’s important not only in sales, marketing and branding, but in innovation, in teamwork, and in leadership development.

Is there any data linking good storytelling with business results?

  • Wake Me Up when the Data is Over has case studies on how organisations are using stories to drive results. Lori Silverman (the editor) and I had over 90 companies talk about the results they achieved with stories.
  • Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins by Annette Simmons documents storytelling in marketing and advertising.
  • There’s a whole collection of small business marketing resources on my website.
  • And the best online training I have found is this video from Stanford School of Business – it’s 90 minutes and free.

Do you have tips to share on how to tell stories, or great stories that have helped your business? What else would you like to know – ask Karen a question in the comments or read her

Liz Wilson
Liz Wilson writes copy in the Marketing Communications team at Orange Switzerland and used to edit this blog. She likes talking about content, copywriting and social media on her personal blog.

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5 Responses to “Whoever Tells the Best Stories Wins”

  1. Karen Dietz

    Thank you Liz and so much! I truly appreciate the article and look forward to the comments/questions from the community. I’ve been having a lot of fun with my curation. I hope everyone is having a fabulous Monday 🙂

    • Liz Wilson

      Thanks to you Karen for sharing your knowledge and insights. I really enjoyed talking to you and learned a whole heap about business storytelling.

  2. MartinSellingzoe

    Great piece from the storytelling master. I love the instruction on crafting great stories and listening perhaps more carefully than you speak. Well done!

  3. Mark Sampson

    Karen, hi! Great article which really resonated with me. There’s no doubt that for years, advertising and marketing has been full of brags and boasts – companies telling us how good they are. This new transparent, authentic world will be lead by brands that put their audience at the heart of their story – brands that make their customer the hero are the ones that will prevail.


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