Powerful storytelling for business

by Amy J.V. Atwell

StorytellingI attended the Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability conference (LOHAS 2013) in Boulder, Colorado a few weeks ago. As a first-time attendee, I wasn’t sure exactly what to expect, other than a focus on conservation, wellness and sustainability. I was pleasantly surprised at the diverse topics covered and, as a purveyor of words, the sessions titled “The Power of Story Telling” and “The Wisdom and Power of Words” caught my eye.

Rob Holmes, founder and chief storyteller (why didn’t I think of that title?) of GLP Films, presented the former session. A great story, he said, must be “powerful, engaging, educational and perpetual” and it must “take a risk.” To illustrate his point, he shared short clips of a few of his films.

I admit to being easily moved to tears, and the snippet of GLP’s “Okapi Conservation Project” certainly did the trick. The clip opened at about minute 4:31 and, after an intro of context-setting images accompanied by intense music, these words appeared on the screen: “In the early morning of June 24, 2012, a group of Mai Mai Simba rebels attacked Epulu Station, headquarters of the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.” Pause. Next image: “They killed six people.”

Powerful and engaging? Check and check. Perpetual? You can bet that short film clip will stay with me for some time. My limited experience of okapis include brief sightings at the local zoo and crossword puzzle clues, but this film instantly pulled me into their story – and it left me wanting to know more about the people working so hard to protect them in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

As a writer, I don’t often have the benefit of music or powerful images to help tell my stories. I most often rely on words and the occasional still photo. As a business writer in particular, most stories don’t carry the impact and weight of a tragedy like the one at this African wildlife center. Still, I think Holmes’ lessons on how to tell a great story apply.

Below are a few of my key takeaways from his presentation and how I apply them to business writing:

Feature strong characters
Businesses are made up of interesting people. Your business is not your building or your logo. It is not even your product or service – it is you, your colleagues and your customers. A fact sheet on the features and benefits of your product is fine, but an account of the human experience goes so much further. A human face – a human story – allows your readers to connect with your business on a more personal level.

A recent food tour in San Francisco led my husband and me to Hog & Rocks, a ham and oyster bar. I think its staff page is a great example of how to highlight the faces – not just the food ­– of the business. After reading the page, you want to sit down to share a cocktail and watch a game with all of these guys.

Engage the audience
Again, fact sheets are fine, but your story needs to go deeper than that. Think about your story from the readers’ point of view: Why did they seek out your website/Twitter feed/newsletter in the first place? How can you meet that need and reel them in enough with your content to ensure that they stick around for awhile? Facts and figures might help them make a final buying decision, but your story is what will help make them a truly engaged fan.

One brand with some of the most passionately engaged fans is Apple (well, duh), and I love its web page targeted at creative types. It is a clear example of engaging a specific audience through the use of storytelling.

Take a risk
You don’t have to present your business or your product exactly the way the other guys do. In fact, I would argue that you can be a lot more successful by doing the unexpected. Be quirky, or shocking, or silly. As long as it fits your overall brand and strategy, taking a risk can make your business more memorable.

I met a local franchisee of this moving and junk removal company at a chamber of commerce event a few years ago. Just the name of the business is risky, but it’s memorable. I purposely didn’t cite the name because I want you to click the link to this company’s blog, which features a unique approach to public relations that helps it stand apart from other moving businesses.

I’d love to hear some other examples of great storytelling that you have encountered.

Amy J.V. Atwell is a Denver-based freelance writer and editor. She works with businesses to grow their brands through high-quality copy and content. Read more at www.heirloomcommunications.com.

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