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A More Human Model for Product Storytelling

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Humans are wired for stories; we're storytelling animals. The resurgence in storytelling, the original social medium, is an important and welcome evolution for many reasons. Memorable stories scale in a way that facts alone cannot. And a multiplier effect is critical in marketing. Finally, stories cut through the tremendous clutter—much of it lacking context and meaning—created by the never-ending content explosion. Here's where stories pay dividends: According to a recent Stanford study, stories are remembered up to 22 times more than facts alone.

In a world of noise, the best stories win.

From Product-Centered to Story-Driven Content

The most important thing any organization can do is become a storytelling organization. That means elevating your product or service discussion to one that focuses on the human needs of your audience.

It all begins with telling the right stories about real people who use your product or service and not focusing on the product itself. Your best stories are not about your products or you. Your goal is to tell a bigger story that makes your customer the hero.


Customers are doing their own research, and they're asking the most important question: How will your product or service make my life better? If your marketing fails to elevate the discussion to one of change for the better, you'll never rise above the din.

Getting Started

One of my favorite models for getting started with storytelling comes from improvisation—one of the most powerful ways of co-creating stories. It's also that classic and fun universal bed-time story model that you'll recognize from movies. I've used this model as an improviser on stage and as a marketer. Recently, I used this approach in several storytelling sessions I gave at Product Camp Silicon Valley 2013.

What I love about this particular model, called the "seven-step story," is that you can easily adapt it. This approach covers all the key elements of a story, and it works for just about every type of story a company can have: a core purpose story, product stories, origin stories, and others.

Here's the model for product/service stories told through the lens of your customer:

Once upon a time, <customer name> was doing...

And every day, he or she did <big challenge he or she has>...

Until one day, he or she discovered <enter the solution: your product or service>...

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 1>...

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 2>...

And because of that, he or she could <benefit 3>... (You don't need three, but three is the maximum you want. Shorter stories are more powerful.>

And every day since that day, he or she uses <your product or service> because it enables him or her to <big human need>...

Show How Customers' Situations 'Change'

The most important part of a story is showing how the hero/protagonist of the story changes. What can your customer do now because of your product or service that he/she could not do before? That's story rocket fuel.

Your product or service must make your customers look good. (They are the hero; your service becomes the supportive sidekick!)

Start thinking bigger than your product by focusing on what people really want: time, freedom, success, recognition, enhanced reputation, self-reliance, stability, belonging, safety, reduced risk, acceptance, security, credibility, and so on. Think about Abraham Maslow's famous "Hierarchy of Needs."

No one needs your product or service. What they need is the change that your product or service allows them to make! And you don't have to be saving lives to claim real value. You must aim for credibility, however. Great stories are built on a foundation of truth. And if you are in need of inspiration, ask customers, "How did we make your life better?" And make it personal. The best product stories are.

Here's a brief example applying the model to Company X:

Once upon a time, Bob, a company owner, kept numerous files in various locations.

And every day he had to update information in many places because he did not have the data in one secure place to be able to work remotely. It was a huge pain in a number of ways.

Then, one day, a friend introduced Bob to Company X's cloud-based data services.

Because of that, Bob could securely access data anywhere, anytime wherever he was.

Because of that he was able to get more work done quickly and easily and without worrying about compromising data security.

And every day since that day, Bob's organization uses Company X because the ability to access data "anytime anywhere" securely has reduced his risk, ensured data freedom, and freed up his time to do what does best: run his business and spend time with his family—not with his IT department.

Customers Buy Stories, Not Products

Company X delivers its service via the cloud. No one needs cloud-based services, but the cloud is how Company X delivers its value. What matters is that the product allows users to do something (bigger than the product) that they could not do before. In this case, Company X enables information freedom, simplicity, security and freed-up time.

Your product story is always about the people who use what you sell and how their lives are better. When you focus on products and features—on you, instead of your customers—you are playing a small game.

Elevate your marketing. Products come and go; a deep commitment to changing customers' lives for the better—something bigger than any company—must be an unwavering purpose that provides meaning. That's the change your stories must focus on if they are to resonate emotionally with your audience, be memorable, and create compelling calls to action.

That's my story. What's yours? Email: Kathy(at)keepingithuman(dot)com


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Kathy Klotz-Guest, founder of Keeping It Human, helps companies turn marketing-speak into compelling human stories. A comic improviser and marketer, she also runs a marketing podcast. Reach her via kathy@keepingithuman.com.

LinkedIn: Kathy Klotz-Guest

Twitter: @kathyklotzguest

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  • by Felipe Wed Oct 16, 2013 via web

    Liked a lot!
    You are so right. Emotinal bons with customers are so powerful.

  • by Jenny Spring Wed Oct 16, 2013 via web

    Good stuff! Love the simple layout, easy to follow and get started.

  • by Carl Hartman Wed Oct 16, 2013 via web

    That is rather contrived. That is not, for the most part, how to structure good stories in marketing.

    All of our content is written by professional screenwriters that understand how to wrap a story (a term so over used and no well understood) around a product and marketing.

    You don't want to tell the story about the product. That is still a pitch, it is not a real story that evokes emotion. Stories are about the people and the product is secondary. Lifestyle content must be about the lifestyle and not pitchy. Everything you have is pitching a product, its not telling a dramatic story.

    I have a track record on Emmy Award winning TV shows. Real dramatic stories wrapped around content is what I have been doing for 30 years. Story world content is not content marketing. It is light years ahead.

    The real art is not pushing a product. Buick did this in their latest campaign. The product is never mentioned and rarely seen. The entire series of videos and content they did was about the lifestyle their product afforded and the people - and the real kicker, they featured other complimentary products and sold those and never pushed their own product.

    Everything you mention here is just the same old pitch video masked as a story. That is not a story, but a pitch, plain and simple. Pitches don't build emotional bonds, just boundaries.

  • by Ann Bevans Thu Oct 17, 2013 via web

    Great post, Kathy! In my opinion, there's no better way to stand out than by telling great stories. The model you provide is a great starting point for beginners. Marketers should also be thinking beyond product stories (I call these customer stories) and looking for ways to tell origin and employee stories that reveal what their business stand for. Well done!

  • by Joanne Thu Oct 17, 2013 via web

    Terrific article and provides me with a great incentive to incorporate more of this element into our marketing. I will re-write the radio spot that I was just sending off to the station!

  • by Kathy Klotz-Guest Thu Oct 17, 2013 via web

    Jenny, it is a great way to get started, and it works. You can add to it and make it your own.

  • by Kathy Klotz-Guest Thu Oct 17, 2013 via web

    Ann,
    Absolutely.There are many types of stories and product stories can be thought of as case studies. A company needs all kinds of stories - company/origin, employee, product stories/customer success stories in its arsenal.

  • by Kathy Klotz-Guest Thu Oct 17, 2013 via web

    Carl,
    I don't think you really read the article or understood it. And I don't think you're interested in a sincere exchange... Nowhere does it mention pushing a product. This is about elevating the product. You do have to think at that product level when you are in a competitive sales situation and selling a product - what does the product allow people to do better? We're not talking about advertising content here - advertising is a small part of marketing. There are times you need case studies (product stories), employee stories, company stories. There is no single model for storytelling. Different stories do different things. And this model is used in both content marketing and by studios (Pixar) with great emotional effect, as are other methods - all of which can be helpful.

  • by Jayden Chu Sun Oct 20, 2013 via web

    Storytelling is indeed one of the best way to market. The perks with storytelling is that consumers will be able to relate since they can sympathize with the story. The important thing to remember is to talk about the consumers, not about your business.

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