There's been loads of talk about using stories for business communications—for good reason. Stories get people involved at a deeper level because they engage the senses and emotions and activate the brain. We learn more and remember better.

That's why stories are a great tool in content marketing. Still, understanding the power of stories is one thing; knowing how to craft them... is another. So let's delve into some practical applications of story; I'll use case studies, annual reports, and video as examples.

Case Studies: Story Power in Action

We learn vicariously through story. Brain research shows that reading a story about someone doing something activates the same areas of your brain as if you were engaged in those very pursuits.

That's powerful stuff that you can take advantage of via case studies. People can experience the value of your company's offerings by reading the experiences of satisfied customers. Readers feel the pain of the problem and the satisfaction of success. For prospective customers, a well-told story can reduce fear of taking action and increase trust in your value.

Stories are great for case studies also because they help to quantify indirect and intangible values. You can demonstrate specific and actual client results and outcomes.

Start With Your Objectives

Your first job is to think about what you want story to achieve. You're not just telling a story for the sake of telling a story—you're using it to achieve your objectives. Choosing good objectives is a combination of being clear on your company and specific project goals and knowing your audience.

You want to choose a case study that supports your objectives. Sometimes you don't have the detail to make that decision until you've conducted the client interview, so you may have to revisit your objectives once the interviews are completed.

You may have more than one objective, but refrain from having too many, because you want to keep a clean storyline. Here are some sample objectives:

  • Overcome resistance or buying objections
  • Create resonance and connection
  • Motivate and inspire
  • Mobilize or reinvigorate people
  • Capitalize on real-world events
  • Introduce new directions
  • Demonstrate your various value propositions
  • Increase revenue per customer
  • Educate about a specific aspect of your offering
  • Break into a new market
  • Create leads
  • Enhance customer loyalty
  • Communicate differentiation
  • Increase market share

The Client Interview Is the Key to a Great Story

An author who writes a fictional story gets to make up the needed details to keep you on the edge of your seat. You don't have that freedom when writing case studies. Your job involves bringing a true narrative to life. That's why the client interview is key.

Even clients who adore you haven't generally given a lot of thought to the value your company has brought to their lives. It's up to you to unearth those details. Otherwise, your story will sound something like "we hired them, they did good, we were happy."

The more digging you do during the interview stage, the more likely you are to uncover the type of detail that makes for an appealing story. The attention-grabbing story elements will be in the human and specific details.

Start by drafting a list of questions to ask. Make it a long list: You don't have to ask them all. Your job is to listen. A long list of questions will enable you to get the client speaking again if the conversation dwindles.

Finding stories involves following up on little tidbits that your interviewee often won't even recognize as valuable. That's why it's best to interview the person by phone or in person; you're much less likely to get the kind of information that results in a great story from trading emails.

During the interview, you're gathering information. Spotting a story is great, but if you spot a story and focus in on it too much, you might miss other opportunities for better stories or additional parts of the story that will leap out at you once you're back at your office looking for patterns in the information you've collected.

Make sure to identify the emotional costs and gains. If you're interviewing your customer and he says the customer service was great... that's wonderful—but dead boring. And meaningless. The story is in the particulars. Dig deeper to find out what he means by that. What exactly happened? How did that make him feel? What did it enable him to accomplish? How did it change his life? Find out any odd details you can. The interview process is a bit of an art—and it's the key to being able to construct a great story.

Story Genres

What kind of story would you like to tell? Mystery, romance, comedy, drama, adventure? I mention this somewhat tongue-in-cheek, because using genre may not be suitable for every situation.

However, playing with genre can help you...

  • Find patterns in your interview material
  • Enhance your creativity and enjoyment factor as you approach the project
  • Provide ideas on how to start your story and keep a consistent tone throughout

If you can find a strong genre that will work with your details, all the better. Maybe you can play up that your solution allowed your customer to get out of the office earlier for a romantic anniversary dinner. Perhaps the client's problem was a mystery because your company had never seen that problem before, yet you persevered and overcame it. If you can have fun with it, your readers probably will, too.

Crafting the Story

A story isn't just a series of events strung together. The real story is about how the characters respond to those events. In other words, stories are about how people manage change, which is really about people's internal growth. A great storyteller is able to bring that internal voyage to life.

In your case study, your happy client is the hero. You want your readers to be able to relate to how he or she feels. You want people to feel part of the story.

Tips for case study storytelling:

  • In a story, you're not telling. You're letting the characters demonstrate.
  • Highlight the conflict and struggle. Stories are about our mistakes and struggle, because that's how we learn.
  • Who or what is your bad guy? Stories are about how hero achieves goal in the face of an obstacle. Every story has to have some kind of bad guy, or there's no story.
  • Engage the senses. People remember stories better than facts, and they remember stories that engage the senses more than ones that don't. For example: "What he was hoping for was a smell like fresh baked cookies just out of the oven. What he got was something that smelled like a bag of garbage left out for a week in record-breaking temperatures in mid-July." OK... that may be overkill, but you can see how it engages the senses more than just saying it smelled good or it reeked.

Your Annual Report as Story

Annual reports have a reputation for being really, really boring. Really boring equates to "no one reads them."

The reason they're generally dead boring is because most of them are a bunch of data thrown together. Why write something no one wants to read?

A first-rate annual report captures people's imagination and inspires them. A good report has emotion and creates links to greater purpose, goals, dreams, and vision.

Writing your annual report as a story can change it from a dull collection of facts and information into a marketing and communications piece you can be proud of. Think about why you are telling it and whom are you telling it to.

From the perspective of story, your annual report becomes the tale of your company's year. Your company (and its people) become the protagonists: What happened to your company this last year? What main things do you want people to know about you? What were your successes and failures? How did that change you as a company? What did you learn? How did the company's experience last year contribute to this year's hopes and dreams? Who were the champion employees and clients? Was it a special year to celebrate—like the company had a special birthday or maybe became a teenager?

There are an endless number of fascinating stories once you begin looking for them.

Story helps bring your company to life, making it feel authentic and personable.

Video: Seconds to Launch Complex Ideas

With the combination of image, voice, and music, video is a natural format for story. Video's strength is its ability to communicate complex ideas in seconds.

Many companies aren't capitalizing on that strength. Companies have instead clambered to get videos online as video consumption has exploded.... but that has led to heaps of "talking head" videos.

Recently, I ran across a company telling the story of how the company name came to be: It was named after one of the Arabian Nights tales.

I couldn't tell you why they named the company, because the video consisted of the owner standing there telling the story. I skipped ahead. A minute later in the video, and she was still talking. I abandoned the video.

Imagine instead that you videoed your talking heads as they were telling stories—but only as a first component in your story research and development.

Then you applied the same rule in your video development as you do to get good writing—edit, edit, edit! Find the essence of the message you want to get across. Boil down the text or words until you have the minimum of words to convey that message. Examine your goal behind wanting to communicate this message.

You have your message, and you know why you want to communicate it. Time to make it live and breathe.

Think about how you want people to feel after they receive your information. How can you get that core message across in a story? How can you convey the feelings you want? How can you establish an emotional connection with your viewers? Close your eyes and tell yourself the story. Depending on how your brain works, that story may come in words, images, or a combination of the two. There's no right or wrong way. Quickly jot down the notes of your internal brainstorm in quick sketches or words.

Create a storyboard to save you and your team time and resources. Storyboards allow you to work out your storyline and the accompanying words and images that will be the basis of your story—before you go to production. Various types of storyboarding software are available ranging in price, but you can also go low-tech and produce it on paper.

Video is a very flexible format. You can video clips, photos, animation, or combine them in any way to get your story across. The key is to match your format to the emotional connection you want to create.

Use Stories to Produce Better Content

Stories can be a compelling tool in your content marketing arsenal. They engage people, increase creativity, and provide an organizing framework for your content.

Take advantage of the inherent power of story to increase the influence of your content marketing.

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image of Catherine  Sherlock

Catherine Sherlock (Sherlock Ink) is a communications professional and sustainability (CSR) strategist who revels in working with companies seeking to make the world a better place. Her specialties include storytelling, content marketing, and purpose-based consulting. Contact her for a complimentary consultation on your content or sustainability strategy.

LinkedIn: Catherine Sherlock