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5 Lessons I’ve Learned from Telling 500 Brand Stories

At Explainify, we eat, sleep, and breathe storytelling. I remind our clients that “the best story always wins,” while a weak or uninteresting story can doom your business. And, ultimately, we practice storytelling by working with those clients to craft unforgettable brand videos.

Because storytelling is so much more than a buzzword, a marketing fad that will die out as newer and sexier ideas emerge. It’s foundational to good marketing.


Because if you can tell a great story—well, that’s what gets people to sit up and take notice.


1. Stories happen at an intersection

When you tell a story, there are actually three components: you, your audience, and the message. And a great story happens at the intersection between you and your audience. Which means you need to know who you are and you need to know who’s listening; then, you need to tell the story that builds a meaningful bridge between the two.


This may seem obvious, but a lot of people miss it. They either get so caught up in their own brand that they forget to tell a story that’s relevant to their audience, or they’re so focused on speaking to whichever audience seems most important in the moment that they fail to grow any abiding sense of brand identity. The best story, however, lies somewhere in between.


Here’s a practical example: Let’s say you make local, organic granola (I’m a fan of this stuff!). You originally thought that your audience would be hippies and crunchy types, but in reality your primary customer base is upper middle-class fitness buffs.


So your best story is probably not that by using organic, local ingredients you’re helping the environment and reducing your carbon footprint (which could very well be true); rather, the story that would stick is that when you eat healthy, earth-friendly foods, you feel better. And when you feel better, you perform better. In other words, by eating your granola, runners, weightlifters, and CrossFitters can do what they love—better.


So when you tell your story, make sure that story is the meeting place between who you are—and who your audience is.


2. Your story is not your features

If you run a startup, odds are whatever you’re doing—is awesome.


Whether it’s a new tech product, ground-breaking enterprise software, or your own boutique clothing line, it’s great. It’s innovative. It’s disruptive.


But what will get people to buy is not your features. They don’t care whether your software has centralized account management or that your sweaters are made with Highland wool—at least not at first. They care that you’ll solve a major problem in their life (in this case, that they can view all accounts with one login and stay warm). And yet features are easy to talk about, so that’s what a lot of companies focus on. Stop it!


At Explainify, we see this all the time. We work with a lot of tech and software companies, and it’s so easy for them to get bogged down in trying to explain all the features their product offers. But this is a mistake.


What your audience wants to know is, how are you meeting them in the world where they live and taking them to a new place?


This all goes back to features vs. benefits. People will come to appreciate your features, but what will get them to show up in the first place are the benefits you offer.


Plus, according to Stanford’s Jennifer Aaker, people are 22 times more likely to remember stories than facts (I believe it’s higher, but hey—she’s the Stanford grad). In other words, wrapping your value proposition in a story is a surefire way to get your audience to remember what you’re about!


3. Your story is bigger than what you do

Why do people wear TOMS shoes?


Sure, they’re comfortable, but at the end of the day it’s not the slip-on style or the canvas material that makes people buy them. It’s the fact that TOMS is doing something meaningful—giving away shoes to those who need them.


And by purchasing a pair of their shoes, you get to participate directly in the TOMS story. You get to join in!


While TOMS is an extreme example, the fact remains: As a brand, you don’t just have an opportunity to tell a great story; you have the chance to create a culture or movement that goes beyond your company.


Consider some of the brands who are doing this really well. When you think of HubSpot, odds are you don’t just think of them as a sales/marketing platform; you think of HubSpot as one of the top places to go for the newest thought leadership on content marketing. Or when you think of Patagonia, you probably don’t just think about their jackets—you associate their brand with a culture of sustainability and adventure.


This is the goal driving all of content marketing. Rather than shouting at consumers, we’ve begun to create spaces where they can come learn, engage, and join your movement—and ultimately, buy.


Always remember: People will buy a good product. They’ll advocate for a great story.


4. You need help telling your story

Roy Williams says, “You can’t read the label from inside the bottle.”


Chip and Dan Heath call it “the curse of knowledge.”


Whatever way you cut it, you’re too close to your business to tell your story.


You’ve heard the expression about “missing the forest for the trees”? Well, that’s what this is like. You’re on the ground, in the trenches every day, so it’s easy for you to get caught up in all those tricky facts and features, focusing on the individual trees closest to you, and it’s almost impossible to get an aerial view of the whole forest—the big picture.


When it comes to telling your story, one of the best things you can do is to bring in a trusted mentor, a consultant, or other objective party who can help you look at your business from the outside. Because that’s often where the best story can be found.


Even at Explainify, where we make our living helping other companies read the label and uncover their best story, we’re not immune to this. We’re always bringing in consultants and friends from our network to help us talk through, refine, and clarify our messaging.


5. Don’t waste your story!

I think there’s a sense in the business world that the concept of “storytelling” is a little too touchy-feely, too vague and undefinable to be really helpful.


However, I think what sets business storytelling apart from a novel or a comic book is that it should include that wonderful three-word phrase:


A call to action.


If a truly great brand story should inspire action, and story is the best way to engage your viewers, then it’s crucial that you give your audience some sort of action to take once they’ve heard your story!


In our work, these actions are usually quite small—sign up for a free trial, chat with our sales team, visit this url to learn more. The point is to give your audience a door they can walk through, a door that takes them further into your story.


Storytelling is a vital, exciting part of your marketing efforts. In fact, it’s important because it has a direct impact on how you’ll approach each element of your content marketing strategy. Your story will work itself out in your campaigns, your email blasts, your blog posts, your website copy, your meetings… all of it! And it pays huge dividends in the long run.


So, how will you tell your story?


Eric Hinson

Eric Hinson


Eric Hinson is the Founder and CEO of Explainify, which specializes in short, engaging, explainer videos that influence buying decisions. You can find him on Twitter and Google+.