The world is overcrowded with information. We’re wired to tell stories because it’s how we make sense of the world around us. Stories let us distill large, complex ideas and important messages into sticky, memorable pieces that we can carry forward with us in our minds.
Telling the right story about you and your business can be a big challenge–online, in person, or through social media. How do you decide what story to tell? And how do you know it’s the right one?
A story is what you take with you. We’re wired to consolidate complex information into pieces we can carry—like little suitcases for the brain. The test of a great story is what people remember about you when you stop talking and what they say about you after you’ve left. If you have the chance, listen to how people introduce you; it’s an inside look into how people remember you and your business. Just like ideas, viruses, and people–stories have lives, and how far they spread relates to how sticky they are.
There are, unfortunately, a lot of bad examples of storytelling and personal branding. Distilling who you are and what you have to offer into a package of words that’s easy for someone else to understand is not always simple.
Here are common ways we screw up when telling our stories (and how to fix them):
Mistake # 1: Focusing Only on You
In The Story Wars by Jonah Sachs, he describes the sin of vanity as excessively focusing on yourself. A business that showcases how many clients they have, how long they’ve been in business, how they got to where they are, and what their best metric of the day is—isn’t providing value for new customers; instead, they’re talking about themselves.
If you’re representing a business or building a company, you have customers, clients, and interactions with real people who want to know how you help them. The story you want to tell should incorporate those people rather than focus on just yourself.
Check out the difference between writing for yourself and writing for your client in this example:
“I built a company when I was nine, and then another company when I was fourteen. Today I run the biggest company in the world and I like to put my feet up on my office chair every afternoon in between marathon sessions of working.”
Instead, you might to tell a story that showcases how your business operates and who you work with—and make sure it’s not just about you.
“I run a company that works with people who want to improve their writing, storytelling, and communication skills. The underlying belief driving this company is how powerful writing and communication skills are for your personal and business freedom, so I teach actionable skills and break down writing into easy templates and exercises that people can learn from and use again and again.”
The story is still about you and what you have to offer, but it showcases the types of people who work with, and the value you deliver to them.
Great stories are about relationships between people. Tell the story of why what you do matters to the person you’re interacting with. Your job is to tell a story about the customer in front of you: the problem they have, the pain they are experiencing, the tools and skills they want to learn.
Mistake #2: Focusing on Chronology, Not Outcome
Story structures are fascinating—and most of us use chronology (time) as the main organizer behind the stories we tell. The problem, however, is then we feel obligated to fill in all of the details of everything we’ve done in between.
Here’s an example of strict chronology:
“I went to college, then got a master’s degree, then worked for six years, then had a baby, then I went to another school, then I ran another business, then I started a project, then…”
Instead, focus on the outcome. Where are you now? What are you working on today? Throw in one example from the past for color or contrast, but don’t dwell on recreating a timeline of every step that got you to where you are today. If you end up having a longer conversation with your friend or client, you can get into the details as the examples relate to what you’re talking about.
Try this instead:
“Today, I’m focused on communication and writing, both through teaching and speaking. Ironically, when I started out I was studying psychology and design, and I didn’t think either of those would lead me to communications. It turns out that it’s all very interrelated and I’ve been able to use all of my past design work in my latest projects.”
A great way to apply this is on your companies about page. Instead of structuring your story as a long history of everything you’ve done (listing every client, project, course, or skill that you have), be selective and focus on the outcomes that you and your company give people. Choose a few stories from your past work to bolster the larger value or message you’re sharing.
For example, in teaching how to write a newsletter, the article includes the story of how Laura grew her business and how the newsletter then catapulted her business into more success—through the design of the newsletter.
Mistake #3: Saying “I’m not ready” or “In the future…”
Often people talk about their business in the future tense, describing how many ways their business isn’t ready yet. These can be arbitrary barriers, real barriers, or perceived flaws–but your ability to be ready for clients should be something that comes up at the end of a conversation, not the beginning. Start with intrigue and interest; then add clarity or a timeline that works for you to get up to speed. (Trust me, not being ready is not your selling point, and you probably are closer to ready than you think).
When going to a website, who wants to read, “I’m going to start a business on XYZ but it won’t be for another 6 months”? Instead, frame the story in a positive light that highlights your growth, acceleration or pending change; and possibly add a caveat, or talk to people one on one about timelines that are appropriate for your schedule.
For example, let’s say your goal is to be the best art instructor in the greater Midwest and Chicago areas, but you only have a small roster of clients that are currently in Michigan, and they are only focused on painting at the moment. You can say:
“We’re a multimedia art company focused on working with clients in Detroit, Ann Arbor, and the greater Midwest. Check out the upcoming oil painting and canvas workshops coming in January 2014 in Ann Arbor.”
This story lets you frame future growth in a positive spin. You can tell a story about your growth in a few months: “We’re expanding into courses in charcoals and watercolors!” can be a follow-up announcement.
When describing what you do and who you are, be careful to watch out for the trap of feeling that you’re too small, not ready, or ill-prepared. You shouldn’t lie about what you have to offer (don’t, for example, say that you’re the biggest art company in all of Michigan), but providing enough positive enthusiasm for where you are—and where you’re growing—helps attract people to your company rather than defer them from the start.
As an added benefit, describing your business the way that you want it to grow helps you stay laser-focused on the next-steps, and fulfill your vision by shaping it through the language that you use. Through the power of visualization and telling the story of your current and future business, you can tell a better story about the business you are, and also attract more customers and clients.
Mistake # 4: Mentioning Every Single Detail Rather Than Starting With the Sweet Spot
Remember, a story is what someone takes with them–so you want to say something short, sweet, and tantalizing. Telling them every step of the process of building your business isn’t useful.
Find a sweet spot or nugget that you can focus on and share with someone. Your story sweet spot is something that you love talking about, that excites you–and your passion shines through–and that you can layer more ideas and examples onto.
The trick is starting with a simple concept, and then adding details and examples, and being able to repeat the simple concept again at the end. It should also be as specific as possible while still staying short in the beginning.
Here’s a not-so-good example:
“I build online products for people. I build things online like Facebook advertisements, or copy, or sometimes graphics, but often websites…[continues with unending list of rambling examples].”
This story isn’t specific enough in the beginning and lacks clarity about the audience or the framework. Instead, get more specific on ONE thing that you offer, and save the examples as evidence that collects under the umbrella story that you’re telling:
“I help entrepreneurs build their online courses so they can get their message and expertise heard.”
Then, add your clarifying examples:
“I do this by making the online structure simple so they can focus on content. One client I worked with built a 40-person online knitting business, and I set up the infrastructure for the course (videos, website, content) to make it happen.”
Every detail of a story should layer into the initial framework and add clarity to your story, not confusion. Showcase examples that bolster your credibility, usefulness, or prowess.
What stories are you telling?
To tell powerful stories about you and your business, focus on your client, on the outcome that you deliver, on what’s ready and available now (even if you don’t quite feel read), and distill it into a “sweet spot” message that’s easy for someone to take with them.
What about you? What stories have worked well for you? Do you have great examples of tricks and tips you’ve used to craft your message and get what you want?