Three Counterintuitive Business Storytelling Tips

By Roger Wu

Storytelling is making a comeback.

Marketers are realizing that with deep penetration of smartphones, the ubiquity of Google Search, and most logistic challenges solved by Amazon, customers are not challenged by how to buy something but rather what to buy.  Furthermore, in the sense that they know about your product already, how do you appear in their consideration set when they are ready to buy.

Storytelling seems to solve all of these issues and more.  At a minimum stories have been used for millennia to pass down culture, language, and history.  It’s a great way to jog one’s memory.  Yet we’ve seen some stories fail to do this and we’ve seen some stories that appear to fail every marketer’s checklist succeed beyond anyone’s beliefs.

Here are some of the interesting things to keep in mind while writing your story:

Tip #1: Tell them WHY, not How


Most businesses spend a lot of time in product development, thus it makes sense that they want to tell you about what they’ve built.  However, people are not rational.

“People don't buy what you do; they buy why you do it.” - Simon Sinek

Simon Sinek’s book about marketing alludes to how “why” makes sense in telling your story.

To illustrate look at the legendary storyteller Steve Jobs, who in launching the new version of the iPhone, wouldn’t focus on the inevitably faster chips, higher resolution cameras, or increased storage capacity. That’s what is new about the iPhone, and would feel like reading a stat sheet, which anyone at the WWDC (Apple’s Worldwide Developer Conference) would be able to do.

Instead Jobs focused on why Apple needed this increased technology: at that time the latest phone revealed a front facing camera, allowing a hearing impaired person to make a phone call for the very first time.  This was the why for the 5 megapixel camera, the 512 MB of DRAM, the new ARM Cortex-A8 chips.  However, this was also much more impactful than a slight increase in the numbers.

This was able to change someone’s life and was the reason why the iPhone became the greatest selling phone in history.

Tip #2: EMOTIONS first, Data second


Big data is sweeping the tech world; with more clicks, scrolls, and data, data scientists can now  make decisions on what you’ll do next.

“One death is a tragedy; one million is a statistic.” - Joseph Stalin

Yet, is big data the best tool for telling your story?

Consider this study conducted at the University of Michigan, where students were told they had a fatal disease and offered two variations of treatments:

Treatment #1: 50% effective and Treatment #2: 90% effective.

While presenting Treatment #2, researchers also told one of the following anecdotes with the following characteristic: positive (patient that took this got better), neutral (patient that took this had no change), and negative (patient that took this got worse).

The results? Coupled with the positive anecdote, students picked Treatment #2 88% of the time; the neutral story resulted in Treatment #2 81% of the time; but the negative story had Treatment #2 picked only 39% of the time.

The relatability of the negative story caused most of the students to trade in a near sure thing (90%) for a coin flip (50%).

Don’t forget that people make many decisions emotionally instead of rationally.

 Tip#3: DON'T be a snake

Risk fish

Throughout history, story hasn’t changed. The story arc continually rose in action culminating in a climax where the hero is tested and could potentially lose it all.  The hero overcomes and climbs back down the arc, where loose ends are tied, resolutions occur, and everyone lives happily ever after.

“Every great story seems to begin with a snake.” - Nicholas Cage

However, technology has changed the way the traditional story arc was conceived.  Due to infinite choice, the story arc looks more like a sine wave than a single up and down normally distributed hump.

A story or headline needs to grab you immediately, otherwise your audience will look for something more interesting.  Independent films need to hook the viewer in due to the simplicity of watching another movie on Netflix and bloggers and other publishers need to get you to click and commit through your Twitter and Facebook feeds.

As a marketer, how can you hook your audience?

Is it a narrative of amazing statistics, similar to what Solve Media put together of things more likely to happen to you than clicking on a banner ad or that ⅔ of shopping carts are abandoned?

These mind blowing statistics get us in at a pre story climax and let us ride back down the curve until we ride back up and find your company, our hero, at the climax as the one to save the day.

Story is starting to take up more mindshare and space on the marketer’s tool belt.

However, as we continue to learn better ways to tell stories, please comment, email, tweet to me so we can continue to understand the best way to communicate our message, entertain, and be more memorable.

About the author

Roger Wu is co-founder of Cooperatize, an advertising platform for sponsored content. Previously, he founded, an interactive video platform and was part of the founding team at Bloomberg Law.


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