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  • Writer's pictureMartha Olsen

3 Often Overlooked Disciplines of Storytelling

Storytelling has become one of a marketer’s most important tools. We know that stories can reach people and compel them to change in a way that facts and figures cannot. Stories can breathe life into a brand, product, or service and cut through the digital clutter.

We are all racing to become better storytellers. The good news is that there is no lack of resources devoted to the art and science of storytelling in business. The bad news? Many of the frameworks and how-to’s I see have one tiny flaw. They make it look too easy.

Maybe it’s because there is no barrier to entry to telling a story. After all, humans are wired for stories. It’s tempting to plunge right in.

In my work with marketing teams, I see a rush to create streams of content that will engage customers in conversations and ostensibly fill sales pipelines. It’s a lot of work, with a payoff that can be tough to track. A reactive approach to choosing what stories to tell, and to whom, can result in wasted efforts.

I’ve learned that even the most gifted storytellers, those who make it look so easy, always invest the time and effort in three foundational disciplines:

Really know your customers

Storytelling advice typically starts with “speak to your customers.” Yet marketers often describe target customers in vague terms. They may be able to identify them by life stage or geography, or in the case of B2B marketing by title, department, or company type. But they may not know what their customers care about, what drives their decisions, and what shapes their attitudes and behaviors. When you know why people behave the way they do, you’ll be much clearer on the stories that will be most engaging.

Start by creating a segmentation model, if you don’t already have one. Take the time to thoughtfully segment customers into distinct groups by brainstorming potential markets and looking into available data. Employ a variety of discovery methods (interviews, surveys, etc.) to understand them deeply and test your hypotheses. Build personas that can help the entire product and marketing team empathize with customers and become truly customer-centric. 

Tell stories that engage

That’s a lot of noise for your signal to cut through. Approaching stories with the idea that you’ll just put it out there and see what sticks is way too inefficient.

Once you understand your audiences by segment, try this approach to help you be strategic vs. reactive, deliberate vs. prolific: map out the customer journey. What do customers care about or struggle with as they move from status quo to happiness (that comes from adopting your solution)? You can collect some of this information by brainstorming with sales or customer support and find out what questions customers ask most at different stages. Or talk directly to customers in each segment. Or analyze behavioral data. Ideally, themes will emerge, and you have the makings of a topically-driven editorial calendar built around these themes. You’ll also have a way to catalogue stories by theme across different channels and audiences more systematically.

Tell stories that inspire change

The basic goal of stories in business is to get someone to change their behavior – to read what you’ve written, to engage, and ultimately to buy or subscribe. Basically, you need to jolt your audience out of complacency.

The ability to tell stories that inspire change is founded upon a deeply rooted point of view about the market you are in and the problems you are solving.

Two examples of companies with brand stories that do a particularly good job in connecting with customers:

  • Canada Goose inspires its consumers to go further, despite the elements. Large numbers of urban consumers who may never go on an Arctic expedition are plunking down more than $1,000 for a coat.

  • Silk’s inspirational campaign “Progress is Perfection,” launched during the 2018 Winter Olympics, honors everyday people who may never achieve Michael Phelps’ level of performance, yet still deserve credit for small steps toward healthier living. It must be working; American consumers are drinking almond milk in record numbers.

Whether you are an entrepreneur just getting started, or a marketing manager working to build out your content calendar, invest the time in clarifying your central purpose. Get your smartest people in a room and brainstorm. Follow brilliant thought leaders and build a knowledge bank. Find inspiration that enables you to rise above the task of thinking about how to describe the value of your products and services and how they work, and pan out to a bigger picture. Why now? What are the consequences of doing nothing? Why should your audience care? This core message should be the theme running through all the stories you tell, adapted for different audiences and purposes.

As marketers we can learn much from authors, journalists and playwrights – writing is disciplined work. Approaching storytelling in a more systematic way can help us get out of crunch mode and stay sane in a content-driven world.

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