How Telling the Story Behind Your Business Can Transform It

Competing with larger corporations that have bigger budgets, more buying power, and deeper resources can be an ongoing challenge for small businesses. But sharing the story of who and what put your company on the map can give you a competitive advantage, especially if you leverage your position as the “little guy” in the David vs. Goliath battle for customer dollars.

Here’s how storytelling can benefit your small business:

  • It taps into people’s emotions. Storytelling is an age-old tradition and a highly effective marketing tactic. Virtually any tale of how an underdog perseveres toward an eventual happy ending wins people over. Although your small business may not yet be as established or accomplished as you’d like it to be someday, don’t diminish the value of its origins. How you turned a once abstract concept into a tangible business is a journey worth sharing.

    In his book Tell to Win, Peter Guber, a film producer and CEO of Mandalay Entertainment, explains the power of storytelling for businesses: “You have to deliver a clarion call that will get your listeners’ attention, emotionalize your goal as theirs, and move them to act in your favor. You have to reach their hearts as well as their minds — and this is just what storytelling does,” writes Guber.

  • It establishes trust. Sharing your story can break down walls between you and your customers and help you build relationships, provided that the information you offer is genuine and relatable.

    To that end: Map out your company’s history, including your background before you became an entrepreneur and why you became one. Discuss the challenges, frustrations, unexpected pitfalls, and successes that you’ve experienced as a small-business owner. Share what you’re proud of, what hasn’t gone as planned, and what remains on your list of goals for the future. Be honest or about your experience: Authenticity fosters trust. Use a combination of media — the blog on your website, social media, video, images, etc. — to encourage audience participation.

    Media psychologist Pamela Rutledge explains that such “transmedia storytelling” creates “many points of entry that reach and link multiple demographics and target different user needs to effectively expand the customer base.” Over time, you’ll cultivate customer engagement and establish trust, which keeps people coming back for more.

  • It creates commonality. Although your small-business story is obviously about you, your goal should be to craft it in such a way that customers see themselves as part of it. Analyze your word choice and sentence construction, and consider how what you say will prompt customers to reflect on their own struggles, problems, and desires.

    Steve Parker Jr., co-founder of digital marketing and analytics firm Levelwing, suggests reflecting on your sales patterns, social media interactions, and informal conversations to determine what you can do for your customers. Identify which of their needs aren’t being met and use elements of your story to explain how your business helps to fulfill them.

  • It gives your brand personality. Strategic storytelling can help you invoke emotion and communicate a brand personality by giving your logo, signage, and other visual elements more meaning. Identify what your brand’s consistent voice and image will be across media to shape what will become a lasting and memorable image.

    Let’s say you’re a do-it-yourself hardware store owner who learned everything you know from your grandmother. Your story, signage, customer-service policies, and retail space might convey this by communicating the “old-fashioned” qualities of understanding, support, and guidance.

    For example, you might feature a “most useful skills Grandma taught me” series on your website and social media accounts that each week tells a new story to educate customers. In-store signage might feature a “don’t forget” message (to gently remind shoppers of the tools commonly needed in DIY projects) in a design motif that’s reminiscent of yesteryear. Meanwhile, your customer service might include online chat or phone guidance for struggling DIYers in the midst of a project (offering the same type of support Grandma provided you when you were a newbie).

About Stephanie Taylor Christensen

Stephanie Taylor Christensen holds a master’s degree in marketing and has 13 years of marketing management experience for Fortune 500 companies and small businesses. She is a regular contributor to sites like ForbesWoman, Real Simple, Mint, Minyanville, and SheKnows, and writes for several private business clients. Her work is frequently syndicated and sourced by Yahoo! Finance, SFGate, TodayShow.com, and The New York Times. She is also a small business owner, having founded WellnessOnLess.com, and Om for Mom Prenatal Yoga in Columbus, Ohio. Connect with her on Twitter @WellnessOnLess.
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