And what separates bad books from good or boring speeches from the enthralling also sets the best companies apart from the rest. The greatest of companies are also great storytellers. Tom’s Shoes has gained notoriety for donating a pair of shoes for every one purchased. As the company’s CEO notes, “People don’t just wear our shoes, they tell our story.”
Storytelling is as old as language itself.
Before written history, it was storytelling that allowed humans to pass down knowledge and information in a way that could be easily remembered and passed on again and again. Not only are stories the best way to remember and relay, they represent something imperative to human interaction—connection.
Just about any CEO would tell you that connection with their customers is crucial to the company’s success. Yet most business leaders focus little on storytelling, instead spending their time delving into mounds of marketing data and the latest sales techniques to find the next best solution to selling their product. They rarely pause to look within, find their story, and tell it.
But when they do, profound things can happen. When two motivational speakers compiled a list of stories in 1993, little did they know that they were about to publish the start of one of the bestselling book series of all time, Chicken Soup for the Soul. And as the co-authors themselves admit, “What drove initial interest was not media attention or celebrity endorsement, but rather word-of-mouth promotion from ordinary people around the country who bought the book and loved it.”
As of today, more than 112 million copies of the books have been purchased in the U.S. and Canada alone, and nine out of 10 people not only recognize the brand, but understand it. That’s the power of storytelling.
Even if storytelling does not make your brand one of the most recognizable in the world, it will undoubtedly help you advance your mission and sell your product.
Take my company for example. A nonprofit organization focused on promoting free market public policy solutions in Tennessee, we once emulated the “think tank model” of churning out 50-page white papers, hoping someone would read and take note. Few did.
Over the course of time, however, we became effective at achieving real public policy victories in our state. But it wasn’t because somebody finally took note. It was because we changed from within.
We continued to conduct top-notch research, but we didn’t just use that research to sell our ideas and policy solutions to the public and policymakers. Instead, we found real people with real stories…and we told them. We told the story of the farmer whose family, due to Tennessee’s death tax, would lose the farm he had spent decades building. We told the story of the doctor who had stopped delivering babies out of fear of lawsuits. We told the story of the food truck vendor who faced being shut down by crippling regulations proposed by competing brick and mortar restaurants.
These stories allowed us to take sometimes-obscure public policy debates and make them matter to everyday citizens. They helped lead to a repeal of Tennessee’s death tax, the enactment of tort reform, and a compromise on regulations that allowed Nashville’s food truck entrepreneurs to stay in business.
It was these stories, not our white papers and studies, that changed hearts and minds. When someone hears a story and says to herself “that could be me,” you have made your connection. You have won the story war.
Whatever your idea, solution, service, or product, you can sell it better than ever through storytelling. Storytelling allows you to make a connection with your customers that is far deeper than any television ad or sales pitch. And not only will that newfound connection keep customers coming back to you time and again, they will take your story and tell it to others, just like our storyteller ancestors passed on information for generations.
Whether your business is a startup, a large for-profit company, or even a nonprofit, your greatest opportunity for success comes in winning that story war. Who knows, one day nine out of 10 people may not only recognize—but understand—your product.
Justin Owen is president & CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Its mission is to change lives through public policy by advancing the principles of free markets, individual liberty, and limited government.
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