How to tell your business story

Telling your business story might feel daunting. Where do you start? What should you include? How will people respond? What if they don’t respond? Will it feel like a school assignment?

We asked Rachel Extance, who helps businesses find their stories and tell them effectively, to be our Ask The Expert and tell us how to plan out our stories, what structure to use and how to share them. She covered what to do if you’re faced with blank page syndrome, how to tell stories if you think your business is ‘boring’ and how to not feel awkward about sharing stories.

This is a write-up of a conversation between our members in the Drive The Network Facebook Group.

What are your business stories?

Helen Lindop Is it best to have one overall story for your business then break that down over a series of different blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts etc? Or maybe have mini-stories that slot into the main one?

Rachel Extance Hi Helen, this is a good question to start us off.

Your business will have lots of different stories:

  • Your main story is the one about how you fit in to your perfect customer’s life. What difference do you make? How is their world improved by you being a part of it?
  • You have your origin story. How did your business come about?
  • You have your personal/founder story. This may be similar to your origin story (if you started a business because you were made redundant for example or you have always had a talent for making something) or it may be different. How did you become an accountant? Or come to be in a different city/country?
  • Then you have other stories:
  • Case studies
  • Stories about your products
  • Stories which help people understand how what you do can help them
  • Stories about what is happening in your business
  • Stories about things you’re doing which indirectly relate to your business
    • networking events you have been to
    • a place you have been
    • anything which gives people an insight into your world and helps them get to know you

It’s important that your stories have the key components of a story (see next section).

So those are some examples of the stories you can tell. And you can see from those two lists that some of those stories are ones which can be told time and time again. They will be on your website, you can share them on social media, you can tell them to people when you meet.

Others will have a shorter shelf life. It might be something which is relevant for a day or a week.

Ideally, you want a mix of stories so you always have something you can share to help people coming across you for the first time to get to know you and how you can help them, and for people who are already in your network to enjoy and have a chat with you about.

Andy Boothman talking to people at a Drive The Network meeting

 

 

Helen Lindop Thank you, really helpful! How do you fit those into some kind of strategy/framework or whatever so that eg. you don’t bore people by telling your origin story too much or you end up telling lots of smaller ones that don’t hang together that well?

Rachel Extance Think about where and how you are going to share your stories. If you’re using Twitter for instance, you can share the same thing quite a lot without people getting bored of it.

Also think about all the different things you can pull out of your story to share. So if you were to take your origin story you could have a post which says: “How I overcame … to ….”

Then: “Why I…..”

Another could be: “I was really struggling with….”

If your post has sub-headings, these can all be individual tweets.

Also quote yourself. Look for lines which stand out in your story and use them as tweets.

You can probably get at least 5 different posts out of one story (I’ve seen people talk about 10x or more).

Spread them out and share them on different days. So one month put it out on Tuesday am, the next month Thursday lunchtime, next time Saturday evening.

If you are blogging/recording regularly so you have new material to share, shout about it. Your followers don’t want to miss it. You can say it’s new and put it out every day for a week at different times.

On Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn, things have a longer shelf life. But there’s nothing wrong with recycling a piece of content round again after a break.

If in doubt, have a look at the timeline of a brand or person whose work you really enjoy and who posts regularly. See if you can spot how often they put out the same post with a different message.

Reposting also gives you the opportunity to experiment with different messages, timings and imagery.

Plan your posts out over 3 months. You’ll find you don’t need to repeat that often.

What is a story?

Rachel Extance A story has some key ingredients: a beginning, a middle, and an end.

It also needs:
Characters (the who)
Action (what, where, how, why). The ‘why’ is important. People need to know the motivation and want to know what happens next or they will stop reading/listening/watching.
A resolution (how did it end?)

It needs to be relatable and it needs to create an emotional connection.

Posting a photo of a cup of coffee or what you ate for breakfast (no matter how pretty it looks) is not, in my opinion, a story.
However, it can become a story if you can talk about your favourite cafe and why you love going there and that the owner, Michael, makes the best carrot cake in town. Or that you are drinking coffee while working on a new chapter of your book/planning a workshop/developing a new service and tell people a little about your process and when they can expect to be able to see the result. This kind of story can be helpful for keeping you accountable. If you’ve told people there will be a book, there needs to be a book by x date. People will want to know the latest stories about how the book is coming along.

It’s vital that your stories resonate with your audience. What’s your story giving them? Is it information? (Stories are a great teaching tool.) Is it entertainment? Does it help them get to know you and remind them how much they enjoy working with you?

Helen Lindop Really helpful. I forget that stories can be really short. I keep thinking I need to write a 1000 word blog post as a minimum!

Rachel Extance stories can be very short.

Just to add to this, the ‘end’ doesn’t have to be ‘the end’. (You also don’t have to start at the beginning). If you think about a soap opera, there are lots of stories running at the same time. Some are begun and resolved in an episode, some run over several episodes. And it’s all one long story with people coming and going for years. ‘The end’ just needs to be a means of rounding off your story so people aren’t left hanging, wondering if there’s more to come or what happened to a character.

Helen Lindop Got it! It’s like Doctor Who… you’ve got the overall story that’s run for over 50 years, the story of each incarnation of the Doctor, the story of each series and the story of each episode. All nested together. Then I guess there’s the story of the alien who only shows up for 5 minutes. 🤣 (And the guy who gets sucked out of an air lock).

Rachel Extance You get bonus points for relating it all to Doctor Who 🙂 Yes, exactly that.

How to tell your business story without feeling awkward about it

Helen Lindop Sometimes I’m a bit too close to my story and can’t tell whether it’s going to resonate or just feel a bit cheesy or self-congratulatory. Any tips for writing stories that are ‘ooh’ rather than ‘urgh’?

Rachel Extance There is nothing wrong with telling people a story about success.

If you don’t tell your stories, no-one will ever know. People can’t know that you are brilliant at writing emails which achieve a higher than average open-rate, or that you won a client an award, or that you’re feeling pleased because you figured something out that’s been bugging you for ages, unless you share it.

Sharing success stories is important in influencing people’s buying decisions. People often don’t approach you until they have made that decision to buy. Seeing good reviews of you and stories from you about work you have done with others helps them make up their mind.

How often do you get talking to someone you haven’t seen for a while and it turns out they don’t have a clue what you do for a living? They might be a potential customer, or they might know someone else who is.

Humans are wired for stories. We love hearing them and reading them. Why else do we spend a stupid amount of time on social media when we all absolutely have better things to do with our time? We want stories. What are our friends up to? A clip from our favourite show, a bit of nostalgia, we cannot get enough of stories.

When you’re sharing a story, give people reading/listening/watching something they can use. You’ve just successfully done something for a client: this tells other people looking to do the same thing that you can help them. You could also share a tip or two which your audience can benefit from.

Tell people the difference it has made to you or your client. Figuring out this issue means you can now take Friday off and you’re going to go shopping. Or it’s enabled a client to make x new orders this week.

For example, “I made £5000 this week” sounds boastful. But try: “I’m celebrating the launch of my new product line which I’ve been working on for the past 6 months. We knew people really needed help with x so we developed y. I held a launch party at z with so-and-so (or went live on Facebook) and was really nervous but then the orders came flooding in and we sold £5,000! This is my best launch so far and I’m really grateful to companies x, y, and z who helped me make it happen”

You’ve shown people there was a process. You didn’t just make £5,000, you worked hard for it. You listened to customers and met a need. You stepped out of your comfort zone and did a launch. You didn’t just do it by yourself, you had others to help you.

Humans are wired for stories. We love hearing them and reading them. Why else do we spend a stupid amount of time on social media when we all absolutely have better things to do with our time? We want stories.

Selling with stories

Helen Lindop What about the balance between telling stories and selling? Do you have any tips for selling using a story so it feels authentic but not pushy?

Rachel Extance I have struggled with ‘selling’ since I started out. But over time I’ve reconciled myself with it and I believe we’re all selling all the time.

I mentioned earlier that people have often made up their mind before you hear from them. This is the Zero Moment of Truth. Telling stories helps people get to know you and understand what you’re offering, whether they are in the market for your products and services or not.

I’m personally not a fan of stories which start with some shock, horror click bait intro. But that’s probably because I’m a cynic.

I do believe that every business has stories to tell. We’re all human. And that telling our stories creates connections and helps us come to mind when people are looking for someone who does what we do.

I should say that people who advise you to write ‘shock horror click bait intros’ do so because the stats show that they work.

My write-up of last year’s Marketed.Live has more on the Zero Moment of Truth and lots of other useful advice, if you want to know more.

Sharing experiences at a Drive The Network meeting

What stories can ‘boring’ businesses tell?

Helen Lindop Any tips for those people who feel their business subject is just too dull to have any juicy stories? (People have told me this as I’ve been trying to plan out their email newsletters with them – so this is their opinion rather than mine!)

Rachel Extance If you have started a business then it can’t be that boring. It must also have a market, otherwise you’re not going to make any money from it, therefore people must be interested in it.

How does water supply impact on your customers? What does it enable them to do?

What are the benefits of someone doing your books for you?

Another way to approach it, if you’re a service industry, is to talk about the interesting jobs/business your clients have. How does your SAAS product enable these cool kids to keep doing amazing things?

Being authentic when you have a challenging story to tell

Berenice Smith Challenging stories. I don’t want my back story to isolate people but it’s a big part of my narrative and impossible to skip over lightly, is there a tone or way to share that is inclusive.

Helen Lindop That’s a really tough balance. I know social media experts say you should be authentic and you’ll attract the right people, but what if you go a bit too far and start putting off the right people? Also, where do you draw the line between authentic and just a bit too personal?

Rachel Extance There is no right or wrong answer to this. Your story is important and part of who you are. As with talking to people face to face, how much you share and where you share is down to you. You don’t have to give people details you don’t want to give them. You have a right to a personal life and to keep that personal. Equally, sharing your story can help others who have similar experiences. Being authentic just means being you. It doesn’t mean getting into conversations you feel uncomfortable with.

What if you’re shy about telling stories?

Andy Boothman Any tips for the reluctant clients that know they should be doing these activities but are too ‘shy’ to commit?

Kate Patterson I think that really boils down to their social confidence and self esteem issues Andy.

Rachel Extance This is one of the many situations in which I’m not sure school did us a favour!

We feel there are rules.

We feel we’re going to be judged.

We’re scared about how permanent it is.

People are going to look at us.

But:

The chances of you doing a Gerald Ratner are incredibly small. Really. What could you possibly do that’s going to sink your business?

My guide on this is always: would you be happy to see this splashed across the front page of a newspaper?

Put yourself in someone else’s shoes and consider whether they will see something in what you have written or recorded that they are so appalled by that they will boycott your business or ring up a newsdesk.

Sometimes people do make innocent mistakes, it’s true. But when it happens it’s newsworthy because it is very rare, particularly if they are working with a professional like Andy.

Helen Lindop I think often online ‘failure’ for a small business means that it doesn’t resonate and nobody reads to the end or shares it. You need to be pretty big to have a viral disaster. So the worst that can usually happen is that nobody sees it.

Rachel Extance Blogging/video/podcasting, you name it, builds over time. If you give up after the first one, or 3 or 10, it is never going to be a success for you.

Keep putting your newsletter out there. Keep writing your blog. Keep recording video, whatever it is. This article about formats for storytelling has good advice on this.

Then make sure you share it. So many people (including me) create things and then don’t have time to share them. Draw up a posting schedule and put aside some time to load up your posts.

People might not see it the first time or they might not have time to read it. Scheduling it several times increases the chances of it reaching a wider audience.

If you have a clear idea of who your customer is and you know why you have created the piece of content with their needs in mind, then it will resonate.

How to overcome blank page syndrome

Helen Lindop I often have email marketing clients who say they don’t have time to do the writing and can’t think what to write anyway. I know one answer is to ask you (Rachel Extance) to do it for them, but I’m sure there are some easy ways to get over ‘blank page syndrome’ and produce some stories fast – do you have any tips?

Sometimes I think it’s just that they have so much they could say and don’t know how to extract a good, concise story from it. Often we’ve been taught a business or academic style of writing and felt we haven’t written stories since primary school.

Blogging/video/podcasting, you name it, builds over time. If you give up after the first one, or 3 or 10, it is never going to be a success for you.

Berenice Smith I have a few design clients that wonder why a blog page on their website for the same reasons, the ‘blank page’ fear and what have they got to say. I know from working with them that they have a story to tell but that extra push seems to be confidence?

Rachel Extance 1. Write! I know this sounds crazy but seriously, write. Whatever comes into your head. It doesn’t matter. No-one is looking. You can scrunch the piece of paper up and throw it in the bin. Or have a file on your computer marked “drafts do not publish”. It doesn’t matter but write.

This is about to move into content marketing but it helps with telling stories because you need to kickstart your brain into being happy to put things out into the world.

2. Start with a list of the most common questions you get asked. If nobody’s asked you yet, then look online for what people ask about. Try

  • Answer the public
  • Google search
  • Looking at chapters in books (they’re not going to be there if people aren’t interested in knowing)
  • Amazon listings all have reviews and a place where people ask questions. What did they like? What did they want to know about? What was missing?
  • You can do the same thing with online course reviews.

3. Make a list of questions, you could start with 3, and write a detailed answer to them.

  • how does someone book you?
  • what information do you need to know from them?
  • how does x service benefit them?

You now have three things which you know are helpful to prospective customers which you can share.

Another simple thing to do is imagine you are having a conversation with someone in the pub. You can do this with a friend/colleague/relative and record it on your phone. Otter.ai is a handy dictation tool. Tell them a story. Then read through the transcription and turn it into a blog post or re-record it as a piece to camera or audio.

 

How to structure your story

Kate Patterson How is the best way to structure a story when there’s so much to say?

Rachel Extance Another good question. Try to make it as simple as you can.

Can you tell it in 12 words or less?

This makes you focus on the key details. What did you put first, before you ran out of words?

Next, break it into 3 sections: beginning, middle, end.

Start with the key details you identified at the beginning. Focus on your audience. What do they want to know? Why are they going to keep listening/reading? Is that detail you feel is important actually relevant?

If it helps, give yourself a word limit for each bit. 20 words for the beginning, 100 words for the middle, 50 words for the end, for example.

Or try writing it as a tweet, 280 characters.

Depending on where you are telling your story, you can then go back again and expand the middle. You might need to explain a key concept. Or put in a quote. Or share an analogy which will help your audience understand.

But you might well find that while you could say a lot more, you might not need to. Or that you can break down the big thing you wanted to talk about into bite sized things which makes it more accessible.

How far ahead do you plan your stories?

Andy Boothman How far in advance do you plan? or advise your clients to plan? Weeks, months, quarters?? Having a plan means the output is so much better than constantly winging it IMO.

Rachel Extance I would plan at least 3 months ahead. This enables you to create your own story arc which could go something like:

Origin story
Founder story
Product spotlight
Customer case study
An event
Product spotlight
How we helped…
A cause we support or supplier we want to showcase
Product spotlight
Member of staff we want to champion
Something new we’re working on
A look back over the last 3 months/a look forward to the next quarter
Product spotlight

You’re able to present a well-rounded view of your business, talking about different aspects of it, and highlight your core offerings. This ties in to Helen’s question above about selling.

You then know what you need to create and when you need to create it by. Having a content plan means you’re unlikely to hit Friday and say: “Oh we didn’t put a newsletter out or post this week’s blog/video”

I would then look at what’s coming up each month. Does it still fit? Has something else happened? Perhaps you’re up for an award you didn’t know about at the start of the quarter so you want to slot that in.

You also need to give yourself enough time to create your content, including pictures/video, get sign off from anyone if need be, do SEO, and leave enough time to create social media posts.

You can also batch content creation. Set a specific time every week or month aside when you create 2 or 4 articles/videos and create the social media posts. If you know what your plan is, it’s very easy to do this.

Would you like to know more? Get in touch with Rachel Extance at The Story Cave or talk to her on Twitter.