How to use storytelling in a “hurry up” world

Reading time: About 2.5 minutes

Does the thought of storytelling make your blood run cold? Do you worry that you don’t have the time for it? Or that your client really isn’t interested in it? Here are my thoughts on how to make storytelling your friend — and a key part of your business success.

It’s funny how easily you can make virtual pals these days. I have phone acquaintances, email buddies, and even Twitter chums. And although I’ve never met these people face-to-face, I still consider them friends.

One such friend emailed me last week to comment on my recent columns about storytelling. “From a business perspective, storytelling is wonderful,” he wrote. “Except that there is a real issue in terms of time constraints. I would love it if you would place the “storytelling” impetus in context….

“Beyond speech writing,” he continued, “where do we business writers employ storytelling given how much of a hurry the world is in right now?”

I’m enough of a debater that I really appreciate it when people challenge me, or, even better, disagree with me. So, here’s my response:

Let’s begin by questioning the basic premise. Is it really true that telling stories will always take more time and space than not telling stories? Read any government reports lately? (OK, cheap joke.) Of course, stories can be told in a lengthy fashion — see, for example, the New Yorker. I don’t mean that in a snarky way — I adore that magazine. But stories can also be short, concise and telling.

For example, here is the first paragraph of the “About” page for the Forest Stewardship Council of Canada:

FSC is an international certification and labeling system that guarantees that the forest products you purchase come from responsibly managed forests and verified recycled sources.

Clear enough but deadly dull. But by simply placing a mere 56 new words in front (that I wrote in less than a minute), I can dramatically increase their readership. See:

Ever gone to the lumberyard and purchased a 2×4 for your deck, wondering if it was ethically produced? Or, perhaps you’ve bought a stack of paper for your printer or a new desk for your office or a box for moving and worried about exactly the same thing. This is where the FSC can help…. (From there, I’d segue into the original text.)

True, these aren’t full stories per se – there’s no beginning, middle and ending — and the only character is “you,” meaning the reader. But these vignettes — sentences, really — still follow the most important principle of storytelling. They make you, the reader, want to know more.

The number 1 mistake that most businesses make is that they take everything from their own perspective. Is it any wonder that people read websites so quickly? They’re desperate for information that’s interesting and useful to them, and yet they so seldom find it.

Of course, the more important question, raised by my friend in a later email is really: How do we persuade our clients that storytelling makes sense?

The question looks purely educational. But, in fact, it’s basically a marketing challenge. The real question is, how do you find clients who are interested in buying what you’re interested in selling?

My advice?

Get really good at telling stories and then find one or two clients who will either appreciate it or at least tolerate it. They will get results, and when they do, collect testimonials from them and use them to find other, like-minded clients.

In other words, make storytelling a key part of your business. There are more than 6 billion people in the world and only a small percentage of them are writers. Become a writer who tells stories and you will be a beacon of hope in the otherwise dark, often colourless world of business.

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