Why Nobody Cares About Your Company's Story
You hear it from companies all the time.
“We want to tell our story.” “We have a story to tell.” “Listen to our story.”
Funny thing is, this is almost universally followed by something that hardly resembles a story at all. At least no story you’d pay to see at a movie theater, or crack a book to read. No story you’d stop and listen to at a party.
What follows is typically a lot of corporate advertising baloney. Self-aggrandizing and back patting is not a “story.”
Even if done humbly, simply talking about a thing — or stringing together a list of events — is not story. Story has certain elements in place. Humans know, and react, to story when they hear one. Successful companies have known and capitalized upon this for years.
“When it comes to marketing, a company like Coca-Cola gets this. They know that, deep down, they are much more a story factory than a beverage factory. No matter what they’d like us to believe, Coke’s success isn’t due to some magic in their fizzy syrup water (at least not since they took the actual cocaine out). Coke excels because they’ve been clobbering the opposition in the story wars for more than a century. People want to see themselves in the stories Coke tells.”
Gottschall is the author of a book on the topic:* *The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. In his book and series of posts on Fast Company, he shows how storytelling means a lot more to us than the pleasurable escapism it’s often seen as.
Storytelling Is Human Nature
“When I ask my students why people like stories, most cite escapism,” Gottschall writes. “Life is hard. Storyland is easy. Stories give us a short vacation from the troubles of our real lives.”
But research shows this isn’t the case. Something deeper than pleasurable escapism is happening when we become immersed in story.
For example, Gottschall writes, if we gathered people in a lab and explained to them all the reasons it’s wrong to discriminate against homosexual people, people who previously were intolerant are unlikely to change their opinions. But if they watch a TV show that treats homosexual characters in non-judgmental ways, the subjects are more likely to shift toward non-judgmental views.
“And if a lot of us start empathizing with gay characters on shows like Ellen, Modern Family, Six Feet Under, and Glee, you can get a driver of massive social change. American attitudes toward homosexuality have liberalized with dizzying speed over the last 15 years or so, and social scientists give TV some of the credit.”
Scientists have also found that storytelling fires up parts of the brain we would otherwise only activate were we actually experiencing the thing happening in the story. This is a dramatic shift from what happens when we’re simply receiving information.
Here’s how Leo Widrich, co-founder of Buffer, puts it in this excellent blog post on the topic:
“It’s quite simple. If we listen to a Powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, certain parts in the brain get activated. Scientists call these Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.”
But tell us a story using clear and descriptive language and our brain lights up like a christmas tree.
“The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated,” wrote Annie Murphy Paul in this New York Times piece
Humans for generations have used story to make sense of our uncertain world. It’s why most popular religions are built around a series of stories and not just a list of instructions. The Biblical 10 Commandments would be a lot less memorable without the story of Moses and Mount Sinai.
Or as television and comedy writer Dan Harmon writes:
“Storytelling comes naturally to humans, but since we live in an unnatural world, we sometimes need a little help doing what we'd naturally do.”
Story Has Conflict
Here is typically where most companies shoot themselves in the foot on the “tell our story” department. Story has conflict. Story has uncertainty and characters persevering through a tough situation. Most companies, shooting for the squeakiest of squeaky clean images, shy away from anything that remotely smells of conflict.
This approach, while it might appease the corporate board of directors, robs your messaging of story. It becomes, simply, information. Boring information.
Harmon has identified a pattern all stories follow:
- A character is in a zone of comfort,
- But they want something.
- They enter an unfamiliar situation,
- Adapt to it,
- Get what they wanted,
- Pay a heavy price for it,
- Then return to their familiar situation,
- Having changed.
“Start thinking of as many of your favorite movies as you can, and see if they apply to this pattern,” Harmon writes. “Now think of your favorite party anecdotes, your most vivid dreams, fairy tales, and listen to a popular song (the music, not necessarily the lyrics). Get used to the idea that stories follow that pattern of descent and return, diving and emerging. Demystify it. See it everywhere. Realize that it's hardwired into your nervous system, and trust that in a vacuum, raised by wolves, your stories would follow this pattern.”
The Customer Is The Hero
So what does this all mean to you? How can you harness the awesome power of storytelling in your business? And how can you build your company around a story that people give a damn about?
Consider Apple. Here’s what I’ll call Apple's “non-story” story.
Couple guys started building computers —> worked really hard —> sold a bunch of computers and made piles of money
Pretty boring. And not really meaningful to the anyone except the guys making the money.That’s why Apple made its company story into something different. They built a story millions of people could connect to and relate with. It's straight out of Steve Job’s formative years in the 1960s. And it’s a story with conflict. Here it is.
The status quo is uncreative and boring —> but people want to fight against it —> Apple products are here to help
See the difference? The company founders aren’t the heroes in this story. The whole company isn’t even the hero. The customer is the hero. Every Apple ad campaign, from the famous 1984 ad to the “I’m a Mac” commercials, reflects this tension and narrative arc. These aren’t stories that avoid conflict, they present conflict. And they present the company as a means to solve that conflict.
Or take the way Hubspot tells its story. Here is an excerpt from their “Our Story” page:
“HubSpot was founded in 2006 as a result of a simple observation: people have transformed how they live, work, shop, and buy, but businesses have not adapted. … With our powerful, easy to use, integrated set of applications, businesses can attract, engage, and delight customers by delivering inbound experiences that are relevant, helpful, and personalized. HubSpot is, after all, on a mission to make the world more inbound, one business transformation after another.”
Here’s how Dharmesh Shah, co-founder and CTO of HubSpot, explains it in a video:
“Hubspot is not just about technology. It’s about helping businesses transform.”
Notice how this story puts their customers’ journey at the center of the story.
Businesses (HubSpot customers) want people's attention —> but people have changed the way they live, work, shop and buy —> HubSpot is here to help those businesses —> HubSpot’s customers get what they wanted
How It’s Done
If you’re a founder, you’re going to be asked umpteen times to tell your company’s story. Or you’re going to sit down to write an “About Us” page.
To tell a more effective story, ask yourself a few questions:
- How does what we do help other people?
- Who are those other people?
- What was it those people wanted?
- But what stood in their way?
If you aren’t able to answer these questions, you’re in trouble. You should know who your customers are and what motivates them. If you don’t, you’ve got some work to do.
Let’s suppose you can answer these questions. And let’s say your business is best described as “Uber For Dogs.” Here’s how you’d answer the above questions.
- We provide on-demand dog car rides
- Dog owners
- They want to transport their dog
- They didn’t have their own vehicle or their pet isn’t allowed on public transportation
Now let’s arrange these into the order: 2, 3, 4, 1. Which puts us here:
There are dog owners —> they want to go places with their dogs —> but many don’t have their own transportation and can’t take pets on public tranportation —> we provide on-demand dog car rides
Now let’s put it all together, clean it up a bit while keeping the simplicity.
“There are millions of people who own dogs. At some point, most of them need to get their dog somewhere farther away — like the vet or the dog park. But not everyone has their own dog-friendly transportation. And a lot of public transit doesn’t allow dogs. So we help these people by providing on-demand car rides for dogs. And our customers get to take their dogs wherever they need.”
See how this is more interesting. And it includes actual storytelling elements; character, motivation, conflict, resolution.
If you’re trying to tell the world about your company, or you’re trying to shape the way the world talks about your company, try this technique.Make your customers or users the hero. You’re just the sidekick.