Humans are wired for stories. One of the most important questions entrepreneurs and organizations can ask themselves is how to be a better storytellers.

Stories are everywhere, and storytelling is the most important leadership, cultural and marketing skill business people need today. I have written about this often because it is like oxygen to me: every company, regardless of size, must be a storytelling company. I am very passionate about this topic because I have seen what stories can do personally for my business, for my clients’ businesses, and how stories scale online. I also worked in companies, sadly, that didn’t care about people and that killed culture. Stories are the amino acids of great culture and great marketing. Really. They fuel great content. Without a great foundation, many companies and entrepreneurs are building a story house of cards.

How to be a Storyteller and a Great One at That!

People want stories bigger than the product/service you offer. It’s never about your products. For example, Sheryl Sandberg’s ‘Lean In’ message is bigger than her and Facebook itself. She’s done more than inspire people to ‘Lean in’ – she’s created a movement bigger than herself.

Where do you go for inspiration for great stories?

Look at the very human experiences you have that shape you and your business:

  • Your values – how do you want to help people (not fix, correct, solve…help! What’s the cause you are committed to that’s bigger than you?!)
  • Failures and challenges – how you have overcome them?
  • Imperfections – to be imperfect is to be human (note: I am very human!)
  • Your big bold purpose in the world – this is where you need to cross the messaging chasm
  • People who have inspired you along the way
  • Employees – certainly if you are a bigger company, your employees are close to the front lines / your customers. They have great stories to tell. GE is doing a great job here lately and so is Ford – thanks to much of the work that Scott Monty and his team did when he was there
  • Successes – in balance. All successes and no failures is PR spin
  • Your customers have great stories – feature them. They will tell your story in ways you haven’t thought about. Customer-generated content is earned media that has legs because people share what they create and feel emotionally vested in.

Stories Inspire Something Bigger in the World

Your big purpose story is never about your product; rather, it’s about your values. Your core purpose is exactly that. Tony Hsieh has said, “Think big. Then, go even bigger.” His book, Delivering Happiness, for example, goes far beyond shoes or any product to espousing great customer service, surprise and customer delight.

Stories That Sing Create Hope and Optimism for the Future

Stories that are problem-solution oriented aren’t as exciting or interesting as stories that talk about an underlying human need being met, healed, helped. When you go bigger and speak to a human need – for reputation, credibility, justice, security, recognition, safety, or visibility, for instance – you tap into something fundamentally visceral and memorable. Meeting a big human need leaves people feeling hopeful and optimistic – and this is what every great story has at its core. Leave people feeling hopeful about the future.

Always Be Open to Where Stories Live and Document Them

Keep a story journal. Stories can exist in lots of things. Keep open. If you are a bigger company, create a bank of stories that are internal and external, and accessible to all employees so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel constantly. These will help marketing, sales, customer service – everything. Stories are part of a culture and any great organizational DNA. Pay attention to the stories being told by employees – that is a barometer for organizational health. Ignore at your own peril.

Empower Employees to Tell Their Stories

The best storytellers are often not in the C-suite. It’s important that employees understand the larger company message, of course. Let them take that brand message and tell it their way. And if you are an entrepreneur without employees, all the more reason you need to develop great stories: people won’t remember your services or everything you do; however, they will remember great stories. A really powerful story is memorable, repeatable and will do more for your marketing than anything else. That is where things achieve human scale.

Show a Little Skin

I have joked often about “naked storytelling” and there is truth in comedy. Stories that teach and leave a piece of you behind are powerful. We need to give our audience something they can hold onto – and that means showing a piece of who we really are. Let down that mask. It’s OK to be a bit vulnerable to show who you really are and what you stand for. That’s where the emotional connection is. Great storytelling raises the emotional stakes.

Product stories are OK once in a while – make sure they go bigger than just helping a customer make money or save money. How did it make their life better? What’s the human message? Go there. Your stories, your business, and your customer relationships will be better for it!

What’s made you a great storyteller? Let me know in the comments!

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