This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Business Made Simple" by Donald Miller. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Why is a company story important? How do you create one? How can you use a story to attract customers?
Donald Miller is an author and the owner of StoryBrand, a company that helps businesses craft more effective story-based marketing messaging. In his book Business Made Simple, Miller explains why and how to create a compelling company story that encourages employees and customers to take action.
Keep reading to learn how to write and market a company story, according to Miller.
Creating a Company Story
According to Donald Miller, a company story explains why you exist and why others—employees and customers—should engage with you. Without a coherent story or quest in which every employee plays a critical role, your business will lack focus and direction and will inevitably fail.
(Shortform note: Others agree with Miller on the importance of creating a company story, adding that, contrary to popular belief, it’s not the brilliant business idea or the visionary leader who makes a business stand out. Rather, the strength of the organization as a whole makes a business successful—and having a strong story adds to a company’s strength.)
Create a company story by first writing a mission statement that inspires people to take action or join up. Miller provides a template mission statement you can fill in: “We will accomplish [goal] by [date or year] because of [why achieving the goal is important].” For instance, if you sell a calendar software, your mission statement might be: “We will be the most used calendar software in the tech industry by 2025 because organization is key to progress.”
(Shortform note: Business thinkers have devised countless ways to craft an effective mission statement. Miller’s statement is story-oriented, but others recommend focusing more on your company’s purpose and how your company is different from others.)
Next, define the traits your employees must possess to fulfill the company’s mission. These should both encourage transformation and imply a specific behavioral change. For instance, a trait might be “supports other teammates.”
Now decide on three simple, repeatable actions that employees must take to pursue your mission each day. These might be: 1) Check in with your team to gauge progress. 2) Check that your goals for the day are aligned with our mission. 3) Make contact with at least one prospect.
(Shortform note: One objection to Miller’s recommendation to define traits and actions that help support the mission is that these likely differ between employees and departments. The traits a marketing team acquires to support the mission are likely different from those the accounting team must acquire, for instance. What’s more, if you make the traits and actions broad enough to apply to everyone, they’ll probably become vague and not easily actionable. An alternative approach might be to define the values everyone in the company should hold and then to create traits and actions that are specific to each department.)
Marketing a Company Story
Miller stresses that the best way to grab a customer’s attention is to tell them a story they’re the star of. He provides a story template into which you can plug the elements of your company to create a compelling story. You can then use that story whenever marketing or selling your product: in collateral, ads, and so on. Let’s examine these elements:
The customer is the hero and has a goal: Position the customer as a hero because the hero of any story is always on a journey of growth, and this is what customers identify with. Their goal must be related to something your product helps them achieve. For instance, your customer is a hero business executive who wants to organize their schedule more effectively.
The customer faces an obstacle to their goal: In every story, the hero must encounter an obstacle, otherwise the audience loses interest. In a marketing context, the obstacle is the problem your product solves. In our example, the obstacle would be the inflexible and inadequate free calendar software the customer’s currently using.
You are the guide who can help the hero overcome their obstacle: The guide of a story is wise, empathetic, and knows how to help the hero reach their goal. By positioning your company as the guide in the story, you become someone whose help the hero wants. In our example, you tell the customer you understand their frustration with the obstacle and that you have a solution: a calendar software that’s easy to use and totally customizable.
You give the hero a plan to overcome their obstacle: Show the customer the simple steps they can take to overcome their obstacle by buying your product. You might tell your customer they simply have to schedule a consultation on your website, pay for the product, and then download and customize it.
You challenge the hero to take action: If you don’t ask your customer to take action to overcome their obstacle by buying your product, they won’t buy it. Tell the customer to act now and perhaps even include an incentive, like a discount.
The hero will gain something if they succeed and lose something if they fail: Explain how the customer will benefit by taking the action of buying your product. Similarly, explain what they stand to lose if they don’t take action to buy your product. Without an idea of the stakes of not taking action, customers won’t feel urgency to buy. To conclude our example message, you might say that the customer will become more efficient and that their business might even grow due to their superior organization. Conversely, if they don’t buy your product, they’ll be stuck in a state of sub-par organization and perpetual confusion.
Drawing on Story Lessons From Building a StoryBrand
In Building a StoryBrand, Miller goes into more detail on creating a company story for marketing purposes. Here are some additional lessons about story-based marketing Miller doesn’t cover in Business Made Simple.
The story must come first. Not only should you tell a story about the customer, you must also omit any marketing information that isn’t directly related to that story. Often, companies are tempted to include details in their marketing about the origin of the business or their company values. While companies should have these written down somewhere, they should not be in their marketing collateral.
The hero’s goals must be related to survival needs. Miller also elaborates in Building a StoryBrand that your hero’s goals (and therefore the goals your product fulfills) must be related to their survival. He argues that the human brain only pays attention to inputs that help it survive, therefore all marketing messaging must explain how a product helps someone survive. This might be by providing nourishment, safety, connections, and existential meaning.
You can personify the obstacle as a villain. When establishing the obstacle standing between your hero and their goal, consider turning it into a living being the customer can have negative feelings toward. For instance, you might depict the obstacle of an out-of-date software as an evil talking computer.
Show your confidence as a guide through your website. To convince the customer that you, the guide, are competent, you can use testimonials, statistics, awards, and logos of clients on your website.
Give your plan a title. Miller specifically recommends giving the plan you present to the customer a memorable title. This makes the plan seem more official and thus trustworthy.
Consider two types of calls to action. Miller elaborates in Building a StoryBrand that there are two types of calls to action: direct and transitional. A direct call to action asks the customer to take action now to buy. A transitional call to action builds rapport between the customer and your brand, priming them to think of you when they later need to make a purchase. Depending on your customer, one call to action might work better than the other.
Remember that people fear losing something more than they desire acquiring something. When considering what positive and negative stakes to include in your marketing story, be aware that people are usually more motivated by a fear of losing something than the possibility of gaining something. For this reason, you might stress the negative stakes over the positive ones—emphasize that if they don’t buy your product, customers will suffer inconvenience, reduced productivity or health, and so on.
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- Why you aren’t making as much progress in your career as you’d like
- Why you should see yourself as an investment of your organization
- 11 steps to add value to yourself as an employee