How to Tell Better Stories

Carvings at the Great Ball Court at Chichen Itza

One of the foundational skills of social media and content marketing is storytelling. Like writing, this is one of those skills that takes a lifetime to master.

So, let’s not waste any time getting started with learning to tell better stories.

I recently visited the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza in the Yucatan state of Mexico. What made the experience worthwhile was having a guide whose lifelong passion and profession was the study of this culture.

During our time together our guide offered to share with use one of two versions of the Mayan ruins of Chichen Itza:

  • The popular version that would be familiar to many of our friends
  • The truth from his years of research and study as college professor

We all chose the latter. From that truth, it turns out there are important lessons about storytelling that will make your stories better.

#1 – The Best Stories Inspire New Thoughts

The best stories challenge the audience to think. This not only questions his or her personal beliefs, but also the status quo.

It turns out some people do not want to think. They just want someone to give them the generally accepted answer. Right or wrong, that information then proliferates on the social media channels and becomes accepted as truth.

It is important to tell the stories only you can tell. Tweet this

These are stories based upon your direct experience. The world is smarter when it knows your story. It clarifies and cuts through the clutter.

Of course, this is what I’m doing right now by sharing from my recent experience in Mexico.

Have you read or heard that the majority of small businesses are practicing social media and content marketing? At least in terms of mainstream brick and mortar businesses, nothing could be further from the truth.

How do I know this? From direct experience working with thousands of these companies over the last seven years.

#2 – Real Stories are From Direct Experience

You have to earn a reputation for telling stories that are well-researched and preferably based upon direct experience. This is what people have always wanted.

People always want to hear the news from the “man on the street,” the eye-witness that can provide details that no other can because they have been there.

It’s dangerous to tell stories these days when you do not have direct experience. Otherwise, you risk telling stories that are not true. Even well-known experts have found themselves embroiled in controversy as a result.

The reason for telling a story is to engage an audience. When you accomplish that they will want to go deeper. So be prepared to do so.

In fact, this is one reason storytelling is essential for social media and content marketing. It makes your business more relatable and memorable, thereby encouraging more more conversations about it within the communities it serves.

#3 – How to Make Your Stories Better

The image above from Chichen Itza is a carving from the Great Ball Court.

It shows one of the players with a scoop in his right hand for picking up and slinging the ball. He is also wearing a helmet and other gear to protect himself from the impact of the ball, which was estimated at a little over 2 pounds.

There were more crude carvings at other locations on the interior of the court that were estimated to have been completed 600 years earlier. That’s six centuries of refining a skill! Thus, whether written or graphically depicted:

Any story can be refined with practice to make it better. Tweet this

Tips for Refining Your Stories

1. List your stories – This creates awareness. It also allows for tracking where and when your stories are used.

2. Describe the purpose of your stories in a few words – This helps you focus on making your point, while also refining it over time. Ask: What is this story about?

3. Why is that purpose relevant? – If the story is not relevant to the audience it is valueless, regardless of how well it is told.

4. Can your audience recall your story in few words? – The value of stories is they are relatable and memorable. In a world that tweets and texts, it’s important to capture the essence of your story in a few words.

5. Decide what to leave in and what to take out –  Amateurs often include details that do not contribute to the story, thereby compromising its value. Shorter is nearly always better.

6. Use an image or graphic representation for greater impact –  This graphic succinctly captures the complete message of my book:  Built-In Social: Essential Social Marketing Practices for Every Small Business. The Mayans and so many other cultures recognized that a picture does indeed tell a story.

7. Help your audience relive the story – Instead of retelling your stories with you as the central character, consider making them come alive for your audience – as if they were you.

8. Compare and contrast – Metaphor and other storytelling techniques that contrast and compare will help others relate to and understand your story. When I share how I used print content to launch my landscape business in the late 1980’s, it helps some people relate to this “new” form of marketing.

Now over to you.

Leave a comment to share your tips for refining your stories to make them better.

About the Author:  Jeff Korhan, MBA, is the author of Built-In Social: Essential Social Marketing Practices for Every Small Business and host of This Old New Business Podcast

He helps mainstream businesses adapt their traditional growth practices to a digital world. Connect with Jeff on LinkedInTwitterFacebook, and Google+.

Stories Sell and Set You Free

Gold Award - June 1996

One of my first experiences involving the successful use of story for practical business purposes was as an aspiring landscape contractor – the owner of a mainstream small business.

My company was beginning to deliver really nice quality work, but we had yet to land that special project that we hoped would distinguish us in both our community and industry.

There is a Story Behind Every Solution

When we did get our big break, we knew it immediately.

Why?  Because this particular project presented multiple challenges. It was rich with potential for interesting stories in regards to how we met those challenges. To make things even more interesting, nearly every solution involved navigating uncharted waters.

Needless to say there are many interesting side stories that I’d love to share, such as the adventures two of us experienced over a weekend involving nearly 40 consecutive hours of highway driving to interview new vendors – but they are beyond the scope of this article.

What we came to learn is that looking for the story can often help you find the solution that has otherwise evaded you.

Stories are powerful because they involve drama, mystery, and yes, failure. Yet, they nevertheless lead you to where you need to go.

Look for the story and it will lead you to the right solution.

Look for the Story and It Will Appear

In our desire to create an award-winning landscape, we knew we needed to have a story to tell about the process of working with the client, understanding their needs, designing viable solutions, and of course, executing them well.

The search for meaningful stories is what helped us create an outstanding environment for our client – and an engaging and experiential process for creating it. 

It is what sold the client on working with us.

It’s what made the process fun for everyone.

It’s what pushed us far beyond what we thought was possible.

It is what helped us achieve the award that put our little business on the map, and on a path for two decades of sustained growth.

That particular project was more than a project – it was the the result of careful research, study, sacrifice, sweat, and soul, coupled with just the right materials that we curated from sources around the country.

The collective whole had a great deal of meaning for our client, and everyone in our little company that was part of the collaboration.

IT was the story!

Meaningful Stories are Memorable

Working with nature is interesting. Yet, any endeavor can be interesting if it infused with meaning and purpose.

Steve Jobs was fond of saying Apple products just work. They do, and that is why they have earned their place as more than mere technology tools.

The joy of experiencing anything that works exceptionally well is a story that will be freely shared.

One of the powerful uses of story is capturing what is personally meaningful, and therefore memorable. What has meaning seems to fit, it belongs, it has earned its rightful place. There is nothing random about it.

As business owners and marketers, we should always be looking for the story that adds authentic meaning to the work we do.

Just looking for it is often enough for it to appear.

Find the story that is behind your message and you will find something worthy of one’s attention.

Attention is the reward for great storytelling.

Stories can be complex or simple, but more than anything they must be interesting, and this means they should include unmistakable details that fit and belong, that are clearly not random or artificially manufactured.

Great stories are believable, memorable, and engaging. They build trust.

If you want to convey ideas in a memorable way to sell more of your products and services, then make sure there is a meaningful story behind them.

Then you will earn the attention of your customers.

It always works.

Stories not only sell – they set you free.

They are the soul of content marketing.

How are you using story to humanize your business and promote its good works?  Share one of your favorite stories in the box below – and feel free to share with your community.

Until next time,  Jeff