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Storytelling For Business: The Only Difference Between You And The Competition Is The Story You Tell

By June 23, 2014January 1st, 2015Writing & Content Marketing
Storytelling For Business: The Only Difference Between You And The Competition Is Story

You’re a dime a dozen. Most of us are. We sell shoes or haircuts, accounting services or duct cleaning. And so do endless others.

I bet you won’t visit a single competitor’s website without finding some reference to their outstanding customer service. Their quality products. Their long experience or commitment to excellence.


The day I visit a website and someone says, “We do what we can but our service is usually subpar. That’s because we stay out late drinking…” that’s the company I’m going to do business with. And it’s not because I love poor customer service or that I advocate staying out late drinking (well, maybe a little… if the beer is particularly good…) but because at last someone has broken out of the monotonous drone that emanates from everyone’s online business presence.

When my mom turned on the TV during her early married years and Ajax came on and told her that it was stronger than dirt, she went out and bought Ajax.

Other than a couple of magazines or newspapers (all sporting Ajax ads), there wasn’t a whole lot of media – or competition – to contend with.

Fast forward to my grown up years and now it takes me forty five minutes just to pick out underarm deodorant (Do I like gel? Or powder? Should that be “powder fresh”? Or simply “baby powder”? And what about the aluminum?)

Not only have our choices multiplied in ways that no longer seem useful (can bleach really be THAT different from brand to brand?) but the channels on which they are advertised multiply even as I write this.

Websites. Twitter. Facebook. Pinterest. Google search. Google [insert other product that will soon be tracking your every move here]. Blogs. Microblogs. Microminiblogs. Content curation platforms. Bookmarking platforms. Review platforms.

I’m getting a post-beer headache just thinking about it without the luxury of actually enjoying a beer.

Consumers – us – are bombarded daily, hourly, second-ly by ads and marketing messages. The net result has been to make those ads and messages less and less effective.

It’s like enjoying a good bowl of ice cream. The first bite is delightful. The second and third are quite delicious. But by the time you’ve made your way through the entire pint (not that I would know this from experience…) all you have is brain freeze and numb taste buds.

So it goes with visual content, even in the innocuous form of “entertainment” via Pinterest, blog posts or Facebook memes.

There is only so much we can absorb. Only so much that matters.

And when it all starts to sound the same, as inevitably it must, (there are only so many ways you can make a kitchen sink cleaner sound sexy) then marketing becomes meaningless.

The question then, becomes, “How do we market ourselves when it’s all just flotsam? When our competitors are just as qualified, just as committed, experienced, knowledgeable, expert?”

And let’s face it folks, we may be better than some but most of us are exactly the same.

The answer is: story.

I Want To Care About You. But You’re Not Making It Easy.

When you use words like synergy and leverage and when you pull out tired clichés like commitment to our customers then you make me very, very sad.

You make me sad because I know you’re more than that and better than that and yet you fail at every turn to give me a reason to care.

Story is the missing piece that connects us to other humans in a meaningful way. And in this crowded, noisy, busy age, it may be the only ally you have.

Unfortunately, most businesses consider their story to be some version of “our company history”. Or “our mission”.

But your business is a lot more than you give it credit for. It’s about how you started and why. It’s about why you care. It’s about your struggles and failures. It’s about how you overcame obstacles and what changed you during the process. It’s about your values, your beliefs and your personality.

It’s not about the generic textbook language you’ve learned to mimic like every other website and brochure in creation.

This ubiquitous mimicry begs the question: why?

Why do so many people repeat so many of the same tired marketing “messages”?

I’m tempted to say laziness but in my heart of hearts I don’t believe that’s most of the reason. I think the reason is bigger and more insidious than that: fear.

Be The You That Some People Love. And That Alienates Others.

When I was in high school I had big hair. And bigger belts. I wore hoop earrings the size of manhole covers. Instead of carrying a backpack I balanced an armload of homework twelve textbooks high because that’s how you rolled in the 80s.

I thought most of it was dumb (except for the earrings. You can never have earrings big enough.) But it never crossed my mind to say that, let alone act or dress as if I believed it.

Why? Because the idea of not fitting in was scary.

They tell us that high school ends one day and that we get to move on into “the real world” where people are more accepting.

Don’t kid yourself!

After high school you get to move on into the business world where the popular kids still make all the money and the geeks may rule the day but they certainly don’t get invited to the cocktail parties.

Yes, peer pressure is alive and well in business.

It’s why we got so much blowback from marketers when Ralph decried content curation. And why we closed so much subsequent business because of it.

On the plus side, smart people learn that fitting in is the worst thing you could possibly do.

Fitting in means using those textbook marketing words and spending a lot of money to follow someone else’s ten step plan.

On the flip side you get to tell and stand by your story.

The truth is, your story won’t appeal to the masses. Maybe it won’t even appeal to a lot of people. But it will appeal to the right people.

Some people may hear your story and scoff. They may reject you outright. And in my book that’s exactly the reaction you want. Because if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my forty four years on this earth it’s that trying to “fit in” is a depressing, useless and ultimately profitless pursuit.

It isn’t until you learn to break the mold and be yourself that you begin to attract the people who find meaning in your story, what you do, how you do it and why.

Telling your story can be a scary thing. It can mean completely alienating a segment of the population. It can mean exposing yourself in a very vulnerable way. Who the heck wants to talk about “that time I screwed up really, really bad”?

And yet if you want to succeed in business then those are exactly the stories you need to tell. Because trust me, you will find people who can relate. You will find people who champion your cause, who fit into your belief system and who won’t make you want to pull your hair out night after night wondering why you went into business anyway.

Your Story Will Change

Perhaps a better word here is “evolve”. While your origin story will always be your origin story, that doesn’t mean it ends there.

Five years ago I wouldn’t have been able to tell you how we overcame the 2008 financial collapse. I wouldn’t have been able to tell you that we lost most of our revenue stream, changed our service lines and pricing, started this blog and kept going.

Do I want to admit that? Heck, no.

I’d much rather you think that we run some brilliantly successful marketing company and that we’ve been able to succeed on the power of our acumen alone.

It’s both more devastating and more beautiful than that.

It wasn’t the first time we had to reinvent ourselves, either. There was 2001 before that and 1999 before that. (Hit me up, I’ll be happy to share our story!)

And at the end of the day, that’s what makes the difference for us when it comes to making connections.

There are other marketing companies.  There are even other marketing companies that know what they’re doing. But none of them have followed our trajectory.

Our story is 100% uniquely our own. And so is yours.

Never be afraid to tell it, warts and all.

And never commit yourself to a single storyline. The longer you live the richer the tapestry of your story becomes. The more you succeed and fail the more you learn and the more you change, the more you will have to tell.

Take It Beyond Your Website

“Can you build me a website?”

We’re asked that question often.

A website means different things to different people. Sometimes it’s an online brochure. Sometimes it’s a showpiece. Sometimes it’s a sales tool or lead generating machine.

Rarely is it a storytelling device.

And almost never is it part of a bigger story.

Remember how I told you that your story is bigger than your company history? Well it’s also bigger than what you can tell on your website.

Yes, your website is your home base and where you create and feature your most important content. But if you’re doing business these days, your story must extend beyond that – to your social networks and any other site or platform where you have a presence.

That’s why when people ask if we can build their website we say, “Yes, but we’d rather tell your story.”

One of the key aspects of storytelling is repetition. It’s why so many tales have stuck with us through the birth of the human race until the present, even in the absence of pencils and printing presses.

The finer details may be embellished but the key concepts are the same. We repeat the story of The Three Bears to our kids at night, from rote memory. We know exactly where in the Frosty The Snowman story we’re going to cry (I’ll admit it…. melting is sad).

It’s because those stories are told over and over and they become a part of our collective psyche.

In the online world, that means ensuring that your story is told and reinforced wherever you are. Facebook. Google. Pinterest. Pick your favorite.

All of these pieces become a part of the whole and your online presence cannot survive and thrive unless you are building a cohesive presence among them.

Say It. Own It. Live It.

If you want to tackle storytelling for business then there are a few things you should know.

You have to do it with two feet in. You can’t tell only the parts that you want people to hear. You can’t doctor it up to make your company sound grand. People can smell an imposter a mile away.

You have to care.  If you can’t get behind your own story, who else will?

You have to be willing to be unloved. Not everyone will relate to your story. Not everyone will like it. Make peace with that fact ahead of time and never try to please a crowd. You’ll only find yourself in the generic wilderness of synergies and excellence and committed customer service.

You have to let it grow. A static story can become just as stale as leveraged synergies. It will take work but you must evolve your story so that your company is – and stays – a relevant part of your customers’ lives.

You have to believe it. A story isn’t just a good yarn. A story has bite and conviction and can be told from rote memory much like The Three Bears. That means that wherever you tell it… and whomever tells it… your story is reinforced and strengthened. Unless you believe it, you’ll start to deviate from the truth and… say it with me… people can smell an imposter a mile away.

Still Here? Awesome.

That means I did something right and managed to capture your imagination. Anyone who has left by now is not going to hang out or work with me anyway.

And since you’re still here that means you’re interested in storytelling. You’re interested in standing out from the crowd because of who you truly are and what you believe – not just because you’ve concocted some “message” that a Marketing 101 professor would pass.

It means you’ve got bigger visions and grander plans. It means that you’re more courageous than other business owners and that cookie cutter “conventional” marketing is not your thing.

If that sounds like you then I’d love to hear your story. So leave a comment below of find me anywhere on social media. Let’s talk about where you’ve been, how you got here and your grand visions for the future. Who knows, maybe your success will be part of my next story.

Join the discussion 42 Comments

  • The picture I now have in my brain of high school you is a testament to your storytelling skills, Carol Lynn. I wish you lived closer so I could have you lead one of the sessions at the event. And not just because you can tell a fancy tale. Nope, it’s the generosity and care you’ve got for people that makes you stand out. The gratitude here for you (and Ralph) is BIG. Thank you for sharing this with your peeps!

    • Sadly I have pictures in full glossy color… I try not to take them out 🙂

      I wish I could attend too! Save my seat for the next one because one of these days we have to share an Oreo in person.

  • Martins says:

    Really nice post.. first post I have been able to read from start to finish in a very long time. Thank you

  • Darn! Tea beat me to the punch and took the words right out of my mouth. She’s good (and speedy) with words, ya know. And so are YOU!

    The vision I have of you in high school is the same one I have of myself. Oh, the 80’s! What were we thinking with those gargantuan hoops in our ears?! LOL! And now the story you’ve so gallantly told will never let me forget that mental image. 😉

    Every word you’ve said is true. The “About us” pages I read sometimes come across as clones of the last hundred I landed on. “Outstanding customer service”, you say? Wow. How original. 🙁

    Love the point about “alienation”. I say “Splendid!” If my story doesn’t resonate with you, that’s great. Because now I know the two of us won’t be working together … ever. I won’t waste your time and you won’t waste mine.

    Storytelling for business is the only way to roll!

    • I have such a kitschy nostalgic love for the 80s even though I cringe when I see the photos. You know, I spent a long time worrying about whether I was saying the right thing. Or offending anyone. Or whether people would take me seriously. Or [insert insecurity here]. But it takes SO MUCH effort to keep trying to be something you THINK someone wants you to be. And in the end, what happens? You never please everyone anyway! You just end up watering yourself down.

      So the heck with it. I’m occasionally cranky, usually long winded, not always diplomatic but often horrifically honest. It’s very easy to be that 🙂 Comes nice and naturally. And anyone who doesn’t like it doesn’t like it. I don’t want people to love working with the facade-me anyway.

      • Ditto THAT, Carol Lynn!!

        “I don’t want people to love working with the facade-me anyway.” I hear ya, big time, and I agree. Plus that mask is itchy, hot, uncomfortable, and heavy. With me, what you see is precisely what you get. Don’t like what you see? Too-da-loo!

  • Joanna Campbell Griffin says:

    Excellent thank you – in preparing my website re-design, I now know why I wasn’t happy to finish it. I wasn’t telling a story so the look, flow and feel of it just didn’t work. Pinned this post so I can keep referring to it

    • Glad I could inspire you! It’s true, if you’re just writing something generic it will never feel like home.

      • Joanna Campbell Griffin says:

        yes, I have re-written my landing page (still some tweeks) but I am much happier with it so far. I am working on a ‘story’ for my About Me section over the coming days.

        • Good for you. Let me know when you’re done, I would love to read it!

          • Joanna Campbell Griffin says:

            Thank you very much @carollynnrivera:disqus I am in the final stages of logo rebranding and am on about the 15th edit of my new website layout but I have been using some of these tips in other posts and they have worked well for me so far.

  • Praveen Kumar says:

    Very well said, Carol. It just reinforced in me what I had been doing for the past few years is just what has made me what I am today.. my story-telling, I mean. Great insights!!

  • And I love this post! My favourite line: “The truth is, your story won’t appeal to the masses. Maybe it won’t even appeal to a lot of people. But it will appeal to the right people.” Amen to that. Cheers! Kaarina

    • Why thank you 🙂 I’m glad you liked it. And so true, right? If we can get out of the business of trying to be liked and popular then we’ll be able to connect with the people who care!

  • Kimberly A. Kline says:

    Oh….the power of a good story! There is no doubt that catching someone’s eye on social media is harder than ever. Finding something different about you and/or your business and focusing on that can definitely help. But what I especially like is when you say that as you get older, gain more experience, your story will change. I have gone through many different stories in my 52 years for sure! I will be sharing your post!

    • Keep collecting your stories! They get better over time. We can’t have tired “differentiators” any more. There is too much noise. So we have to go for the heart 🙂

  • Dorien Morin-van Dam says:

    You are a great story teller and spinner of tales. I am jealous… 😉

    What you did: Kept me reading, kept me engaged, kept me curios and provided great content!
    Proud to call you a colleague through the Social Solutions Collective!

  • Carol Lynn, I have one word for you: Amen! This has to be one of the best articles I have ever read on the topic.

    You are a master at storytelling!

    “The truth is, your story won’t appeal to the masses. Maybe it won’t even appeal to a lot of people. But it will appeal to the right people.” – Yes!

    • Thank you Cendrine. Yes, we have to recognize the fact that we can’t and won’t hit a home run with everyone. But that’s not the point. The people who can relate will be that much better off and we’ll be better off doing business with them!

  • Great stuff Carol Lynn!
    I love the idea of using your story to selectively weed out those who want to do business with you because as you so perfectly put your story won’t appeal to the masses but it will appeal to the right people. A good story can do that, not everyone loves Star Wars, Dr. Who or Harry Potter but those that do really, really love the characters and are passionate about it. Those are the types of people I want to attract (passionate) with my own story.
    Thanks for sharing this.

    • Ok, I love all of the above 🙂 The great thing is that we’re all passionate about our own story, so if we can make that be contagious then awesome things can happen!

  • Amitabh Saikia says:

    It is so honestly written.The best part – It does not direct us to do things but encourages to apply them!I look after marketing for my company, we have a brilliant story and now I want to go to my boss and ask why we cannot tell it!! Best wishes.

  • Krithika Rangarajan says:

    Oh – I need to give you a nice, long hug!! #HUGSSSSSSS

    If ever there is a marketer who adds a fresh spin to an old tale, while still keeping the SEO-Gods happy, it is YOU! Muaaaah

    Your every word hit me like a ton of bricks – this is, by far, one of the BEST ARTICLES EVER on the art of ‘unique storytelling.

    Embrace your uniqueness, for that’s the only way to shine! Muaah

  • Katherine Kotaw says:

    You won’t be surprised by my reaction: I LOVED THIS! But, if I hadn’t, so what? Your story would have resonated with someone else — the right someone else — and my opinion wouldn’t matter.

    The world doesn’t need more bland and boring. It desperately needs stories. And yet the fear of rejection stifles so much honest storytelling.

    Several months ago, I wrote a story for a client. He loved it, said it made him cry and captured his spirit in a way he didn’t think possible. When one person objected to one sentence in the story(the best sentence in the whole piece, I thought), he decided the bio was ridiculous.

    Was the person a buyer or potential buyer, I asked? No, a friend. I pointed out that his story wasn’t meant for a friend, who already knew him, but for those who didn’t. It didn’t matter — he wanted it changed. And wanted it changed again — the story chopped in half — when another friend objected to a photo.

    He wants to skip the story and replace it with a resume. He says he wants to be famous but insists on being forgettable.

    Bravo, Carol Lynn, for telling a brilliant story about the importance of storytelling. And for making yourself memorable.

    • Good grief, I want to say I don’t believe it but…. I do. I have seen the same thing happen with websites, logos, you name it. Someone shows it to their wife or friend or brother and of course those very helpful people all have comments. Next thing you know, the whole thing is a mess and the message is diluted.

      Who wants to read a resume?? That’s “stuck” thinking and unfortunately you can’t get some people out of it. I understand the fear part. Especially online, you feel like the whole world is watching and every word you say is immortalized forever, however stupid. But at some point you have to get tired of apologizing for who you are, even if that’s sometimes ugly or embarrassing. Although I have to admit…. I AM glad you liked my story 🙂

      • Katherine Kotaw says:

        I understand the fear part, too. I spend part of every day worrying that I will do something stupid online (and some sleepless nights knowing I did). The Internet is a scary place to brand yourself or your company.

        But it’s also the most accessible forum in which to share your story. Because your story never gets stuck. It’s not dependent on your company’s annual report or the article The New York Times wrote about you five years ago. You can update your story any time you want. As you evolve, so does your story. (I am paraphrasing you here. 🙂 )

        If you want to survive in the digital age, tell your story. Yes, it means taking a risk. But not telling your story is riskier.

  • Molly says:

    I really enjoyed this post and agree with it 100%. Working in a startup we have an amazing story to tell, but at times, I find ourselves lost trying to explain services and products (which we have many), instead of focusing on why were even here.

  • Kitty says:

    OK, I normally have an attention span of 2 seconds when it comes to reading blogposts, or basically anything that isn’t a best selling page-turner. But I’ve been reading your posts non-stop for the past hour! This is what I want our company blog to be like, to the point, from the heart and not ‘just another business blog’ that dies a painfull death generating zero leads. But I’m just a girl, with no writting experience, who got assigned to start the company blog and keep great content pooring in from my colleagues ‘inner writer’, no pressure what so ever. Wouldn’t it be great having a company blog that YOU actually would read, encouraging colleagues to want to contribute instead of forcing people to write articles. Articles that sometimes are beyound hope of cleaning up, that are basically just, you know what. How can you expect (potential) customers to read your blog, if its already a snooze fest to your own employees, that at the same time scares the shit out of them because they’ll have to write a contribution? Simple, you can’t. (Forgive me for any spelling/grammer mistakes ;).)

    • Thanks Kitty, that’s the best compliment I could have gotten! I’m glad you enjoyed reading and got something out of what we have here. If you’re leading your company’s blog then it sounds like you’re already starting from a good place, which is understanding that you want to build something people enjoy writing for and others enjoy reading. Sometimes that’s half the battle! Keep me posted and let me know how it goes. I’d love to read it when you have it up and running.

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  • Shenna says:

    I am constantly browsing online for posts that can aid me.
    Thank you!