If you read as much as I do (novels, particularly), you’ll be relatively good at guessing how a book will end, no matter how brilliant the author is.
Despite that reality, you almost always continue reading, not because of the explosive or terrific ending you expect, but simply for the journey – the storytelling. That journey defines the difference between movies that make you hiss and those you sit through.
And I kid you not, it’s a huge difference.
In case you were doubting, communication is hard. When people hear storytelling in business writing, they either overthink or underthink it (I cannot for the life of me figure out which yields a worse outcome).
So, I’ll start by telling you what storytelling is NOT. For clarity, business storytelling here means content, copy, email, social media, and pretty much any other communication strategy you use for a business.
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What Storytelling in Business Writing Isn’t
In business, storytelling is not about themes, plots, and stages. It is not about crafting some weird creepy-feeling fiction based on horror movies or tragi-comedies. You do not have to be a best-selling author or have experience with essay or story writing. It is not just about using power words like “imagine” (yuck! This is so abused!).
If you’ve ever believed that business storytelling is one of these things, here’s a bold invitation to forget everything you think you know about storytelling in business or writing and pay attention to what I have to tell you. These things, themes and plots, matter, but there’s so much more like choosing the right structure and understanding the point in the customer journey where a story makes more sense.
7 Key Elements of Business Storytelling
In 2021, during a final interview with a health tech founder in Canada (after two successful ones), he asked a question that ruined my chances of becoming their content strategist. The question was, “tell me a story about mycompany.” I couldn’t answer it to his satisfaction because I had no idea how to convert the information I had about them into a compelling narrative.
After the interview, I realised that even though I responded, it was a bunch of generic nonsense about brand storytelling that anyone could find online. That is not how to tell a story.
There are two things you should know about business storytelling. First, every business has a unique story, and so does every individual, yourself included. There may be slight similarities at certain points, but there are always unique ingredients. Second, science and experience have repeatedly proven that a great story binds people together. Always.
In business writing, this means intimately understanding your audience’s current state of mind and desires and meeting them there. It means using few or many words to tell the reader, “I see you, and I’ve got you.”
Now, how do you do that?
Before you add a narrative to any content, you must get some things straight. Ask yourself how the story fits into the core message of the intended content. Choose your challenges, scene, and characters based on what you know about your audience.
Your reader should be able to think, “this is me,” “I don’t want this to be me,” or “I wish this were me.” A predetermined structure allows you to tug on emotions and dissolve logical thinking, and that’s precisely where you want your readers.
You can’t fake certain things, and being authentic is one of those things. Anyone (or perhaps, many people, especially Nigerians) can smell BS from a mile away. So, when you feel the urge to start lying, stop. Yes, you want your readers/customers to see you as the next best thing after sliced bread, but it’s in your best interest not to go overboard.
Let your personality shine through your content. It draws people in by rousing their curiosity. There’s no hard fast rule in business communication. If your target audience loves your style, that’s all that matters.
I know I said business storytelling has nothing to do with fiction – and it doesn’t. Suspense here could be as simple as emphasising a problem, so much that the reader starts to wonder, “and then what happened….”
It means for every content you write, you want to add just the right amount of story that drives home your point without overpowering the main topic. It is business, after all. Chances are, people will come back for more in hopes that the next content they interact with will have an element of the story continuation.
What’s the moral of the story? What’s the takeaway message? Remember the interview story at the beginning of this section? The takeaway message is: generic is boring. It’s not about how I lost an opportunity or how I felt after the interview.
Identifying the purpose of any story gives you a clear idea of what to add, what to omit, and where to hit the brakes. As I mentioned above, the extent of your story has to be just right. Remember, nobody cares about you, and their main concern will always be, “why should I care?” or “what’s in it for me?” Always work with this in mind.
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This is where business storytelling differs significantly from fiction. It’s unlikely that you started a business or career without having helped anyone ever. Part of storytelling is dropping names of past clients (with permission), lines from past clients, or even lines from a conversation with a friend. It proves to people that you’re not new to this subject, and they won’t be the first to trust you with their problems. People need that level of assurance.
There is a famous saying that there’s nothing new on Earth, right? The scientist in me disagrees with this statement by the way, but it’s true for most businesses and content creators. Using templates, guides, and other resources to speed up our output is easier.
But you should always add something new to whatever you create. The only way to do that is to draw from personal experience. Give an example of your experience with the problem you’re trying to solve with your blog post or as a business. It tells the reader that you’re not just regurgitating stuff already online.
Authenticity and suspense make it easy to be consistent. If you’ve been authentic from the start, you won’t need to keep up with past stories because they’ll click naturally. Likewise, if you’ve adopted the concept of suspense, you won’t fall into the trap of repeating the same thing every time in all your content at the risk of boring your audience. Instead, you’ll always have a new twist or something fun to spice things up from where you left off.
Consistency also means using the same tone, choice of words, slang, colours, and other artistic or creative elements that define you.
What Happens When You Overthink or Underthink Storytelling in Business Writing?
Picture this. You have an amazing product that does exactly what any consumer would expect it to do. Some people have used this product and can testify to its brilliance. Then, to build awareness about this product, you decided to create informative blog posts and run social media campaigns around its benefits. Still, you didn’t bother getting detailed testimonials or painting a clear picture of the problem you found and how you’re solving it.
Online content creation is unpredictable, so I can’t say this approach would be an epic failure. However, I can guarantee that you’d have more impressive results if you substitute “My product is the best” with “Before I got this product, I was here, and now, my life is like magic.”
Underestimating storytelling makes you similar to your competition. Sometimes, you might even find it hard to differentiate between your work and someone else’s. It makes it difficult for people to connect with you and answer the questions, “who are you?” “so what?” and “why should I care?”
On the other hand, overthinking or overdoing storytelling makes you seem too good to be true. People read that content, watch that video, and say, “nice story, see ya later.” They feel no desire to learn more about you and are even sceptical about investing a penny (or should I say Naira) of their money in your business. In other words, overthinking makes you look inauthentic.
The only way to strike a balance is honesty. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing (or talking) about or what you’re selling. As long as the narrative is genuine, some people (not everybody) will connect to that piece. And that, my friend, is how you build trust, loyalty, and a large fan base.
Resources to Help You Start Telling Evocative Business Stories
After all is said and done, we all have to start somewhere. So, if you stumbled upon this and are not confident in your business communication skills yet, here are some resources to start with.
- Beginner’s Guide to Content Writing
- Improve Your Writing: Little Things in Writing That Make a Difference
- Copywriting: Writing an effective sales copy
- Becoming an Expert in SEO Writing
- How to Write Persuasive Marketing Emails
Storytelling is a science and an art – an entire process that doesn’t happen in a few hours. It’s the most effective way to answer the question WHY, for yourself and your audience. Have fun creating and sharing!
And if at any point you need help with your storytelling – writing, editing, idea generation – don’t hesitate to reach out.
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An experienced freelance SEO content writer and editor. She helps individuals and businesses communicate effectively with their audience and also improve their organic reach with relevant content.
She's an author of several short stories and a devoted lover of the paranormal and fantasy world. Asides business and lifestyle, she also writes about life science and technology.
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