Written by Will Greenblatt, Co-Founder at OutLoud Speakers School
When it comes to brand storytelling, most founders might think of a quick anecdote at the beginning of their investor pitch, or a little blurb in the About Us section of the website that tells the simple facts of how they started the business.
This is a huge mistake!
Relegating “storytelling” to the far, dusty corners of your company’s online and real-world presence is like hiring a lawyer who doesn’t know the law. A lack of understanding your brand’s story may not get you sent to jail, but it’s one of the reasons so many companies fail: they can’t tell the right story to the right people to create a sustainable customer base from which to grow.
If you don’t know me, my name is Will Greenblatt, and I’m an actor-turned-communication coach for founders. I’ve been doing this work for over 8 years and helped my clients raise over $200 million in investment capital. I write and speak a lot about storytelling for entrepreneurs and businesses – more on that later.
For now, let’s dive into the seemingly abstract but ultimately necessary world of brand storytelling. If you master this, getting and keeping clients will become easier than you ever thought possible, because they will feel a deep connection to your brand’s story.
What is brand storytelling?
Brand storytelling is the act of intentionally creating a narrative that your customers identify with when they interact with your business.
The power of story has led marketers, entrepreneurs, and influencers to study the way that Hollywood studios like Lucasfilms and Pixar develop their scripts, in order to recreate the emotional impact that these movies have on their audiences.
When we read a great book, watch a great film or binge-watch a good show, it’s because we identify with the main character or characters in some way. Whether we’re the same age, gender or background as the characters doesn’t necessarily matter, if their journey throughout the story is something that tugs on our heartstrings or makes us laugh in recognition.
Successful brands do the same with their companies, by creating a “cohesive narrative… giving your customers reasons why they should buy a product or service, why it exists, and why this matters, consistently across all communication.” – Forbes
That means your images on social media, the fonts on your website, and the content of your investor and sales pitches all need to work together to make your ideal customer feel like:
- They are the hero of their own story, and
- Your brand is a guide to help them get from where they are to where they want to be
What makes a good storyteller?
As my friend Daniel Hussey of Hussey Philanthropic Consulting, who helps non-profits raise millions in donations, likes to say, storytelling can be broken down into:
STORY + TELLING
In my view, this means:
STORY refers to your CONTENT (word choice, narrative structure, images, ideas, etc.)
TELLING is the DELIVERY (i.e. your ability to write clear and evocative copy; your public speaking skills like vocal inflection and stage presence; the quality of your website’s design or production value of your online content).
I – along with my company OutLoud Speakers School – often focus on helping founders improve their DELIVERY when pitching to clients & investors, as we do with TechStars and Collision or when helping entrepreneurs with social media marketing in our coaching programs; but we also make sure to look at the CONTENT.
In the next section, we’ll cover the elements of effective storytelling (your content) and in the next: how to boost your storytelling skills (your delivery).
What are the main elements of effective brand storytelling (Content)
There are all sorts of lists claiming to be the 7 (or 4, or 5, or 6) essential elements of storytelling, and these usually include things like plot, setting, character, themes and point of view.
What BRAND STORYTELLING needs (assuming you know who your ideal customer is) are just 3:
- Problem *for your ideal customer*
- Solution *how your products/services help*
- Prize *a goal they have your solution can help them achieve*
Each of those contains a couple key ideas, but you can use this Problem > Solution > Prize structure to create your ENTIRE BRAND STORYTELLING BIBLE. That means your
- investor pitch
- sales scripts
- marketing content
- logo design
- font choice
- event themes
- podcast, articles, or book titles
- even company name
… should all derive from these 3 elements.
Let’s dive into these one by one.
Identifying a problem is Business 101. If there’s no problem, why would anyone pay for your product or service? As a founder, when speaking to an audience, or creating online content, you need to START WITH THE PROBLEM — that is, the pain point that your customer is experiencing, whether it’s physical, emotional, social, time- or money-related.
Whatever the case, you need to set the scene of:
- what life is like right now for your customer, and
- what the problem is with this current state of affairs
Convey to them that you understand their pain, frustration, or fears, and you will have their attention.
This one is simple: what does your product or service actually do that helps solve their PROBLEM?
The issue founders usually have here is that they either haven’t set up the problem sufficiently, making the solution seem like a nice-to-have rather than a need-to-have, or they explain their SOLUTION in a convoluted, overly detailed way that leaves their customer confused.
When conveying the solution, whether in a pitch, product video, or blog post, make sure:
- it’s short and sweet
- highlight the benefits (“gets you time back, saves you money, massages your feet while it does your laundry” etc.)
- handles objections BEFORE someone asks (“not too expensive, the investment will be worth it, not hard to use or slow to see results” etc.)
This one is always the most difficult to nail down for entrepreneurs. And for good reason! It can be hard to understand the impact you have on your customers, which is why the prize should come from the language of the customers themselves.
What testimonials have you received? How do your customers say you’ve helped them? What is the true value they see in your brand? Collect this data, and then try to sum it up in a single phrase.
This phrase, as a mentor Mike Reid taught me, should be able to function as:
- your slogan or tagline
- the title of your book and/or podcast
- a signature course you offer your clients
- an event you throw, etc.
Basically, a snappy short phrase that encapsulates a dream or wish your client has for their life that you know you can help them achieve.
- Reid Hoffman: “Masters of Scale” (podcast and event; refers both to the famous founders he interviews AND the kind of person his entrepreneurial listeners want to be)
- VRBO: “Where Families Travel Better Together” (slogan; evokes the deep desire of parents to create lasting memories with their families through vacations)
- Ryan Daniel Moran: “12 Months to $1 Million” (book title; super clear; his target customers want to make start a million-dollar business, he gives them a promise of a roadmap and timeline)
Once you master The Problem>Solution>Prize framework, you can use it to make decisions on EVERYTHING in terms of the CONTENT of your brand storytelling (fonts, colours, copy, images, sales & pitch scripts etc.) as long as it helps tell the story of where your customers are and how you’ll help them get to where they want to be.
Now, some essential tips on DELIVERY. This is where many founders struggle, but is vitally important. As Maya Angelou is often quoted (way too often): “people won’t remember what you said, but how you made them feel.” DELIVERY is how you can control the way you make them feel.
How To Boost Storytelling Skills (Delivery)
Let’s break down your personal storytelling skills as a founder, a.k.a. your delivery, into 3 skill sets:
- Body Language
I’m not covering graphic design, videography, or other elements of branding here because I assume you’ll be outsourcing these (unless you’re already somewhat skilled at them in which case you don’t need my advice!).
However, I strongly believe every founder needs strong written and spoken communication skills, so work on these for yourself, and they will serve your for life.
Your voice may be one of the most neglected aspects of communication, because nobody apart from singing instructors and acting coaches can tell you how to improve your voice. As a conservatory-trained actor and lifelong singer, I’ll tell you 3 things you can do right now to start improving the power and quality of your vocal tone, so that you move people every time you speak:
- Deep belly breathing. Place a hand on your upper chest, and a hand on your belly button, and take deep breaths (in through the nose, out through the mouth). Try to keep the “chest” hand as still as possible and allow the lower hand to move as much as possible. This trains your belly to expand on the inhale, which lets the diaphragm descend and your lungs fill all the way up. Do 5 breaths a day, right before a meeting, pitch, Zoom call or shooting a video. It also reduces stress!
- Film yourself and watch it back (I know). Once you get over the thoughts of “Ew” and “How the f*ck do I have any friends when my voice sounds like that?!” you can start to notice where you might be mumbling, or speaking too quickly or quietly, or could add more energy to your voice. Say the same thing again, and be LOUDER, SLOWER, CLEARER and MORE EXPRESSIVE (or whatever you think you need). Do it until you think “I would listen to this person!” Do this at least once a week, or more if you are pitching, speaking in public, or creating video content regularly.
- Sing. Every day. I don’t care if you don’t like it or think you suck. Find some space alone, put on your favourite song, and sing along as loud as you can.
Do these 3 things, and your voice will become more powerful, warm, persuasive, and clear which will help you in almost every aspect of business (and life for that matter).
As Kristin Linklater, guru of theatrical voice work said: “Speaking is a physical act.”
Far too many founders, after weeks hunched over a laptop, stand up on stage or in front of a camera and expect to be ready to go. This is a fool’s errand. You might not hurt yourself, but you are robbing yourself of a chance to make a powerful impression on your audience with your physical presence and body language. 2 tips here:
- Start or commit more to a physical activity. You can be a great speaker if you are massively out of shape – Jarod Lanier comes to mind, but he’s a genius, and most of us are not – however, having a physical practice, whether it’s fitness, sports, dance, yoga or martial arts connects us to our bodies, our breath, and boosts mood and confidence, all of which shows up in your body language when you pitch, present, negotiate, collaborate and network.
- Warm up before presenting. I have a theatrical warm up I teach all my clients, a follow-along video for which you can find here. Do this before any pitch or presentation and your physical body and facial expressions will be elevated, giving you the best chance of success. Plus, it helps your voice and reduces nerves!
All these copywriters basically repeat the same (true) things over and over:
- Be concise
- Clear is better than clever
- Use evocative, emotional words (“painful, rough, joyous, torture, nightmare, conquer etc.”)
- Specificity sells (Instead of: “Business owners struggle with doing their taxes” say: “You’ve been there: late nights at the kitchen table, papers everywhere, desperately trying to figure out whether you can write off your son’s iPad”)
- Vary your sentence length to “write music” (beautiful explanation here)
- Listen to your ideal customers on social media, or by directly speaking with them, and use their words to describe their problems, ideal solutions and prizes
- “Don’t sell the mattress, sell the good night’s sleep” (highlight the benefits and/or the Prize, rather than the exact Solution in your copy)
There are many tips and places to get them out there. Don’t worry about being a perfect writer; instead, constantly try to be clearer, shorter, simpler, realer, and more emotional when writing copy, and you’ll be headed in the right direction.
Brand Storytelling Tips
Finally, I’ve got 4 brand storytelling tips to help put all of this together for you.
Be the same everywhere.
Your website should look like your social media, which should look like your products, which should look like your brochures, which should sound like your sales pitch, which should be like actually working with you, which should feel like the way you speak on a podcast, which should look like how you walk into a room (Louise Henry is a great example of this). This is both a personal brand and company brand storytelling tip. The more consistently and cohesively you can show up as a founder and as a company, the more trust and credibility you will have in the eyes of your ideal customer
Be decisive but flexible.
You need to choose an ideal customer, their problems, your solution, and a prize, but this will change. Feedback from customers, market shifts, epiphanies you have, all of this is part of the life cycle of a startup, and you need to update your language and all the rest of it as needed. Make sure you communicate this clearly with your team when it happens.
Deepen your empathy and compassion.
Most of us wander through life mainly focused on our own problems, or the problems of close loved ones. Try to listen more closely when people are telling you about their lives; not just your ideal customer, but every human being, no matter how weird or different they may seem. All humans have the same basic emotions, needs, fears, and desires, and becoming more curious and interested in those will make you a better storyteller.
Read fiction (for f*ck’s sakes)!
Almost every single founder I speak to doesn’t read fiction books. A good literary fiction writer or novel will give you a masterclass in storytelling and understanding human emotions and motivations. Many don’t know where to start, so here’s my list:
- The Corrections, Freedom, Purity – all by Jonathan Franzen
- The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt
- The Posionwood Bible – Barbara Kingsolver
- Parable of the Sower – Octavia E. Butler
- World War Z – Max Brooks
- Budding Prospects – T.C. Boyle
- Where The Crawdads Sing – Delia Owens
- Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
- Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami
- Lamb – Christopher Moore
- Do Not Say We Have Nothing – Madeleine Thien
- The Orphan Master’s Son – Adam Johnson
- The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Díaz
- Exit West – Mohsin Hamid
The power of effective brand storytelling
As the saying goes, “the world belongs to the storytellers.” If you can speak, write, and create narratives that your people will identify with, they will become not just customers, but raving fans. Just like Pixar and Disney are able to do with their films, you’ll be able to create strong feelings of belonging, understanding and hope in your audience, and increase your impact as an entrepreneur more than you ever thought possible. If you want to learn more, check out my book Transform Your Speaking Skills on Amazon, or follow me on LinkedIn. Now, get to work and start creating your story!
About the author
Will Greenblatt is a CEO & Co-founderCEO at OutLoud Speakers School, a public speaking service to provide communication and performance skills to business professionals. Will has helped organizations like Google, Ericsson, Wayfair and TechStars and over 2300 individuals improve their confidence and clarity in communication.