December 11, 2017

The Power Of Storytelling In Business

A good story is on of the most powerful marketing tools a business can have. This is even more critical for small businesses that lack the large marketing budgets of big brands. But telling a good story is definitely an art which is why we invited Esther Choy, founder of the Leadership Story Lab and author of Let The Story Do The Work: The Art Of Storytelling for Business Success, to help us learn how to craft a story that gets remembered. For additional resources, as mentioned in today’s podcast, please scroll to the end of the transcript.

Jennifer: Esther, thank you so much for joining us today, and I want to start with a big picture question because we’re talking about storytelling today and that your book Let The Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success … That’s what it’s all about.

Tell us, to start, give us a foundation. Why is storytelling so important to business owners these days?

Esther: Well thank you so much for having me, first of all. I think storytelling is especially important to business these days and in the future because people are so distracted. People are so busy. Whatever we offer that we think are the best of the best in the market, oftentimes it’s perceived as commodity in someone else’s eyes. The true differentiator, besides quality, is your story. Story can really hold people’s attention, and most importantly story can get people to care.

You think about how much information there are out there. It’s at our fingertips. But if people don’t care, it doesn’t matter what information we put out there. But we can get people to care, and you can get people to care because of your stories, then you’re already halfway too success.

Jennifer: That’s true. As you’re talking, I was just thinking about how that’s true. Even from its most basic marketing 101, if I can get someone to care, then I’ve got a better chance of them just remembering my business name to begin with.

Esther: Yeah. You know, because we’re distracted, because there’s so much information out there, we don’t tend to remember as much as we’d like to or as we used to. By really and intrigued, I find something just wonderful, entertaining, and captivating, then I’m gonna go look it up. I’m gonna go find out what it is all about. So I think we should really start with the basic, and that’s our stories.

Jennifer: So then starting with that basic, can you talk to us a little bit about … This sounds like such a basic question, but what a story is and what a story isn’t. Maybe you can give us examples to help us understand. I guess I’m thinking that oftentimes in business, we think of a story and then go to PowerPoint presentation. I mean, so what’s the story [crosstalk 00:02:46].

Esther: This is such a wonderful question, and it’s one that I can talk all day about. But let me make it brief and pragmatic.

So first by starting with what story isn’t because you hear the word very often. It is definitely enjoying a resurgence, a renaissance. You can see that business story used in the printing company tell your business story. But what they do is they help you create your business card, your collateral, your letterhead. So they call it a story. You also might hear people say, “What’s the story here?” What is really behind the question is what are the basic bullet points to help you understand the situations. I can give you examples after examples of what people use story as a proxy for something else. Then the most mind-boggling, to me at least when I started teaching storytelling, was somebody assumed that a story is a product pitch.

I ran this workshop, and I had a few people raise their hands and volunteer to tell their stories and have it critiqued. Then this gentleman gave a product pitch. Everybody kind of looked at each other, was scratching their head, we were like, “Hmm. Where’s the story?” And he said, “That is the story. That’s my product. I just told you. Were you listening?”

So how I would define it is structural [inaudible 00:04:55] beginning, middle, and end. Strategically, there’s a clear intent where the story matches with that intent. Then lastly, I would define story as the classical model with central characters, challenges, journey, and a satisfying end. So those are how I would define story isn’t. Story can be long, so think about any epic movie, Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, or think of a shortest commercial. We’ve seen a lot of those during SuperBowl’s time.

Or of the short I’ve heard recently, actually. I don’t think a writer even intended it to be a story. It was actually a writer’s comment on an article by the New York Times. And the article was about the former president, Obama, dropping off his daughter at first day of college. Then he was quoted saying, “Dropping off my child in college is like having open-heart surgery”. But that’s the article. And then one of the readers comment was, “Two weeks after I dropped off my daughter at college, I was grocery shopping, and I came upon the cereal aisle. I pick a box of Cheerios, and the image of my daughter as a toddler sitting on her high-chair and picking up Cheerios one by one with her chubby little hand flushed over me, and I held the box of Cheerios and started bawling in the middle of the supermarket. Luckily, a kind elderly lady walked by me, and she put her hand gently on my shoulder, and she said, ‘I know, dear. I feel the same way these days when I see the price of a Cheerio box'”.

It’s a story. There’s a beginning with a scene and a hook. There’s a journey, and then there’s a resolution. So it’s a super short story. It didn’t even meant to be a story, but it had all of that component.

Jennifer: So you just were talking about … And I know that there’s multiple structure and elements in a good story. One of the things that I love, as you talk about in your book, is that good business stories … And as you were mentioning now, they have those same elements and structure as, let’s say, a good fiction story. It was making me think when I read that a lot about how, especially these days in fiction books that I read, there’s a hook that’s in the beginning because they want to capture your attention, and you want to keep turning the pages and keep reading.

You had talked about, in your book, how a hook can help an audience get engaged and stay focused and leave them wanting more. Do you have any good examples of hooks you’ve seen businesses use?

Esther: Sure. I explain hook … It’s in the book. So I explained hooked the following way. Make sure, in the beginning of your story, that it has a conflict or a contrast or a contradiction. So conflict is nothing more than two opposing forces going on an opposite direction. They’re opposing each other. Contrast is two opposing different, opposite qualities being put right next to each other. Then contradiction is contradicting your audience’s expectation.

So let me give you some examples, and maybe you can tell me. Well, actually, you probably can because you’ve already read the book. But I’ll see if your audience will be able to guess whether the hook is a conflict, a contrast, or a contradiction. So this is a real example, too, by the way by one of my colleagues.

She told me that, at one of her jobs prior to business school, it was a Tuesday around 10am. It was my second day at a new job. Chris, a software developer, was explaining the company’s technology to me. In the middle of our conversation, he received an instant message, quickly got up, and told me, “It’s time for a cupcake run”. Maybe everyone can take a moment and think about … Is it a conflict? There’s two opposing forces. A contrast? Two opposite qualities. Or contradictions? Your expectation being contradicted. Now, this is a good example of a contradiction because, typically, at least not in the office Tuesday morning, you don’t drop a conversation with a new colleague and then turn around and run for cupcakes. It’s just a very odd thing to do. So it’s a contradiction.

What people wonder is, “Why? What’s the cupcake all about?” In other words, they want to know more. So that’s an example of a hook in business. It doesn’t have to be all-encompassing. In fact, in the beginning of the story, all you want to know, all you want to achieve, is that your audience want to know more. If you can inspire that, then you are on your way to telling great stories.

Jennifer: That example was a great one. You heard me laugh because it was just like, “Oh my goodness. Yes. What’s going on with the cupcakes? I need to know the story”. Fantastic.

You also just used the word inspire which I think is a great word especially as you talk about emotion, and you do spend a lot of time in the book talking about the role of emotion when it comes to storytelling and how, ultimately through your storytelling, you’re hoping or you’re aspiring to invoke an emotion in your audience.

So why is creating this emotion in your audience so important?

Esther: Well, two reasons. One may not apply to everyone, but many I work with consider emotions frill or unnecessary or even hindering sound business decision, and so that’s why I spend so much time and so much effort through to the book to bring back the proper role of emotion. A lot of people I know kind of starting from this false assumption that, in order to make good business decisions judgment, that you have to remove emotion. That is absolutely wrong, and that is scientifically proven wrong because, in order for us to make any decision at all, it must involve our emotion. We might not feel emotional. That’s a really big distinction there. But somewhere in our brain, our emotion is tabbed to enable to us to make decision. So that’s why, in the context of persuading, informing, influencing, leading, in business, we need to inspire other people’s emotion.

And when you have a good story, when you tell a great story, that’s how you can tap that hidden part of decision-making.

Jennifer: So then, in order to tap somebody else’s emotions … When you tell your story … And correct me if I’m wrong, but you have to be kind of telling it through their lens with your story, but it’s their mind. So you’re a bit of [crosstalk 00:14:33].

Esther: Yeah. Exactly. So the interesting … I think this is just tantalizing research is that when two people are engaged in storytelling, one is telling story and the other is listening to the story. Their brains begin to synchronize because what I’m describing to you, you are trying to picture in your head, and you’re trying to feel it. So because we are tuned into each other through a story, our brains are literally humming and synchronizing. So that’s how … You can try, but it’s really hard. People forget facts all the time, but they never forget a good story. You can try to forget a good story, but it’s really hard to do.

Jennifer: You know, you highlight in your book that essentially there are five basic thought points that all stories will essentially come from. We’re not going to go through each five. But for the folks who are listening, more often than not they’re on an earlier stage of business growth. So for earlier state entrepreneurs, do you tend to find or do you tend to see that one of these plot points is used more often than others? Or does it really depend on the business type and who the business’ audience is and the founder’s story?

Esther: Sure. We don’t need to go over all five. But just for your listeners’ sake and so that they know what are the five. They are origin, rags to riches, rebirth, overcoming the monster, and then the quest. What I often find of entrepreneurs, business owners, once they made it, a lot of times they tell rags to riches stories. Or another name for rags to riches is underdog. Basically, those who have the odds stacked against them, but they made it. They are successful. So there’s that nice endpoint to their business story that makes them a good … It’s a very classic American story, in fact. [crosstalk 00:17:24]

Jennifer: It’s like every entrepreneur in a magazine article.

Esther: Yeah, exactly. For early stage entrepreneurs, a lot of times I see two of those plots. One is the origin. How this business came about or how this entrepreneur discovered her passion to start a business. Like why I asked you, “So, Jennifer, how did you come to do this?” Because people are curious. I think I’ve heard, many years ago, about how no matter what type of websites they’re about, page is actually the most riveted because people want to know who are the people behind this business. So the origin taps into that innate curiosity in us that wanted to know, “Hey, how did it all begin?” So that’s one for early stage.

The other I think I often hear is overcoming the monster. The name might be a little misleading because I’m not talking about big, jagged-teeth monster lurking in the closet and waiting to attack you, but monster here is more allegorical to a big problem or a big need that is waiting for someone to figure out how to overcome.

Jennifer: So I want to mention for all the listeners … Just a reminder, as always, in the transcript for this podcast, we’re going to have links to the book. We’re going to have links to Esther’s company’s website. There’s a lot more information and, of course, within the book. The book goes into a lot more information about some of these structural parts and the plots that we’ve been talking about. So if you’re working on crafting your story, you’re working on revising your story, it is a wonderful place to get some more information. In fact, I would say right before we begin recording that, after reading the book, it’s a good reminder for me that I need to go back and revisit my business story and make sure that I’m telling it correctly.

So here is one of my very favorite part of the book, and I’m going to just let everybody know so that if you just want to pick up the book and just take a look at this one part. So on page 49, you shared this phenomenal story of … It was this founder, and they had crafted their story based off of what was important to them of what had inspired them to start the business. But ultimately, it wasn’t a good fit for the audience that they were trying to attract. And at a very high level, just so folks know, the people were running a daycare, a childcare, and they had been inspired by the events of 9/11 and found that an audience who’s looking for childcare doesn’t necessarily want to be reminded about 9/11. You talk about, in your book, that oftentimes we as entrepreneurs … What inspired us isn’t necessarily always the right story to tell if that’s not going to resonate with our audience.

So since entrepreneurs tend to be … We tend to be pretty close to our businesses and our stories and our products. How do you recommend that business owners seek feedback on their stories so that we can determine whether we are telling the right story or not or telling it in the right way?

Esther: Yeah, I’m glad that this is one of your favorite parts of the book. It is also one of my favorite. I feel very lucky to be working with this pair of business owners because the origin story, in this case, how they started this early-childhood enrichment education business, is truly just awe-inspiring, sad, but ultimately it is awe-inspiring. But I think that we discovered that it is not the right fit for the audience, and I absolutely recommend that to everyone, is to go and play anthropologist and go and interview your customers especially your most loyal customers because those are the ones that you hope to attract more of.

But why are they attracted to your product may not be the reasons that you think that attracted them. So that’s why, and that’s exactly what I did. Once we had a chance to study the parents, in this case mostly young urban college-educated late 20s, early 30s moms, we realized that they are attracted to [inaudible 00:23:28] academies for all sorts of valid, creative, loving, very parent-centric reasons that, when they hear about 9/11, you can just see that sort of dissonance in their face. In fact, you can almost feel that they feel the dissonance.

So there’s really no way around studying and interviewing your customers especially your most loyal customers. Observing them. So don’t just take what they tell you, but observe them, and then test-drive your story. Again, ask them how your story made them feel but also observe their body language because they might want to say things that they think will make you happy, so we have to be careful. Not that we can’t take their words for it, but there’s a economic behavior economics term called declare a preference and actual preference. They might declare that they prefer something because of also some other reasons that has nothing to do with their actual preference. It’s just why seek jobs [inaudible 00:24:56] they don’t do consider research because they think consumers don’t know what they want until they have exactly what they want put right in front of them. But I don’t know if every business can get away with not studying their customers, but you can gather feedback and test your story based on both what they tell you and what you observe about them. Then you can more likely try to emulate what resonates with them.

Jennifer: I guess it’s something that I talk a lot about knowing your audience just in general, from understanding what products sell, but it continues to come back to that. That’s what I’m hearing now. It’s like you have to know who your audience is, and I love that part that you brought up about really trying to understand your most loyal customers because, ultimately, you want more loyal customers as opposed to kind of the one-offs who will drop in once a year and make a purchase from you, let’s say.

Esther: Yeah, exactly, because you want your loyal customers to stay loyal, and then you want more of your loyal customers. The only way to attract more of the same is by really understanding why they stay loyal, not why we think they are loyal to us.

Jennifer: Yeah, because it’s often different.

My next question … So, this is for anybody who is listening right now and is like, “Okay, all of this sounds great, but I don’t have a good story to tell”. What I have heard a few entrepreneurs tell me time and time again … They’re just like, “I just don’t have a very good story,” and I will tell folks who are listening that this book actually … One of my favorite functions of the book is that it actually comes with a list of question prompts. So if you find yourself in that spot, or if you’re like me and you’re like, “Maybe I should look at revisiting my story,” you can use these question prompts to start to brainstorm about what your story is and what it isn’t, you know, and what makes it unique and interesting.

So if I were telling you right now, “I just don’t have an interesting story,” can you share an example of one or two questions that you recommend people ask themselves?

Esther: Sure. Well, Jennifer-

Jennifer: Uh-oh, now I put myself on the spot.

Esther: I take these invitations very, very seriously, and I’m actually really glad you gave me an invitation to do that, so I’m jumping right on it.

So you mentioned that your daughter makes you smile, earlier, and yet you are not with her. You are doing this interview, and this interview requires quite a bit of preparation. This is just one of many, many, many things you do, [inaudible 00:28:22] business. So why do you do what you do? That’s one question taken out of the list of crazy 10 good questions type.

Another could be … When you first announced your business, how did people react to it in the beginning? And then you can also … That’s another category of the 10 crazy good questions. Then I’ll give you another example. So you mentioned you really love the kitchen, working in the kitchen. How is this now, your work, different from, let’s say, right before business school?

So I can go on and on and on. I’m sure you’ve already done that. What I’ve listed here is just 10 different types of questions. It has the basic building blocks under each type, and then you fill in the blanks with the facts that are relevant to you and pertinent to you. So literally, you can come up question hundreds and thousands of questions based on these 10 different templates of questions.

Jennifer: And again, folks who are listening, these questions really are powerful. I mean, it’s a little bit like having a therapist, if you will, digging into you a little bit but in a really good way. In fact, before we started recording, I had mentioned that of course I had read the book prior to us talking today, but I’ve actually gone ahead and set some time in my calendar where I’ll be able to give some undivided attention to going through these questions again because I think that they’re worth revisiting. I think that I personally need to put some serious work into them and make sure that my story’s being told effectively in a manner that’s gonna resonate with all of you, as an example. So these questions are phenomenal. They do make you look deeper, I think, than most of us who, certainly like myself … I don’t come from a storytelling background, so I didn’t really know where to start. So I highly recommend taking a look at these.

Esther: We have actually more questions. It’s free. Anybody can go and download. I’m sure you’ll include that in the transcript, as well. It’s, all in one word, and it’s free. Yeah, I’m really happy to hear that you find it helpful because that’s the mining process, story mining process, right? I like to say that we don’t have to be superhero to tell great stories. Because we know where to look. Every one of us is sitting on a treasure trove of stories if you know where to look. So these questions will help everyone know where to look and how to mine their stories.

Jennifer: Right. Yeah, we will include a link in the transcript to these additional questions as well.

So I have one last question for you. One of the things that you talk about in the book, which it was the first time I had started to think about it this way. I thought it was pretty brilliant.

So we as business owners, and truthfully, you and I went to the same business school, and we spent a lot of time talking about differentiation and [inaudible 00:32:15] analysis and what makes us different from out competitors, what makes us unique. However, you also talk about the importance of using your story to help create similarities with your audience. So why is this important?

Esther: Wow, you’ve really done your homework. So the similarity aspect came from the question that a lot of us have been asked. I talked to many career coaches, very seasoned career coaches, and they told me that nobody seems to know how to answer that question, and yet this is something that we are confronted all the time. So, hey, Jennifer, tell me about yourself. Of course, it’s hard to put a framework around it because nobody has three hours to listen to our story. Most people don’t. So you know this is not going to be a very long answer, and yet of all the things about us, all the accomplishments and achievements, which one do we talk about? Is it personal? Or is it professional? Where do you even begin to think about this?

What I suggest is start with similarities. Start with something that you potentially will share with your audience. Your shared experience. In the book, I talked about how I went, in business school, I didn’t have a business background and much less quantitative aptitude. So I was lost, but I was also an older than average student, and I knew that if I didn’t ask questions in class, I will miss my boat of understanding following. So I asked questions. I didn’t care. I sat in the front row. I didn’t have to look at anyone else in the face, and I asked my questions. So even though I was really skittish about, oh, I’m the only slow one in the class. Everyone else got it except me. You know, it felt a little embarrassed. But actually I was hardly the only one because I had so many people come up to me, and most of them I had know idea who they were initially, but so many people came up to me just randomly during the day thanking me for asking their questions.

So this idea that you were not alone, even though you might felt like you were, is something that is shared by a lot of people. It’s something that a lot of people will have in common with you. And then the list goes on and on and on. So pick one thing, something, that you know is universally shared, and especially if you have a chance to do some due diligence on who you’re speaking to. Maybe you’re speaking to a potential buyer or a prospective partner. There’s so much that we can look up about everyone else these days. Just a little bit of homework ahead of time and prepare a few stories that highlights the similarities that you share with that person or with that group of people that is going to get you that much further.

This is important because, at the end of the day, yes, differentiating yourself is important. Being unique and different is important. But ultimately, we like others who are like us. If perceive someone to be similar to us, then that person is more likable. And if that person is more likable, then we tend to trust her more, and we tend to want to interact and maybe even do business with her more. So that’s a very powerful social influence that is very much underutilized.

Jennifer: I was thinking, because you also mentioned the word stories plural. It made me [inaudible 00:37:15] about how you have different audiences. We’ve been talking in kind of the business landscape of, like you said, partners, potential investors, buyers. But then as we also head into the holidays, you might go to a party, and you’re chit-chatting with somebody you’ve never met. That is, even in a less informal … I mean, that is all networking. You never know who that person is or who they’re connected to or what they’re interested in and having “versions” of your business story that you feel confident pulling out and using, in a true and authentic manner of course, you never know who you’re talking to and what that relationship might yield for you personally or for your business.

Esther: And that’s why I always encourage people to have a library of stories. Certainly if you’re quick on your feet and you can come up with stories in a flash, good for you. I am not one of those people. I prefer to have a chance to think about it, thank about it ahead of time, and put it together. So it’s a really worthwhile investment. Use the questions, and use the template, because it will save you time.

By library of stories, I don’t mean thousands. But even have anywhere from three to five stories related to your business or related to who you are as a person and why others should trust you and do business with you. I would say those things are very worthwhile exploring and developing stories.

Here’s one more trick that I find very effective and multiplying the effort because I’m a little bit lazy sometimes, so I like to … If I especially like a story, I like to tell it over and over again, but how do I not even get bored myself let alone boring other people?

So here’s how you do it. Here’s the trick. You can use the same story, but you add different ending. So can I give you an example?

Jennifer: Please, yeah.

Esther: It’s a short one. So I mentioned that I have two kids, two daughters. One is nine years old, and one is six years old. The nine year old, especially, has quite a bit of activities. So my Saturday morning can be really hectic driving her back and forth around town different places. One Saturday morning after I dropped her off at dance, I was dying for a cup of coffee. I was dying to sit down and read my news on my phone. So as soon as I left her studio, I made a beeline to the coffee shop down the street. I place an order. I was very much looking to 45 minutes of just some me time. But right after I place my order, I realize that I didn’t have my wallet. I didn’t lost it. Nobody stole it, but I changed my purse my Saturdays. Of all things that I transfer, I didn’t have my wallet. So I was embarrassed. I was really feeling lost because I thought that 45 precious minutes of me time was just slipping through my fingertips.

Then just as I was fumbling, as I was humming and hawing as the barista bring me back my coffee, this person down the line said, “Oh, how much is it? Let me pay for you”. And I thought, “Oh, I’m even more embarrassed because now I need someone to rescue me,” so I hum and haw and said, “Oh, no. Thank you. I’ll be fine,” and then she insisted. Then I said, “No,” and so we back and forth and back and forth. We did a little dance, but actually I really wanted it. So what she finally said was, “You know what? Thank you for giving me this opportunity to pay for you”. Now I thought, okay, this is crazy. But before I could even say anything, she said, “Someone else paid for me when I was in this situation, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to do it for somebody else. So thank you,” then she didn’t even just wait for me to say anything. She just nudged me over and then paid for it.

Now as I thank her and got her name, I took my coffee to a little table, I though, “Man, sometimes reading news can be really depressing, so sometimes I really ought to look up from my phone and look around because real people can actually be so much more inspiring”. That’s how I would end the story. Possibility number one.

But there’s also another option. Another option to end the story is … As I took my coffee and thanked her and found a little table to sit down, I am so reminded of the fact that kindness doesn’t need to be reciprocated. Kindness actually ought to be paid forward. That’s another possibility to end the story.

And then yet another possibility to end the story would be, as I took my coffee and thank her and found a little table to sit down, I had to really remind myself, “Esther Choi, just stop changing the damn purse”.

So same story, different endings. One story turned into three stories.

Jennifer: Yup, and each of the different stories, at least for me, evoke different emotions.

Esther: Yes, exactly. So don’t need to come up with hundreds and thousands of stories. Just come up with three to five that are really good. It’s not even something heroic or epic. But when you change the ending it, as you said, evokes different emotion. It creates different, altogether, meaning for the story.

Jennifer: Oh, that’s great example. Thank you for sharing that.

Esther: Yeah, you’re welcome. You’re welcome. I hope that’s helpful.

Jennifer: It is to me, and I’m certain to the listeners as well.

I want to thank you for your time today. Really appreciate you coming on and sharing so much great information. And also, again, for the listeners, the book is titled, Let the Story Do the Work: The Art of Storytelling for Business Success. And there will be links to it on our Facebook page and in the transcript and on all the usual places on small food biz.

So, Esther, thank you so much.

Esther: Thank you so much for having me. This is really a lot of fun.

Jennifer: Oh, great. Well, thank you.


Related Articles: