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Stand out in 2015 with business storytelling

As markets get more crowded, it’s getting even more difficult for startups and small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to stand out to prospective investors and customers. But things just might change in 2015 with the help of an age-old tool: storytelling.

Yes, storytelling. According to the International Institute of Analytics’ (IIA) top trends for 2015, storytelling will be a critical skill for businesses in the coming year. It’s a tool that’s helpful in pitching an app or other products to potential investors; improving employee relationships across departments; and enlightening the board about the business value of new concepts, such as big data.

The IIA pointed to an organization that’s already gotten a head start on driving the adoption and use of analytics by using storytelling. The University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Insurance Services division has a full-time journalist on staff whose job is to “communicate in clear and concise business terms what the analytics are about and what they can do for the business,” IIA faculty member Robert Morison recently told SearchCIO.

But is the usefulness of storytelling a new trend? After all, it’s something we humans have employed for thousands of years. Unfortunately, even though we frequently use storytelling in our personal relationships, it’s a skill we need to re-learn when it comes to business — and learning it isn’t easy, as evidenced by the abundance of publications, coaches and consulting companies teaching it, which, by the way, don’t come cheap.

So what, exactly, makes for a good story in business? Let’s start with what a good story is not. The main reason many business narratives don’t work is because people have the habit of explaining rather than simply telling, said Andrew Linderman, a story coach who works with the likes of American Express and PBS, as well as nonprofits and startups.

“Good stories are detailed, honest and personal,” Linderman told The New York Times.

Indeed, a compelling story, as you may have learned in creative writing class in high school, usually contains certain elements. Yes, the advice on this topic from business storytelling experts, such as Harvard Business Review (HBR) and The New York Times, varies slightly on the particulars, but some ingredients are non-negotiable: Keep your audience in mind, employ your personal experience, use concrete details but keep things simple, and, last but not least, be dramatic!

Here’s one such template from ABC Copywriting: What really makes a good story?

A more complete story with as many ingredients as possible will be more compelling to consumers. The Times story details how Keith Quesenberry, a lecturer at the Center for Leadership Education at Johns Hopkins University, studied Super Bowl commercials from the past two years, using Freytag’s Pyramid of dramatic structure, to see which were rated the highest by consumers.

You can probably guess what he and his team found: Consumers rated commercials with more acts from the Pyramid higher, which increased their odds of being shared on social media.

The lesson? The more “dramatic” a story is, the more successfully a message is conveyed.

Let’s break down these ingredients of a dramatic story:

Keep your audience in mind. Knowing the message you want to impart and your audience is key to deciding which framework and details will resound with your audience, according to HBR. This, in turn, can help your listeners relate more easily to your story. For example: “If your team is behaving as if failure is not an option, you might decide to impart the message that failure is actually the grandfather of success,” writes Carolyn O’Hara of HBR.

Use your personal experience. The quirks of your personal experiences allow your listeners to relate more to your company’s story, which helps differentiate it from others that are devoid of personality. “The specifics of storytelling are relatively easy to articulate,” Linderman told the Times. “It’s the nuances that make a story distinct.” These nuances should include anything from your successes to your struggles.

Use concrete details, but keep things simple. Less is more. If well-placed details help listeners immerse themselves in the narrative, an overabundance of them — especially those that don’t serve your narrative — could prove detrimental. Will Mahoney, who’s on the hunt for investors for an app he plans to release next year, is taking a storytelling class in an effort to do just that: consider his audience and incorporate the necessary details to convey his message. “It’s about balancing your story — incorporating your values … and telling how investors can get involved and also benefit themselves,” he told the Times.

Be dramatic. In storytelling, being dramatic means having a conflict and a resolution, a beginning and an end, according to ABC Copywriting: “There should be losses and gains, setbacks and comebacks, peaks and troughs. And, above all, a story should be about people: their dreams and desires; loves and hates; problems and passions.” This means telling the bad parts of your story along with the good, and not setting yourself up to be the hero — in other words, showing your vulnerability, Linderman said.

Indeed, conflict can be good. HBR provided an example where a CEO of a Detroit interactive promotions company, Josh Linkner, embedded conflict by inventing an adversary to motivate his employees. “Greatness is often achieved in the face of adversity, but we didn’t have a competitor to gun against,” he explained. The results? Improved performance and increased creativity within the company.

So, how about it: Is your SMB ready to dive into business storytelling in 2015, gain the attention of prospective investors and the trust of your customer? If you’re seeking further inspiration, SearchCIO’s Startup Spotlight video series, which tells the stories of innovative startups, is a good place to start:

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