How start-ups can use storytelling to boost their business

Storytelling – the stuff of children’s bedtimes and sessions in the pub – has been hijacked by business strategists. As a low-cost tool that can catapult even the tiniest brands into the spotlight, storytelling is something all businesses can – and should – be doing.

The most successful brands have a knockout story. Some, like Miracle Mop inventor Joy Mangano, or Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, have been fictionalised for the silver screen. What both these examples have in common is the founders are likeable yet fallible and colossal mistakes are made. Interestingly, it’s the failures that resonate with the audience, as much as the happy endings.

This is why I decided to tell a room full of people, and the internet, all about how I descended from a rule-breaking 17-year-old who sold a successful business for millions of pounds to a 'do it by the book’ manager who couldn't even get his second business off the ground.

My business exploits over the past 17 years framed a TEDx talk on why everyone should tear up the rulebook and do things their own way. I could have simply told people they must break the rules and suggest how, but no one wants to be preached to, especially not by a person they’ve never heard of before. They want to be entertained, and to learn - and storytelling delivers both.

Why following the rules isn't always good for you | Barnaby Lashbrooke | TEDxLeamingtonSpa

The ability to self-publish stories, be it videos to YouTube or some well-crafted prose to LinkedIn or Facebook – coupled with the low cost of creating or outsourcing the production of such content – means there’s never been a better time to share yours.

Some of you might be quietly fretting at this point that you don’t have a story to tell (yet). But storytelling in business doesn't have to focus on your history. It can involve creating small, simple stories that inspire others to use your product or service.

Read more: How to tell a story on a shoestring

One of the best recent examples of this is flatshare site SpareRoom, which documented the search for two new housemates to share its founder’s haunted Spitalfields mansion, publishing the episodes to YouTube. These clocked up 4.5milion views, prompted 7,251 applications from wannabe housemates, garnered widespread press coverage and plenty of social media buzz. SpareRoom created a short story, and delivered it well.

This sort of storytelling is done masterfully by big brands like Patek Philippe. They don't just sell expensive watches - they sell an experience supported with the tag line: You never actually own a Patek Philippe. You merely look after it for the next generation.

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We tried this approach at Time etc. Instead of, 'A virtual assistant will help you get more done,' we changed our strapline to, 'A virtual assistant will help you get home in time for your kids’ bedtime.' We’re explaining, emotively, how it improves lives.

The story has become a commodity in business and the most successful are those who tell them best. Fortunately for start-ups, storytelling has little, if anything, to do with budget and everything to do with ideas and careful execution. Here's four tips for using storytelling right now in your business…

1. Give the about us section on your website a makeover. Many companies simply repeat information that can be found elsewhere on their website. Far more interesting from a reader’s perspective would be to tell your story. Try and answer the following questions: Why was the company founded? How did the founders meet? What was your biggest hurdle and biggest achievement in the early days? What principles do you run your business by?

2. Make an explainer video for your homepage and company social media channels. This could be as simple as an animation with a scripted voiceover, or you could inject some humour. One of the best examples – it has clocked up close to 25million views on YouTube, the equivalent of the population of Australia – is Dollar Shave Club, which apparently spent just £3,600 producing its explainer video.

Read more: The Dollar Shave Club guide to storytelling

3. Work storytelling into your pitches. New business will be just as interested in who you are as what you do. Incorporate your business story into email pitches, make it the first slide in your deck, and use your story to frame how you’re refreshingly different to your competitors. Once the pitch is over, I’d put money on the audience remembering your story - not your data or even your name. You only have to watch an episode of Dragons’ Den to realise that.

4. If you don’t have any of your own, use your customers' stories for testimonials and case studies. It will build trust and faith in your brand and service. Perhaps your company helps people save money. In which case, find a case study of someone you’ve saved a small fortune for, and ask if you can share their story, on your website, on social media or in the press. Happy customers are usually very willing to help, especially if you reward them with vouchers or a gift for their time. 

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

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