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How To Beat Five Storytelling Roadblocks

Most PR pros know that throwing facts and figures at a business audience won’t necessarily win them over. A great story, on the other hand, is more persuasive and more memorable. At a time when we have more data than we can possibly use and people connect on social platforms, storytelling is an ideal tool for PR and marketing.

But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Entertainment options are everywhere, and crafting a business story designed to promote a product or service doesn’t always measure up. People are busy, overwhelmed, and even cynical. On the PR agency side, we serve many masters. Sometimes we communicate through journalists who have their own story priorities. Clients, on the other hand, may have different ideas about what makes a great story. When considerations collide, storytelling suffers. Here are some ways to overcome common roadblocks along the way.

Forget the chronology

There’s a natural impulse to start at the beginning and tell a chronological narrative, especially if it’s about a new company or product. But that can be complicated, lengthy, and boring. When speaking or writing to promote a business, pretend you’re making a 30-second video. Start with a pivotal time in the business. It might be the point where a founder set out to solve a common problem, like how to be well-dressed without spending a fortune (Rent The Runway), or the “new” idea that software should be available 24/7 (Salesforce.com). Everything revolves around those high-impact moments that are usually obvious only in retrospect. Start in the middle, then fill in the blanks.

Leave the rough edges

There’s a real tendency to sugarcoat anything negative or embarrassing when it comes to business storytelling. One reason I love working with high-growth tech entrepreneurs is that they tend to be more open about setbacks than larger companies. Reluctance to open the kimono is understandable; most businesses aren’t wild about revealing weakness, miscalculations, or mistakes. Yet these are the very developments that make a narrative more compelling and real. There’s power in admitting you’re not perfect, in  part because it’s not expected, and everyone can identify.

Remember, it’s not always about you

Mediocre stories are about businesses; great stories are about people. Every story needs a hero. The most interesting and authentic heroes could be a low-level employee in an organization, or the customer. Intuit and Hubspot are two brands that do a great job celebrating their core customer, small businesses, in their storytelling. Slack’s Variety Pack podcast does something similar, by championing the end users of its product — workers themselves.

Don’t confuse emotion with hyped language

I see this in written content all the time. Maybe the story isn’t so exciting, so the writer throws in lots of empty adjectives to try to spice it up. It usually has the perverse effect of making things even less interesting because there’s no substance. It’s far better to be straightforward with the language. Mark Twain famously wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” When it comes to adjectives and “action verbs,” less is definitely more, and a more precise word will beat a vague one anytime.

Break the cliché habit

A great story will focus on high-stakes moments, like early failures, internal or external conflicts, or business threats. But what if those moments are already well known? What if they just don’t exist? Change the point of view, or try an analogy. Take software testing as an example. It’s a commodity, but like everything else, there’s an art to it. As one engineer put it, “Writing (software) tests is like sex: the more you do it, the better you get at it and the better it feels.” Now, there’s an interesting opener.

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