We instinctively use stories to understand the world around us and to influence each other. Stories are what give our ideas and experiences meaning.
I teach, speak, and write on the topic of narrative intelligence, which is the idea that stories are the most powerful tool we have for behavior change. Through my work helping leaders from Fortune 500 companies and startups alike tell stories to transform behavior, build inclusive culture, and communicate new ideas, I know the impact that stories can have. But I also know just how much business owners struggle to use stories to create an emotional connection, build their brand, and sell their bold ideas.
Why Numbers Don’t Cut It
Most business owners communicate in numbers: sharing the size of their communities, the profits they’ve generated, and the statistics behind the problem they’re solving. Numbers are an important part of your brand, but without a story, they fall flat.
In a series of studies about compassion and empathy, psychologist Paul Slovic discovered what he coined “psychic numbing”—the phenomenon describing how people ignore a problem when it is communicated solely in statistical terms.
He and co-authors demonstrate that people generate sympathy toward a story around an identifiable victim of poverty or war, but fail to do so toward statistical victims. As a result, even the most convincing data often fails to create change.
This truth is applicable even on a smaller scale. If you want to have a brand that moves people to action, you’ll need to craft a story.
The Types of Stories to Tell
Before owning my own business, I used stories to drive behavior change in media, marketing, sales, and nonprofits. I discovered that every organization goes through a series of milestones and repeating events that stories can be built around. These include:
- The origin of why the organization exists
- Adversities the organization has to overcome
- New ideas and innovations it creates as it grows
Collecting and telling your Origin, Adversity, and Innovation stories is a powerful way to build an authentic brand that connects more deeply with the people you serve. Here’s how.
Origin stories help people to understand the why behind what you do. For example, the origin story behind my company The New Quo begins with my childhood. I was raised as what I’ve coined an “extreme minority,” as I was racially, religiously, and politically different from the majority growing up in Utah. Being on the outside of so many groups informed me of how powerful narratives people pick up from education, media, family, and other institutions were for influencing biased beliefs and behavior.
I then spent a career using stories to motivate people to take action on social causes, as well as to close sales. I used story as a tool of influence but noticed how most organizations had no clue how narratives affected their cultures and leadership practices.
These experiences inspired my fascination with how narrative affects our beliefs and behaviors and motivated me to build tools to help people become better communicators and more inclusive leaders.
I now share this Origin story openly in my brand communications and thought leadership, and it helps individuals truly understand my brand and why I built my company.
My Origin story, which I regularly share in brand communications and on social media.
Discover your Origin story by asking yourself the following:
- What problem motivated me to create the solution my company provides? What is my personal connection to this problem?
- What aspects of my identity and experiences shaped the values behind the solution I created?
- What does the company stand for outside of profit? What values drive our business decisions?
Adversity stories capture the moments you’ve been able to overcome an unexpected challenge. They showcase your brand’s resilience while also making you relatable, as everyone deals with adversity in some form.
A great example of an Adversity story is when Procter & Gamble hit a business slump and realized they needed a new cleaning business. They hired a research firm, Continuum, that discovered that people were cleaning their mops as much as they were cleaning their floors. There was a clear need for a speedier clean, and perhaps a new tool.
These researchers realized just how much people hated touching dirty mops, and also that most dirt in the home is dust. The team used that knowledge to design a new cleaning tool: essentially a wet towel on a stick that could be thrown away once it was soiled.
Although this pivot challenged what they originally knew about the mop market, it created a new product that had $100 million in sales in the first year it was released and is a staple in households today.
To discover these stories, ask yourself:
- What key challenges has my business overcome?
- What lessons were learned during these challenges, and how did they strengthen the solutions we provide?
These stories capture when you’ve created new insights and connections between unlikely ideas, and they demonstrate the creativity of your brand.
A great example of an innovation story is the invention of Post-it notes. In 1974, 3M employee Arthur Fry had an “aha moment” while at church. He knew about a light adhesive developed by fellow 3M employee Spencer Silver, but no one had figured out how this new glue could be used. He realized a piece of paper with this type of adhesive on it would be a great way to mark his place in his hymnal book while singing in the church choir.
The company was initially skeptical about the product's profitability, but in 1980, the Post-it was introduced. Today, Post-it notes are sold in more than 100 countries.
This story showcases unconventional inspiration and problem solving that 3M can tell again and again to cement their brand and demonstrate their innovation.
To discover your own innovation stories, answer the following:
- What unconventional connections and insights has our company made that others have not?
- What unexpected solutions have we generated?
- What about our creative process showcases our values?
Once you’ve collected your Origin, Adversity, and Innovation moments, you can begin to tell versions of these stories on social media, in long-form content, on your website, and more.
The stories we tell are powerful—personally in terms of how we feel about ourselves, and socially by how they define how others see us. The more you honestly share the truth of your experience, the more impact and results you’ll create with an authentic brand.