Storytelling as a business tool

Warren Buffet Public Speaking Confidence Tips

All businesses have a story. Rarely is it an unmitigated success story. Sometimes it’s a tale of triumph over adversity. Sometimes one of heroic failure. Occasionally it’s a tragi-comedy bordering on farce. After all, most businesses never make it big. Many fail within a year, leaving their owners with nothing but a story. (And perhaps a determination to try again.)

Successful or not, though, it’s a rare distinction to be able to tell the story of your business in a compelling way. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve clicked on the ‘Our Story’ page of a company website only to be disappointed by the lack of storytelling. No engaging characters. No plot to speak of… ‘We’ve been passionate about biscuits since 2013’ is not a story! But a really good story is the mark of a great brand. It captures the imagination of the public, your customers and stakeholders.

Heroes and villains

Think of the Body Shop. Founded by Anita Roddick in 1976, the alternative cosmetics company embodied the idea that business could be a force for good. More than skincare products and bath salts, it was selling that idea, and appealing to consumers’ ideals as well as their sense of smell. This storytelling even had cute animals being saved from testing! And nearly 50 years on, it’s going strong.

Or Virgin. Also led by a charismatic personality in Richard Branson, the group has comprised a wide array of ventures over the years. Some more successful than others. But all embodying a spirit of entrepreneurship and aspiration that continues to connect Virgin Active gyms with Virgin Galactic space tourism.

Of course, the stories behind successful business are not always so flattering to their founders. Everyone knows Mark Zuckerberg started his career by developing an app that let his geeky friends rate the attractiveness of female students at Harvard. And the subsequent rise and rise of Facebook is regarded as sinister even by many of the billions who use it every day. Zuckerberg doesn’t seem to mind!

Stories get retold

Other stories are more ambiguous, but no less compelling. The founders of Adidas and Puma have a story of sibling rivalry that would not be out of place in a Wagnerian opera. Bill Gates was the college drop-out who started a business in his garage and changed the world. (As a businessman, even Donald Trump had a rags-to-riches story of sorts; starting out with a ‘small loan’ of a million dollars from his dad!) Gates made himself a billionaire in the process, without exactly making himself a beloved public figure.

Again, it hardly matters as long as we continue to use Windows, Word and the rest. And we do. They might lack the creative aura of Apple products, but the Microsoft story is about ubiquity. It’s the industry standard – having got there by fair means or foul! – and we know its software is going to be compatible with products used by our colleagues, clients, family and friends.

Only connect!

What’s important about these stories, then, is not so much the personalities involved, whether heroes or villains. It’s how they connected with the public, often shaping a market that wasn’t even there before they came along. My own story is a case in point, and it can’t be entirely down to my sparkling personality!

I was working in the City when a friend asked me to help with a best man speech. We spent a fun evening in the pub, during which I basically dictated what turned out to be a very well-received speech for him. Maybe he was joking when he said I should do it for a living, but the seed was planted. I placed an advert in Private Eye and discovered that at least a handful of people were prepared to pay for a speechwriting service.

A few years later, I was doing it full time and even brought in other writers to meet the demand. There have been ups and downs – not least Covid, when weddings and similar events stopped completely! – but by then we also had corporate and copywriting clients, and have successfully added strategic advisory services to speechwriting.

I’ve left a lot out, of course, but that’s the point. Storytelling does not mean narrating everything that’s happened since Day One. What matters is what motivates you, and how that meets an otherwise unmet demand. Whether that’s for ethically sourced toiletries or a new way to keep in touch with friends, the key is that the business strikes a chord. That’s the story.

Storytelling captures the imagination

So when you’re thinking about telling your story, focus on human connections. How the founders met is often a good one. But better still is how they turned strangers into customers by connecting with their needs. Tell that story, and you’ll capture imaginations.