Chris Nichols
Published:
December 2nd, 2019

Throw all the facts that you want at someone, and you won’t move them to a position anywhere near the effectiveness than if you can work the facts into a story. From the dawn of man, our brains have become hardwired to place facts in context, and a story helps get us that context in the most efficient manner possible. Recently seeing the Irishman, reminded us what a good story is all about. In this article, we layout our checklist of elements that we use to tell stories during our sales process, in marketing, and as we sit around a table to explain things to ourselves.

The Need For Clear Stories for Small Businesses

While many small business owners and marketers tell stories, their stories are incomplete. As a result, they are not as effective as they could. The movie, The Irishman, is the most recent example of great storytelling at its finest. Not only does Martin Scorsese tell a great story, but he weaves multiple stories together to create a film masterpiece.

You can do the same thing. Below is our checklist that we use internally to make sure we have identified and articulated all the elements of a story that you need for maximum effectiveness of conveying information. You want to tell a story when you make a sales presentation when you need to sell a new benefits package to your employees or try to get a project approved.

The better the stories you tell, the more effective you will be in banking. Stories are the lingua franca of the human mind. Customers and employees usually don’t take the cheapest option, nor do they choose the most expensive option. For that matter, they usually don’t even choose the best option – employees and customers choose the option that they can connect with the fastest.

The Checklist of 6 Elements

Character: Every story needs a main character that undergoes some transformation. For small businesses, this is most often the customer, the employee, or the local citizen.  For a marketing story to be effective, you have to make the character relatable so that the employee or customer can see themselves in the story.

Challenge: A story without a challenge or conflict is just a description. Every story needs a reason to exist, and that reason comes down to some challenge that the main character faces. Maybe it is as simple as needing new capital for a warehouse, or maybe it’s the fulfillment that comes with putting your kids through college, but whatever the challenge is, it must be relatable and clearly articulated in a way that the reader understands the factor that must be overcome.

We will also point out that a challenge doesn’t have to be external and can be internal. The challenge might be the customer’s reluctance to plan for their future, the struggle to balance work and family, or fear. Whatever the challenge, a good story will crystalize the struggle and make the obstacle clear for all to see.

Influence: Characters usually need to be nudged to grow, and that is why good stories have a factor that influences or guides the main character. This is usually the bank that acts as a guide, but it can also be a person’s conscious, elders, or friends. This influencing factor is the catalyst that sets a plan into motion and calls for action.

Reason: For a brand story to be compelling, there needs to be a material reason to overcome the challenge. The stakes of the outcome need to be high enough for people to care. This is the point of inflection for many marketers. Most customers don’t know what they don’t know, so making them understand the benefits of your product or service on an emotional level is where a small business owner can add the bulk of their value.

To help the customer understand the value of your product, it helps to highlight in the story what happens if the customer fails to use the product or what happens if they do.  While quantifying the economic value of a product is good, showing what that economic value can gain the customer is even better. For example, instead of describing your benefits, illustrate how those benefits can save your customer time to spend with their family or other passion.

Path/Call to Action: Once the character is identified, the challenge is made clear, and there is an influencing factor to help move the story, then a plan must be laid out. This usually comes from the influencing factor such as how your company will help the customer solve a particular problem.

Of course, a good brand story needs to have action or a key event where all the brand elements interact. Maybe this action is helping the customer build a production facility to meet a big order, or maybe it’s helping the customer save money for a vacation, but a compelling story must show the character taking some action.

Emotional Resolution: Finally, every story needs not only an outcome but a tie back to the reasons that underscore the emotions created by the outcome. This is another critical step that many small business miss. Show how the outcome makes the character feel one time, and you will be more effective than if you listed your product’s benefits ten times.

Your challenge and path may be something that your employee or customer will never face, but the critical element here is to make sure everyone can connect with the emotional reason why the character did what they did. This goes back to the old adage that no one wants a quarter-inch drill bit when they walk into a hardware store. What the customer really wants is a quarter-inch hole so they can install a lock on their door to make them feel safe and secure. Figure out how to connect the challenge on both an external (customer wants a drill bit) and internal level (customer wants to feel safe) and you will have more customers than you know what to do with.

Putting The Story All Together

It doesn’t matter if you are producing a major motion picture, presenting a solution to the customer or marketing, the objective should be the same. Take all the elements above and come up with a story the reader or viewer can relate to.

Without giving anything away, here is just one of the major storylines from the Irishman that demonstrates this formula nicely:

The 6 story elements that the Irishman movie used.

How many times have you seen a movie or TV show and thought, “that story doesn’t make sense”? The story likely broke down because the storyteller didn’t follow the six rules. Usually, they leap too far ahead in the path, or they don’t include a proper reason to justify the character’s actions. The listener or viewer is left with an incomplete story and is thinking about the structure instead of the story.

In The Irishman, an impeccable story is told so much so that it is hard to question any element in the story. As a result, the story achieves what is called narrative transference, where the listener whole-heartedly absorbs the story. When the story is fully absorbed, counter-arguments are reduced, and you can more powerfully influence the listener.

The same is true in small business sales and marketing.

Applying Stories To Your Business

While less violent and emotional, your business can achieve narrative transference as well. While your customers may not be trying to reason with the likes of Jimmy Hoffa, they are also on a hero’s journey that is as important to them. Our job as marketers is to help the customer see a path and a reason for their actions.

Farmers Insurance uses this story framework for their “We know a thing or two because we have seen a thing or two” campaign which has proven to be one of the most effective in all of the financial services. The marketing team at Farmers has a core value that every touchpoint with their customer should leave the customer smarter with insurance knowledge. There is no product “showing” but a story around the benefits of using Farmers.

With that in mind, they went out and asked their insurance agents to submit their craziest claims. They received 750 ideas from their employees and then picked the best ones to apply this story formula. Here is our favorite called The Three-Ring Fender Bender:

From this one concept, Farmers built a set of commercials, social media campaigns, events, and sales approach that has not only won marketing awards (e.g., 2018 Effie Award) but has been a huge driver of revenue. With every touch, they make the customer laugh while teaching them about insurance in a memorable way. It is hard not to want to see more of these commercials. At an average of 40 seconds in length, we submit to you that there has not been a more effective financial services commercial since 1977 when people listened when E.F. Hutton talked.

Story elements of a good commercial that tells a story.

Try It

In music, it is hard to memorize random notes and chords. If you can string them into a musical story, you get a song that is easier to remember. Instead of throwing product benefits and facts at your audience, bankers can do the same thing by building their product or service benefits into a compelling story using our six-point story framework.

Use these six steps as a message filter when you create a new website, introduce a new product, or make a customer presentation. When you filter your communication through this framework, the output is a story that is clear, can be remembered, and will motivate people to take the desired action.

The best company or products don’t win in the marketplace. The businesses that can communicate the clearest are the ones that succeed.


The articles presented contain summaries, personal opinions, viewpoints and analyses of the author of the article and not those of CenterState Bank. The articles are intended to provide general information on finance, current events, strategy, leadership, risk management, and other related topics and are not intended to be complete or to provide any specific recommendations or advice. Readers should consult their own legal or financial professionals for specific advice on any particular topic.