Business storytelling: what you can learn from journalists

Those who use exciting stories are captivating. However, many people make big mistakes in storytelling: they tire instead of enthusiasm. In this text, you will find the essential storytelling rules taught at journalism schools – and you will learn how to apply them to your business. 

What is storytelling – and why are so many people doing it the wrong way?

Maybe you just got an email again from someone who told you a sad story long and wide to want to sell you a product – and then you see great guys everywhere in your Facebook timeline Carts that used to be miserable like the church mice (which they spread out in a long text to get you signed up for a free webinar).

Yes, that’s storytelling too.

But not particularly imaginative. 

Because this type of storytelling is now predictable, annoying in the long run and can even provoke rejection – for example, if heavy topics such as depression, suicidal thoughts, or cancer are used too obviously to sell.

Therefore, a first warning: Those who go too flat in business storytelling can be shipwrecked!

However, doing without storytelling is not a solution. Because it works! (If you do it cleverly)

But how do you do it, right? And what happens when we tell stories? 

3 Effects of storytelling – and how it benefits your business

Suddenly everyone is a listening room full of people, you report essential things, give tips and instructions, give numbers, make the urgency of the topic clear – and look into tired eyes. 

But then you start talking about your grandma who once said this one sentence to you …

And that affects: Suddenly the audience looks interested. 

Why? 

I’m not a brain researcher – but I have been told that listening to a story activates many more areas than listening to facts. Senses are activated, feelings are evoked. It’s like the listener is witnessing the situation! 

Also: if a story begins, we want to know how it ends. And that immediately increases attention.

Even if only one concrete example is mentioned and a real person tells it, we pay attention: Because examples are storytelling on a small scale.

Journalists also learn this very quickly during their training: 10,000 traffic fatalities hardly trigger emotions unlike Katharina, 35, who had to die because she couldn’t avoid a ghost driver in time. Her 3-year-old daughter was sitting in the back seat.

That makes us swallow. Sympathize. And it does more to us than any number, no matter how high it could be.

That is why journalists are looking for specific examples – individual fates. And that’s why you should also talk about people if you want to illustrate a topic.

(And here’s a little test: don’t you MUST now know if the little girl survived in the back seat? I bet you want. Because: see above.)

  1. You create closeness – and that promotes sales.

As soon as you start talking about yourself, people listen to you. Especially when you talk about depths, crises and problems.

This affects two types of storytelling in particular:

  • The cause-effect principle:
  •  This is about the vivid explanation of why something is as it is. 
  • I live healthier today, BECAUSE … 
  • I only advise offline, BECAUSE … 
  • I only go hiking barefoot, BECAUSE … 
  • Usually, this “because” has to do with a negative experience. And of course, we have to talk about that if we want to explain why we are doing something. If we do this in a descriptive and exemplary manner, we do 1A storytelling.
  • The hero journey:
  •  The storytelling known from Hollywood is always about
    • a hero
    • a problem
    • overcoming the problem 
    • the change of the hero
    • a message associated with it

Most of the stories (of you, of customers, of friends) can be squeezed into this pattern!

What happens in the other person’s head in both cases: he or she develops empathy. You build a connection. Closeness arises.

And once there is proximity, the decision to buy is easier. Storytelling is, therefore, a great sales vehicle.

Is that manipulation?

Oh well. The Duden defines manipulation as “an impenetrable, skillful procedure that gives someone an advantage, wins something they want”. And then, I found this definition: “Influencing decisions without the decision-maker being aware of it.”

Accordingly, any sale is manipulative. 

But of course, the manipulation can take on different dimensions. For me, it is negative if dramatic stories evoke empathy, if we sympathize infinitely, then buy an incredibly expensive product – such as high-priced coaching – but the closeness builds up abruptly with the purchase of the product. The coaching ends turned out to be access to calls with dozens of other customers.

Then I have only one word for it: fooling around.

2. People remember you better.

Have you ever been to a lecture where you wrote a lot? And did the lecturer tell a little story about himself or another person in the middle of all his facts?

I would bet: two weeks later, you had to look in your notes to recall the information – but you still had the story in your ears.

Our brain sorts stories in a different, more critical drawer than pure facts. We remember them longer because they made more of an impression. We felt something when we heard them. It makes a big difference.

So if you want people to take an essential thing from a lecture, workshop, or seminar, the best thing to do is wrap them up in a story. It doesn’t have to be Hollywood drama – sometimes it is enough to give an example of a real person.

That’s working!

Listeners are also more likely to tell other people about you – because you impressed them more sustainably: “The X, who recently said something similar, take a look at their website!” 

Ten situations where you can use storytelling

  1. On your website 

Your homepage (in detail) and you’re about me page are ideal for storytelling. But be careful: Nobody wants to see too much text! That means that you shouldn’t spread a long story on the homepage. 

However, if you can say “I’ve been in this situation before” or “I’ve overcome a problem that you as a website visitor may know,” tell us about it! 

Warning: Do not tell any stories “because I am supposed to do storytelling”, but focus on the experiences that have something to do with your website visitor. In which he empathizes and with which he can do something.

2. In social media

Platte advertising posts have not worked for a long time. Therefore, you should try to get closer to potential customers as a person. What do you experience, what does it do to you, what insights can you share with others?

And if it’s just anecdotes from your everyday life: stories get to know you better.

For example:

  •  An observation from your everyday life from which you have drawn a conclusion (which has something to do with the life/business of your followers)
  • Something that just happened to you that made you think
  • An encounter with a person that triggers an eye-opening effect from which you have learned something

You mustn’t merely describe an event, but connect a message to it! Then the element “hero has changed” is fulfilled (even if only in tiny details) – and storytelling becomes a story.

3. In blog posts and books 

Have you noticed how many times I’ve given small examples in this blog post? How many times have I described situations to you? That is already storytelling, if only on a small scale. 

We all learn best from examples. That is why American non-fiction books are teeming with descriptions of individual cases.

4. In emails 

Many have come to believe that storytelling should be used in newsletter marketing. This can be seen in countless emails with subject lines such as “I finally did it!” Or “That was the worst birthday of my life”. 

If that piles up, I have to admit that at some point, it gets annoying.

So I advise you about the right balance. I often tell little episodes in the newsletter – but I don’t write every subject line to cry out for storytelling. And I often focus purely on imparting knowledge. In this way, I avoid the appearance of fatigue (“Oh, now there is a storyline byline – and when does something come here that helps me … ???”).

Nevertheless: Please don’t refrain from telling stories in your newsletter from time to time! It is precisely these emails that give me the most feedback.

5. Live in front of the camera.

Do you sometimes make videos for your business? Then get started with a short story next time – immediately! Do without “Welcome …”, “Great, I’m living!” And other fuss. You will quickly have more attention – and more people will hear what you have to say afterward because they have stayed with it longer.

6. Talking to potential customers

 If you want to convince people of yourself or something, examples, and small, “I know that” stories will help immensely.

Sometimes it is enough to tell about another customer who has already achieved what your counterpart wants to achieve. Packed in a little story, it will make a more significant impression than any good argument!

7. On landing pages

I tell you about me on almost every landing page, because people buy from people. So if I advertise a freebie or would like to invite you to an event, I can prove by telling a short story: I am familiar with the topic!

If you too can briefly outline that you have done something that has to do with the topic – then do it!

8. For presentations

PowerPoints are all well and good – but the moment you deviate from them and just tell an anecdote on the side may be the best in the entire presentation. 

For every presentation, think about: What point can I substantiate with an example? What eye-opening effect can I bring my listeners to by telling a story?

That will make a lot more impressive than any string of facts. 

9. During press work

If you’ve looked around this page a little, you’ll see that I preach one thing repeatedly: offer your stories to the press! 

My customers keep seeing that that’s precisely what works – and suddenly journalists report back when you send them stories in their inbox:

  • Chocolate sommelier Stefanie was able to tell on Impulse.de how, as a very young boss, she met the expectation that she should appear “nicer” – and how she overcame this problem
  • Qi-Gong expert Angela reported on woman.at how her mother had helped her out of the mess (a little later she was also allowed to give Qi-Gong tips on the site, which had never met with interest before)
  • Fitness coach Beatrice told in several magazines how she found life through sport after burnout and cancer diagnosis

10. On stage, prominent speakers know exactly: on stage, it is not a question of conveying as many facts as possible, but of sending one or two central thoughts that are remembered.

So I strongly recommend that you approach this central idea with a story! 

If we witness how the speaker concluded, we will still remember it weeks and even months later.

What journalists learn about storytelling – and what you should check out

Have a “hero.”

 Every journalist learns right at the beginning of his training: If you want to describe a problem, find a person to whom it applies. All articles, radio features, and television reports that go beyond news reporting take this rule of thumb to heart.

So if you want to use stories, don’t talk about “many people” having problem XY. It was about how Sabine, 47, was suddenly confronted with this problem, what it did to her – and how she could finally overcome it.

Do you want to tell a story about yourself, not someone else? Great, then you are the hero of your account!

Unfortunately, your topic mainly consists of facts and figures? Then find yourself a sample person who has an impact on these facts and figures – and use it to illustrate why the topic is so important!

Let something happen quickly

Who would watch a film where Tom Hanks flies calmly on an airplane over an island and then arrives at home in a good mood …? 

No, the plane crashes, of course, Hanks lands on a desert island – and suddenly has to fight like Robinson Crusoe for his survival and against going mad. 

Most Hollywood films work according to this principle: Often, something happens within the first five minutes that changes everything – and dominates the remaining 85 minutes. 

So what is the “plane crash” in your story? In your customers’? Every good story, no matter how small, needs a “Suddenly …”.

Again: It doesn’t always have to be the great story of suffering, the tragedy of your life – after all, there are enough small events that involve coping with a problem! If only as a convinced vegetarian you ended up in a small Argentinian town and suddenly had to find out: it was almost impossible to find something to eat that did not focus on a roasted pink piece of meat …

If you describe this vividly and according to the rules of storytelling (a hero is suddenly confronted with a problem and has to find a solution), you are sure to have open ears – without it having Hollywood potential.

By the way, journalists sometimes apply the “let something happen quickly” rule in the first sentence – even before we get to know the hero. Something like this: “It was a rainy Thursday afternoon when the horror came to Niederbüll.”

 The order of the elements mentioned here can, therefore, be changed! The main thing is that they are included in your story at all.

Say what the problem is

Ideally, when you tell a story, you should clearly state what the problem is here. If SUDDENLY something happened, you should take the whole thing to a higher level again, make the meaning clear: 

  • What is at stake here right now? 
  • Why does the problem have to be solved? 
  • What will happen if not …?

So you give your story additional depth. In the journalism school, I learned the following sentence, which describes this aspect of storytelling very well: “Get into the helicopter”.

That means: look at what has happened from above as if from an airplane. What more significant dimension do you see? What are the effects of what happened to the big picture?

 Journalists then often use a sentence like “Sabine Hansen is not an isolated case”. Then numbers usually follow, such as how many others are affected by the problem.

 You don’t have to stick to it blindly – but maybe you find an aspect that is “bigger” than the person and their problem? Then name it.

Describe small details

Good journalism describes vividly – in the right places. Many texts start with scenery in which little things are mentioned in detail. So readers can imagine the situation correctly.

This works especially if you want to make it exciting. If you work towards a SUDDENLY telling a story, you can build tension by describing: Where are we? How is it there? What can you hear, smell, feel?

This will “pull” your listeners into the story; they will be more attentive – because while they are empathizing with the situation, many different areas of their brains are active (unlike if they only had to process facts). 

Have a happy ending – and a message

When we hear about a problem, we want to know how it ends. Our brain is particularly satisfied when it hears a happy ending. Therefore, think of stories that have an outcome. What is still “work in progress” is not suitable for storytelling.

For example, it would be very unsatisfactory if Tom Hanks just lived on his lonely island at the end of the film. 

 A story needs development. And development also means: How did it end? How was the problem solved? What did that do to the hero?

The next time you read a magazine text, just pay attention: Does the author return to the hero and his problem at the end of the text? This is a classic journalistic trick to create a common thread.

Even if other people had their say in the middle part of the text – other people affected, experts, supporting actors: In the end, the journalist usually “closes the bag” and picks up on the scene described in the introduction. A typical exit describes what the hero does today, how the problem related has changed him or her.

Ideally, your story, therefore, has a message and makes it clear to me as a listener: Here, a change has occurred that has something to do with me. 

This also applies if the story did not turn out positive for the hero! He or she will have learned something anyway – and for the listener, that is something like a “happy ending.”

Five mistakes you should avoid when storytelling

  1. Avoid too many details.

Many of my tips tempt you to get lost in details. Describe what it takes. Add something here and there and there, because this and that, and that is somehow important.

In other words: getting into the LANTERN.

That is the death of good stories.

How do you know if your descriptions are still exciting?

By looking into the faces of your listeners (if that’s possible). How attentively do you listen?

The big challenge is just to give details that pull your audience into a situation that creates tension. 

Depending on the situation, you should handle this differently: In a short video in which you describe a short event, a few details are enough. You can take a little more time on stage, especially if the story has a larger dimension.

My tip: tell the story in front of a sample audience – or give your text to a few test readers! Ask them to tell you where to remind yourself to stay tuned honestly.

2. Avoid digressions

In journalistic research, I often wrote half a notebook – and ended up using only about 10 percent of my notes for the text. 

Because a vital journalist rule is: only select the people, events, and descriptions that are relevant to your core topic, your message.

This can go so far that protagonists are accompanied and interviewed and do not even appear in the text afterward because the experiences were not typical of the text’s essence. 

For example, if the topic is “single women are statistically more stressed than women in a relationship, even if it is a bad relationship,” the journalist needs someone who can best illustrate this. If it turns out that the selected protagonist is only semi-stressed, the story no longer works – and the journalist will look for someone else.

What you can learn from it: If you tell a story, concentrate on the CORE. 

If you know which message you want to end with, you should only choose the critical events and developments for this message. 

3. Avoid naming too many people.

Maybe you could tell several stories about the same phenomenon. Journalists do just that in many texts: they have two or three protagonists. However, the following rule applies: Each protagonist should illustrate a different aspect of the topic.

If we stick to the thesis that single mothers are stressed out, a journalist would, for example, choose a woman who lives alone with her child and only copes with everyday life with great effort – and a mother who is in a relationship that is more difficult than it should be everything is significantly less stressed.

Each protagonist stands for something and is carefully selected by journalists. It rarely takes two protagonists who have experienced the same thing!

For your first storytelling steps, I would recommend focusing on one protagonist so as not to confuse your audience or readers.

(Exception: there are a hero and an antagonist. If your hero has an opponent, you must include both in your story – after all, the antagonist embodies the hero’s problem.)

4. Don’t just tell THE ONE story.

Sure, if you bring along a good story that describes great why you are doing what you are doing, you should tell it repeatedly. It doesn’t matter whether you already have customers or are just at the beginning: a good justification story makes a difference.

But please don’t focus ONLY on that!

Because stories are suitable for so much more, you can make decisions understandable, lead listeners to an eye-opening moment, convey knowledge.

For me, storytelling is an addition. I use it here and there.

  • to illustrate a point
  • to work towards a conclusion / a message / a “moral from history.”
  • to create ties (“Yes! I feel the same way!”)
  • to create more interaction (nothing triggers more than small, unadorned stories from my life …) 

Therefore: Whenever you can explain something using an example that follows the sequence hero – problem – solution – change, you do real storytelling!

(With that, I would like to take away the high standards again: It doesn’t always have to be Hollywood material, even small anecdotes can work correctly!)

5. Don’t overdo it

One final request: don’t kill your audience. Because if from now on, you only come around the corner with blood-sweat-tear-stories, then I promise you: It will tire in the long run.

As a customer, I react grumpily when I realize that a person always uses their personal (dramatic) story exactly when it comes to selling. Then I feel manipulated – and I’m gone.

It is like everything in life: A healthy mix is ​​essential. 



Categories: Blogging, Content Marketing, Digital Marketing

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