Humans. We all love a good story. Especially if they’re true.

Ever watched a movie based on a true story? This weekend, I found myself engrossed in “Big Miracle.” It’s based on the true story of the international effort to rescue a family of grey whales in 1988 off the coast of Alaska. If the story hadn’t been true, it would’ve been just another movie. But — for me — the fact that it was based on something that actually happened made it must more compelling.

Here are a few of the elements that kept me engaged:

1. Conflict (or characters at odds with each other). You had a mix of news reporters, government, big and small businesses, native populations and a nonprofit (Greenpeace). Most of these characters would normally be opposed to working with the others. But in this case, they eventually saw how their involvement would be a win-win.

Question: Who are the characters in your brand’s story? You, your customers, your vendors and your community are just a few. You may not be hostile to each other, but you still have your own goals and priorities. How are you working together to make things happen? What issues have you overcome to create group success?

2. A setting that engages the senses. Nearly all of the story took place in the sub-zero cold of the North Pole. This cold did more than act as a setting. It acted as the enemy. It was the #1 reason the whales were trapped. But the story didn’t just tell us it was crazy cold. It showed us this problem by using scenes that demonstrated that fact. Eyelids frozen together. Feet gone numb. A pen stuck to a lip after just a few seconds. These vignettes gave us real examples of what it felt like to be there.

Question: What senses does your product or service affect? How can you demonstrate the feeling that occurs in your customers’ bodies as a result of interacting with your handiwork? What do they see? Hear? Taste? Smell? Touch? When you trigger a sense in someone, you bring them into the story with you. And when they enter the story, they’re much more likely to respond emotionally to the outcome.

3. Three-dimensional characters. Most of the characters in this movie weren’t fully fleshed out. There wasn’t a lot of time for that. But the main characters developed enough over the course of the movie to make the narrative interesting. The ambitious reporter who has a soft heart for the local teenage boy. The overzealous activist who makes a sort of peace with big oil. It’s important to remember that real people are flawed and full of contradictions.

Question: What’s your back story? How did you get to where you are today? What flaws do you struggle with? If your business story only includes stereotypes and generalizations, and doesn’t reveal something personal and unknown about you, your customers or the brand, it’s going to be boring.

4. The element of surprise. Much of what keeps us on the edge of our seat isn’t about the ending — will the whales be freed? Of course they will. But that’s not really the point of the story — it’s just the vehicle for the rest of it. There are LOTS of stories out there where we already know the ending. What makes them worth reading/watching are the surprise twists and turns. In then end, this story leads to more than just freedom for whales. And it’s how we get there that makes it engaging.

Question: What twists and turns have you and your customers encountered on the road to success? As business owners, we don’t always enjoy surprises, but they do happen. Was it the economy? A competitor? A family illness or maybe even a random act of kindness that helped get you back on track?

5. A new reality. By the end of the story, the whales are freed (spoiler) and the characters have all learned that working together helps everyone achieve their goals. If the whales had been freed, but the characters went back to their antagonistic ways, the story wouldn’t have been as powerful. A story is great when it shows positive growth or change in its characters beyond simply reaching a goal.

Question: How are your customers changed by working with you? What new realities are you helping them achieve? Ideally, you should be gathering testimonials shortly after a project concludes or a customer buys your product. Letting them tell the story in their own words, does two things: it helps you learn why your thing is important to them (so you can use that language in new marketing), and it shows other non-customers why they should support you, trust you, and ultimately give you their money.

Usually, nonprofits have an easier time with storytelling. Their missions are to help create positive change — and it’s easy for us to see that connection.

Take a look at the new Red Cross marketing campaign that started over the holidays and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s just one of the stories from that series:

These stories work so well because the videos were shot by the “customers” of Red Cross — not by Red Cross. And yes, Red Cross did do the editing. But hearing and seeing the stories directly from those that have been helped is what makes them so powerful. They feel all the more authentic without the Hollywood production.

Question: Are you getting testimonials in audio or video format from your customers? There are so many tools out there today to make this easy.

How about storytelling if you’re a for-profit enterprise? Well, there are plenty of those, too.

One of the most popular TV ads was this one by Volkswagen:

Without a single spoken word (and in just over a minute) you have a fun vignette that weaves together all the great storytelling elements: conflict, emotions/senses, surprise and change.

Then, Volkswagen made a sequel to that ad with this one:

Two great stories that not only promote the product, but position it as something that’s powerful AND fun. (Disclosure: I drive a Volkswagen, so I totally buy into the whole “Fahrvergnügen” thing — you should see me take those circular on-ramps to the freeway…but I digress.)

Question: What feeling or emotion do you want your customers to associate with your product, service and brand? What symbols, metaphors and existing stories could you use to illustrate that emotion and help them make that connection in their mind?

Now it’s your turn: What great examples of storytelling have you noticed out there in the world lately? Share one with us and tell us which element(s) you think they’ve used to their advantage.

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