Brand Storytelling: Turning Your House Into A Home

What makes your brand special?

If you answered by talking about your brand’s unique advantages and consumer benefits, you own a house, not a home.

Don’t feel lonely.  There are plenty of companies doing the same thing.  And they all have lessons to share.

Take Xerox for instance. At one time, having a  Xerox machine in the office had become a necessity.  Instead of asking, “Can I get a copy of that?” it was commonplace for people to ask, “Can you make me a Xerox?” Having achieved a great deal of success, the company decided to cultivate other ambitions. For one, Xerox wanted to get into computer technology and data processing. They spent many years and millions of dollars before finally throwing in the towel. Why? Because they couldn’t get buyers to believe that a copy machine company could make a good computer. In effect, Xerox found out that it was a house, not a home.

Chiquita is another example. Chiquita had to admit defeat after trying to convince us that they make a good frozen juice bar.  Country Time Lemonade was forced to stop trying to sell Country Time Apple Cider. Ponds barely got out of the starting gates with Ponds toothpaste before it quit. And Smith and Wesson (yes, the maker of guns) tried to sell a bicycle of all things. Thousands of stories like these exist.

But then many brands tell a different story. Apple has gone from selling computers to phones, to tablets to who knows what’s next. Nike started out selling waffle-soled running shoes but is now the leading brand of athletic equipment, gadgets, and apparel.  Perhaps a more extreme example is Virgin with its long list of unrelated products and services: phones, records, airplanes, casinos, satellites.  In case you’re sick and in jail, Virgin even provides a prison health service.  Add Harley Davidson, Disney, Starbucks, and anything that Oprah labels to the list.  See any similarities?  These are brands that grew by creating homes, not houses.

When we think of these brands, we don’t just think of a single products or service.   We think of the ideas, values and beliefs their names represent. To their buyers, they offer something more important than functional benefits.  They provide a sense of belonging.  In fact, their buyers aren’t really buyers. They are more like members of the same household who share similar beliefs. Virgin could sell mud flaps if it wanted to.  No doubt, they’d become the best selling mud flaps available. ( Hey Branson, you heard it here first!).

How do you build your brand story? Learn here! 

How To Turn Your House Into A Home

If you’re interested in turning your house into a home, here are 5 simple brand storytelling rules to follow:

  1. Check out your brand’s foundation.  Does it provide a solid base that will support any additions, or is will it only hold up your house as is?
  2. Improve its curb appeal.  When people see it from the outside, will they think ” Looks nice”  or will they think “This could become a good representation of me and what I stand for?”
  3. Get rid of the clutter.   Throw out everything that distracts away from the one simple but important truth that your home represents.
  4. Hire the right agent.  Anyone can help you find renters or even buyers.   Hire someone who can tell your story in a way that will attract followers.
  5. Conduct a permanent Open House.  Stay real, authentic and open to transparency.

Making a distinction between a house and a home has many advantages. Just remember, a house functions as a place to shelter you from the elements, provide you with ample closet space and a place to park your automotive status symbol.  Homes serve a very different purpose.  They provide belonging, and support for values you can identify with.

The extent to which your brand can offer customers a home instead of a house will determine the size of your family.

oral business storytelling

5 Tools For Oral Business Storytelling

Oral stories told in a business context, make up a unique category within the whole storytelling genre. They fall somewhere between the extremes of your basic TV news story and stories delivered by performance artists. Stories told in business settings are necessarily short, conversational, and only work if they make a relevant point.

Nevertheless, business stories do have one thing in common with all other types of oral stories. If appropriately told, they emotionally engage audiences and have a very good chance of being remembered. Think about it. What’s easier to recall from an oral presentation? 3 bullet points or a story about 3 pain points similar to yours? It is for this reason that oral business storytelling can do the heavy lifting when you need people to engage with what your information.

If you’re wanting to learn the basics of business storytelling, there are plenty of resources available to you, including companies like Anecdote that specialize in business storytelling training (full disclosure/shameless plug: I am an Anecdote Storytelling trainer). But, whether you are a trained business storyteller or not, here are some tools and resources that will further your abilities.

1. The Metaphor

I’ve lumped similes and analogies into this category. Each has its own structure, but these three forms of speech have the same purpose. They all provide new information within a known frame of reference. As such, they create mental pictures that foster more involvement than plain descriptions.

“The boardroom turned out to be a heavy artillery of egos” paints a more interesting picture than “the members of the board all had strong egos.”

“His desk was as big as a tennis court,” may be an exaggeration, but it will say something more than “He had a big desk.”

If you’re challenged with coming up with metaphors, there’s plenty of help available. For starters, I recommend two books:

Metaphors Dictionary by Dorris Weiss and Elyse Sommers. It contains 6500 comparative phrases, and a complete bibliography of sources.

The other is The Tall Lady and the Iceberg: The Power of Metaphor to Sell, Persuade & Explain Anything to Anyone. In addition to containing a number of great metaphors that can be used for business storytelling, the author provides a number of techniques that will help you come up with your own unique metaphorical phrases.

2. The “Then, Now and How” Formula.

The “Then, Now and How” formula is something I learned while working with the highly acclaimed speaking coach, Craig Valentine. He writes more about this formula and other storytelling techniques in his bestselling book, World Class Speaking, co-authored by Mitch Meyerson. Here’s the gist of how to apply this formula:

First, talk about the way things used to be. Then, talk about what has changed. Finally, explain how the change came about. Here’s an example:

Then: “We used to have a problem with employee turnover (really embellish the problem by talking about the setbacks and the frustrations this caused).

Now: ” Today, however, we have substantially reduced turnover to _____.”(fill in the blank and embellish).

How: “The reason for this change is all due to the system I want to talk to you about today. ”

This formula has many applications for selling or presenting case histories.

Click here to learn all there is to know about telling your brand’s story.

3. Humorous Dialogue

Too often, speakers try to get audiences to laugh by telling jokes or delivering overly rehearsed one-liners. And they fail. This is because audiences get turned off by speakers who try too hard to make them laugh.

Witness Senator Rubio’s first debate when, during his introductory remarks, he held up a bottle of water while saying that he’s made sure to bring water this time. This was a call-back to the time when a dry-mouthed Rubio embarrassed himself by reaching off camera for water during a nationally televised rebuttal to the State of the Union speech. I’m not sure what was harder to watch, the reach for water or the joke that didn’t get a laugh.

If you’re looking for humor, find it instead within the stories you tell. More specifically, find it within dialogue used to tell a story. Consider this example for instance:

“I started out working for a pretty tough boss. He watched over everything I did and was quick to criticize. One day, he told me that he’d love to stop correcting me. “You have my full permission,” I said.

This may not generate a guffaw, but it’s easier to deliver and will be appreciated more than a canned joke or witticism.

4. Your Story Journal

A relevant business story isn’t something that most of us can come up with spontaneously. For that reason, it’s important to keep a journal of some sort that will trigger stories most appropriate for any given situation. You needn’t write out the whole story. A headline and a one or two-line gist will suffice.

Two sources can help you with this. The first is Evernote. Create a category called “My Stories’ in Evernote and tag each story you add to it with words that help you find them, as needed. You might have a story about a challenge about a weird problem you once encountered, for instance. Simply write a couple sentences that will help jog your memory. Tag them with words that will help you call them up when they are needed – tags like, #weird problem, #unusual challenges, or #creative solutions.

Another source is Day One. Day One is a daily journaling program that also allows you to categorize and tag stories of the days they occur. However, Day One will send you timed notifications with questions like, “What are the best, worse memories from your childhood?” I use this by providing short, taggable answers similar to the way I use Evernote. Additionally, Day One provides a way to diary events, emails, photos or anything else that you’d like to keep track of.

5. The 2+2 Formula.

This is a formula I learned from a Ted talk, entitled, The Clues To A Great Story, given by Pixar’s Andrew Stanton, the creator of Finding Nemo and Wall-E. During this talk, Stanton explains that audiences don’t like to be told that 2+2 equals 4. “We like to figure things out for ourselves,” he goes on to say.

The 2+2 Formula really underscores one of the fundamental reasons we are drawn to stories. It’s why comedians don’t explain the punch lines to their jokes.

Practice using these 5 tools and you’ll add to your ability to capitalize on the power of story as a business tool. For more information, on storytelling training for business, go to

business storytelling tip burn the first reel

Business Storytelling Tip: “Burn The First Reel”

In the 30’s and 40’s, Frank Capra was one of this country’s most famous screenwriter/directors. In his memoir, The Name Above The Title, he recounts how he saved his award-winning movie, Lost Horizons, from dying a premature death.

“I ran up to the cutting rooms, took those blasted first two reels in my hot little hands, ran to the ever-burning big black incinerator—and threw them into the fire.”

This is how the expression “burn the first reel” originated.  Translated, it means, cut out the fat from the beginning of your story.

“Burn the first reel,” is an important axiom when it comes to business storytelling.

When telling any kind of a story to friends, you will have a lot of freedom to add color through what you might think are interesting details.  But the people sitting around a conference room table are far less accepting and far more impatient than they might be if you were telling the same story over a beer.

Some may disagree, but I believe that that business storytelling is the most challenging form of narrative.  Because in addition addition to requiring good storytelling skils, it requires one to know how to strike the balance between too much and too little exposition.

Here are some suggestions for how to burn the first reel:

One of the biggest mistakes business storytellers make occurs when they open with an origin story or  a story that describes how their business began.  Too often the storyteller will get carried away by going into harrowing detail.  Certainly, most audiences will be interested in learning how a company’s struggles were overcome to achieve success. However, they don’t want to struggle themselves to get there.

One way to avoid doing this is to use the “Now, Then, How” formula:

Instead of providing a long chronology of events that occured over time, the “Now, Then, How” formula can get to the heart of your story very quickly.  Additionally, throughout the telling of this story you will hold your audience’s attention because their curiosity will be piqued.

Here’s an example of how to use it?

Now:   “This is a headline that appeared in Accounting News last week.  (Headline reads:  “Dokes Accounting ranks highest in customer satisfaction”).

Then: “Twenty-five years ago, Mr. Dokes would have had a hardtime imagining this could be possible.  You see, we’ve  hadto learn a great deal through trial and error to get to wherewe are today. ”

How: One of those things we’ve learned is what I’d like to talk to you about today.

In just a few sentences you will have created a curious readiness for your audience to hear how and why Dokes does what it does.

This is not to suggest that adding a few flourishes to an origin story should be avoided at all cost.  But if you’re going to go that route, it’s important that you keep detail down to a minimum.   This is often a judgement call, but when in doubt, cut it out.

If you’re up for it, let me show you via this torturous example of an origin story along with some likely audience reactions.  While reading this, you may think this is donen to exaggerate the point.  But it is very similar in structure to an origin story  I once heard given by a salesperson.

“I’d like to tell you the story about the idea that inspired Joe Kayser, to start the company I work for.

[AUDIENCE REACTION:  A story?  Why doesn’t he just get to the point? ].

Prior to 1989, Mr. Kayser had worked in quality control for a major widget manufacture.  Every day he would stand over an assembly line looking for faulty widgets in order to make certain that anything that was out of spec was sent back to be re-processed.  It was hard work, especially given the fact that so much of what was coming at him was faulty.  He tells us that he often felt like the famous I Love Lucy scene where she’s put in charge of dipping chocolates  – you know, the one where she can’t keep up and ends up eating the chocolates that she can’t dip (he models the scene as he talks about it). Ha Ha.

[AUDIENCE REACTION:  This guy is trying too hard]

It got so bad that 30% of what Mr. Kayser was looking at had to be sent back or completely thrown out.  This obviously cost the company he was working for a great deal of time and money.  It didn’t take him  too long to realize that most of the mistakes would start to occur after lunch and grow in numbers when shifts ended.  So he went to his boss and said, “Bob (that was his boss’s name)

“Why don’t we give line workers 15 minute breaks every hour instead of at the regular two hour interval?”

Of course, Bob had to take Joe’s request up the line to his bosses, bossess, boss AND get it agreed to by the union. Ha Ha.

[AUDIENCE REACTION:  How long is this story going to take?]

But months later, his suggestion was finally implemented. He was very excited to see his idea come to life.  There was only one problem.   His idea only reduced mistakes by a mere 2%. This became quite embarrassing for Joe.  And now, going back to the old system of 15- minute breaks every 2 hours, the company had to keep the new 45 minutes on/15 minutes off procedure.  Not giving up, Joe experimented with a number of alternatives until he came up with a process.  For instance,

[AUDIENCE REACTION:  “For Instance??”  This guy is killing me!]

he tried …….. and FINALLY, he found a process that reduced mistakes down to 3% from 30%.   And today, I’m going to show you how ……

[AUDIENCE REACTION:  Wonder how I can get out of this meeting politely]

Let’s burn the first reel with this alternative to the same opening

In 1989 Joe Kayser made a discovery that became the inspiration behind what our company is today.  As a quality control manager for a larger manufacturer of widgets,  he experimented with a number of ways to reduce assembly line rejections until finally he discovered a way to reduce mistakes from 30% to 3%.

[AUDIENCE REACTION:  That’s impressive. How? ]

The mistake he discovered may surprise you.  It often does because it is so hidden.

[AUDIENCE REACTION: What’s the mistake?]

In addition to discovering this mistake, Mr. Kayser developed a process for correcting the problem.  It’s a process that is now being used by the following companies and with these results

[AUDIENCE REACTION:  I’m all ears]

Certainly an origin story can make for an engaging introduction to your presentation.  However, unless you can use it to quickly get to the point, it could have an opposite effect on your audience.

Keep in mind that THE most important point of any presentation is “what’s in it for them.” There’s nothing wrong, and everything right about using a story to help you set up that point.  But if you make your audience wait too long to get there,  it’s likely that the only point you’ll reach is one with the one with no return.

Learn more about telling your Brand Story here!

Using Metaphors To Tell Brand Stories

I recently heard Ellen Degeneress describe people who talk too much.

“Being with people like this,” she said, “is like being on a highway without exit signs when you have to pee.”

Back in the day, when I used to wear ties to work, a colleague once asked me, “Why do all of yours look like Walt Disney sneezed on your shirt?”

I have a friend who is a whiz at Trival Pursuit and describes herself as “the Imelda Marcos of facts nobody cares about.”

Metaphors, analogies and similes (herein they will all be lumped together as metaphors for the sake of simplicity), are very powerful tools for turning an ordinary expression into something extraordinary.  Like stories, they can simplfy the complex, wrap a fact in something that generates an emotional reaction and help us visualize abstractions.  Above all, they plant concepts firmly into our brain and help us remember things we might otherwise forget.

For these reasons, metaphors can be very powerful tools for leaders, sales people and marketers. Here are just some quick examples of how you can use metaphors to tell brand stories:

The Elevator Speech:

Instead of telling someone you’re in quality control, you might be like the guy who looks for the penny in the pile of dimes.  If you’re in R&D, you might be the company’s taste tester.  If you’re in sales, you might think of your job as the GPS that helps companies finds a better route.

For Framing Product Benefits:

Instead of talking about time-savings, you might say that your product allows a company to run longer distances without getting winded. If you’re selling improved ROI potential, it might be that your product finds profits hiding behind big rocks.  Perhaps your product controls spending. But what if you said it was like using LoJack to find lost savings?

For Technical Explanations:

You might define RAM as the number of a computer’s brain cells.  Using your data base  could be compared to a well-trained scent hound that sniffs out potential buyers. I once heard content marketing described as gifts that keeps on giving.

Whether or not these are the right metaphors to use for the specific purposes I’ve identified,  it should be clear that metaphors have unlimited potential expressing ideas simply, memorably and in wasy that engage audiences.

Coming up with metaphors

Metaphors fall into two piles. First, there are the “ stand by’s, sometimes called cliches. These are metaphors that have lost meaning from overuse,   i.e. “His head was spinning when I gave him the bad news,’ “they shot down my proposal,”  they “lit up like a Christmas tree when she talked about the bonus program.”  These may help you to clarify what you are talking about, but they hardly do much to engage listeners or wake them up to new, more identifiable perspectives.

The opposite of the stand-by metaphor is one that stands out.  If you were to think of information in terms of waves coming at you, the highest, most forceful waves are the one’s that stand out metaphors create.  You know you’ve heard one when a wave hits you with a perfect and original connection to something else with which you are familiar.

Coming up with stand out metaphors can be challenging. However, there are any number of techniques you can employ that are not within the scope of this article. For more information you can turn to Mind Tools, or you can Google metaphor lists for inspiration.  One of the simplest techniques that I have found useful is to write down on the left side of a  sheet of paper all the things you or your product does. Then on the other side write down people, places or things that do something similar. Don’t edit anything. Just free associate as many comparative actions as you can with specific actions that you or your product performs.  Sooner or later you are bound to find a stand out metaphor that is original and one you believe fits.   Once you’ve found one that you think works, test it out on different people to gauge reactions.  If you see eyebrows go up and/or a smiles coming across faces, you’ll know you have a winner.

However you arrive at them, stand-out metaphors are well worth the effort that goes into creating them.

brand's story

The Real Hero Of Your Brand Story Is Not Your Customer

I would never even think of telling someone they have an ugly baby. Moreover, I’m not the guy who will admit that you really do look fat in those jeans if asked. However, if you believe that you should cast your customers as the hero of your brand’s story, my conscience obliges me to risk a possible insult. At the very least, I urge you to reconsider.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that all customers are important. Customers who aren’t, are like 39th birthdays. They only come around once. However, to regard them as important is one thing. To dress them up in the clothes of a hero is quite another.

Consider first what the word “hero” implies. Heroes are people who solve the big problem or resolve the burdening tension that few others can. They are the dragon slayers, the courageous visionaries, the people who take huge risks to accomplish unimaginable feats. As such, they become objects of admiration and emulation. Okay, you nor I might be able to do what Michael Jordan did on the courts, what Chesley Sullenberger did on the Hudson River or what a first responder does while putting life on the line for victims of some tragedy. However, these and others we designate as heroes become symbols of principles, ideals and causes we revere and choose to support.

So, if you still think your customers are heroes, perhaps you should stop trying to sell them and hire them instead.

Learn The Important Differences Between Storytelling And Storybranding

The countervailing point of view is that brands, not customers, should play the role of hero in the brand story. Taking into consideration the requirements of heroism, this too may be an overreach. However, it is possible for brands to become hero-like. Because like heroes, brands have the potential to symbolize ideals or causes people belong to and support.  People don’t wear Harley Davidson tattoo’s, become walking ads for North Face or decal their car bumpers with the name of a favorite political candidate because they are paid to do so.

 In fact, providing customers with ideals worth rooting for is one of the most important functions a brand can perform. For this reason, and in addition to becoming known for a unique functional benefit, an equal or even greater effort should be put against associating a brand with ideals it stands for.  As a matter of fact, functional benefits are eventually copied or they go the way of the typewriter, the Walkman or Windows v 1.0. However, ideals like perfection, persistence, independence, responsiveness, just to name a few–these do not have expiration dates.

It should also be said that becoming associated with an ideal does not come about through lip service.  It requires an unabiding commitment by management.  This explains how Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, Howard Shultz and others turned their brands into best-selling stories. It’s also worth noting that in each of these cases, they committed to something greater than making money.  Certainly their fortunes didn’t come about by ignoring the importance of profitability.  But through ups and downs, their efforts to stand up, stand firm and stand for something meaningful remained steadfast.

Something too should be said about the need for authenticity once a brand sets out to become associated with some ideal. David Ogilvy once admonished, “Your customer is not stupid. She’s your wife.” Today’s consumer (and a certain wife I know) are not easily fooled. Authenticity demands an honest and passionate conviction.  Otherwise,  you’ll be found out.  For this reason, it’s important to let the voice that is saying “THIS is what I believe in” be the voice that leads your quest.  In case you are having difficulty hearing that voice, it could be because it’s being drowned out by the voice of that customer you refer to as “hero.” Asking your customers what you should stand for is like asking your children how to be a good parent.

Learn more about telling your Brand Story here!