Once upon a time, in a land far away there lived an energetic and smart young marketer. She dreamt of the day when her wicked director would wake up and realize that the messages they were sharing with the common-folk in the nearby town were stale. Old. Decrepit. Just plain boring. “If only he and his lazy minions understood the power of storytelling,” she’d cry out. “We might actually sell some of the products collecting dust on our shelves.”

Alas, she was stuck. Handcuffed by the same old corporate blather. She yearned to tell a different, more compelling story. One that would motivate people to take action and buy their products. Perhaps one told through the eyes of a delighted customer. Imagine that!

Does this fairy tale sound eerily familiar? Well, we’re here to tell you that you don’t have to be that same damsel in distress. How, you ask? By mastering the art of skillful storytelling.

Chicken or the egg

We recently came across a chicken-or-the-egg scenario online that piqued our interest—and led to us writing about this topic. A writer asked “Do brands create stories? Or do stories create brands?” Our first thought was that these are great questions to consider! Our second thought was that the answer probably depends on where you work or what you represent. And, yes, our third thought was the answer might evolve over time. For the record, we tend to lean toward the notion that stories create brands.

Story of a shoe

Let’s start by looking at an example. Think about Nike. Most of us are familiar with Nike’s story. Okay, maybe not every detail, but most of us know it’s a well-known and respected brand that’s been around a while. In fact, 54 years in January 2018. But did you know the founders, track athlete Phil Knight and his coach Bill Bowerman, started the company selling Japanese-made shoes out of the back of a car. Hard to believe, right? It’s even harder to believe that the company’s first official brand ad in 1977 didn’t showcase a single Nike product. And yet, just three short years later, in 1980, Nike had already nabbed 50 percent of the U.S. athletic shoe market. Wow! Looking at it today, we can’t help but think they were on to something, even way back then.

Now, we don’t know exactly what was shown in that first ad, titled “There is no finish line.” But, based on the closing line and Nike’s track record over the years, we can bet it was all about the grit and determination you need to keep going in sports—and life in general. This mantra was further reflected in Nike’s tagline “Just do it” that debuted in 1988. The list of ads that Nike’s produced over the last half-century is long. And while they all have a slightly different angle or audience, they all have one theme in common: powerful storytelling.

Storytelling at its finest

Nike’s ability to tell stories and draw people in is almost magical. The company and its advertising agencies have mastered the art of telling memorable stories first, and integrating products second. This is an important distinction that very few companies understand, let alone practice. But this is the difference between simply telling the story you want, and telling a story that others want to hear. We’ve all seen the companies that shove their boring, mind-numbing corporate drivel out in mass quantities. Most of which means nothing to folks on the other end.

The magic happens when you engage people’s hearts first, then their minds. It’s about connecting the dots for people, starting with what matters most to them. You first want to strike a chord with them, and then subtly show how your product makes that thing they enjoy most in life even better. More efficient, easier or even extraordinary. The list of benefits goes on and on. You earn bonus points for stories that are powerful enough that people want to share them. This is a particularly hot topic in the digital space right now. That’s because social media engagement scores are often driven by how many people like, share and comment on something.

Before we get into details on how to hone your external storytelling skills, we want to point out that there are other companies that also do it well. If you’re looking for additional inspiration, we encourage you to check out the storytelling used by powerhouse brands such as Disney, P&G, Coca Cola and Subaru. Forbes also published a great piece last year that highlights how storytelling has become a strategic imperative for companies of all sizes. There are some great examples in that article, too.

Tips for skillful external storytelling

If you’ve been following us recently, then you probably saw our recent blogpost on key messaging. Of course, we recommend you start by defining the core messages that will serve as the foundation of your company story. In this section, we’re going to give you some tips on how to take that process a step further. As you develop your key messages, we challenge you to think about and answer the following questions:

Why is that your story?

Coming up with statements or proof points that you craft into key messages is one thing. But really getting to the heart of what drives those messages is another. In other words, think about why those proof points matter—and what impact they have on people. Do they adequately tell the story you think your audiences will care about? Is there more to your back story that you haven’t brought to life? Are there parts of your story that will evoke a deeper, more emotional connection to your brand?

If you’re a fan of CNBC’s The Profit then you may have seen a recent episode that really drives this point home. We’ve already shared the story of a behemoth brand like Nike. This is about a smaller brand trying to make a name for itself, like Nike in 1964. The 2017 episode featured Zoe’s Chocolate Co., a struggling artisan chocolate shop based in Waynesboro, Pennsylvania.

Throughout the episode, Marcus Lemonis encourages the three sibling owners, including namesake Zoe Tsoukatos, to breathe new life into the fledgling company by telling the story of what inspired them to open the business. That inspiration was their father, a master chocolatier who lost his job after more than 30 years. The tight-knit siblings left their careers in Washington, DC, to open Zoe’s and pay homage to their parents. It was a pretty powerful story that was completely hidden from customers. In part, because the siblings feared telling the story would embarrass their father. But it was one that Lemonis thought could serve as a catalyst for growth. Why? Because it helped customers connect emotionally to the brand. Perhaps they could even put themselves in the Tsoukatos’ shoes. Eventually, Lemonis convinced them to share their story and, today, it’s featured prominently on their website.

What’s the best way to tell that story?

After you have a firm understanding of what your story is and why, it’s important to consider how best to tell that story. This is more about logistics than anything else. Think about the words you want to use. And the images that will help bring it to life. Consider the tone that will resonate best with your primary audience. In short: Think about every single detail and nuance. Because how you position your company matters.

In addition, you may want to consider white-boarding the messages and holding brainstorming sessions to poke holes in it. You might want to test it with internal and external audiences to see if what you think works actually does. And don’t be afraid of the feedback, good or constructive. Take all the input and use it to your advantage to develop your very best story.

What’s the story others are telling?

While you’re crafting your story, you should also consider what stories your customers, competitors and challengers are telling about your organization. Are there barriers you need to overcome as you refine your story? Have you identified truths that you want to integrate into your story? Are there opportunities that you should tap into? Our advice: Throw out everything you know to be “true” and be willing to take a long hard look in the mirror. When you strip out all the fluff, you can get down to the bare bones of what makes your brand unique and worth telling.

Role of storytelling inside companies

According to Gallup’s 2017 State of the American Workforce study, seven in 10 employees are not actively engaged at work. 70 percent! Wait, what? As you can imagine, these startling numbers have many companies scrambling to find new ways to engage employees. It should come as no surprise, then, that storytelling is quickly emerging as a powerful communications tool in the employee engagement toolkit. In our opinion, it can’t happen fast enough.

So how can you ensure your employees pay attention? Here are a few tips:

  • Know your audience and custom-tailor the message
  • Listen to your staff’s stories and connect them to those you serve
  • Connect the data dots (no one likes a slide full of stats)
  • Keep your messages short, sweet and on-point
  • Appeal to shared values to evoke the culture you desire
  • Be authentic in your communications
  • Bring your stories to life with real-life examples (people, situations, analogies)
  • Repeat, repeat, repeat

A purpose with a plan

To help you envision how storytelling might work in your organization, we’d like to share two examples from a world we know well, healthcare.

One local health system uses “Connect to Purpose” stories to engage team members. At each town hall meeting, select staff members share their personal stories about why they do what they do. Some saved a life that day. Another brought comfort to a family whose 10-year-old son is battling cancer. A third helped a frightened wife find her husband who was admitted to the ER for a heart attack. These stories help everyone in the room affirm who they are and what they stand for. They help bring meaning to life.

In our opinion, one of the most powerful internal stories was commissioned by the Chief Experience Office at Cleveland Clinic a few years ago. It was a video titled Empathy: The Human Connection to Patient Care, which was first shared with staff during CEO Toby Cosgrove’s 2012 State of the Clinic address. There wasn’t a single word uttered throughout the four-and-a-half-minute video. Instead striking images and on-screen text tell the story. Trust us when we say it’s a video you won’t want to miss. But be sure to have the tissues ready.

Storytelling like this—sharing personal triumphs or defeats—can be a very effective way of commanding someone’s attention. Want to know what makes it even more compelling? Video. Anyone willing to raise their hand and say the Cleveland Clinic video didn’t affect them? We’re betting no.

Storytelling as part of change management

Finally, we’d like to share one last thought related to internal storytelling. We frequently counsel clients on the use of storytelling as part of their internal communications plan, particularly as it relates to change management. Sometimes we call this their “rallying cry.” It’s the story that embodies the “why” behind the reasons for making a change. Why are we changing how we do business? And why does this project matter to our endgame? Why did it result in that outcome? It’s about moving employees from “here” to “there.” And this is often an easier road when you can help them envision a better, brighter, bolder future through storytelling.


In the grand scheme of things, skillful storytelling is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to making the most of your internal and external communications. But the purpose of storytelling is clear: To get people fired up to the point where they feel something. Want to break out of your stale old tower and share a different, more compelling story with your customers and staff? Let us help!