We humans love a good story. Especially when it’s true.

Ever watch a movie based on a real-life events? Some of my all-time favorites have been inspired by true stories:

The Pursuit of Happyness. Titanic. Unstoppable. Big Miracle.

These were all compelling movies to be sure. (And they’d have been good stories even if they weren’t true.)

But the fact that I knew they were based on actual events had me hooked me right from the opening credits.

Your marketing stories can (and should) engage your prospective clients, too.

But first and foremost, your stories need to stand on their own.

They need to be interesting.

Let’s take a closer look at Big Miracle to see how you get there:

 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? These are stories we want to hear!

2. A setting that engages the senses.

Nearly all of Big Miracle took place in the sub-zero cold of the North Pole. This cold did more than act as a setting. It was a character, too (a villain). 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.[/box]

Question: What senses does your product or service affect? How can you demonstrate the feelings that your customers’ feel as a result of interacting with your handiwork? What do they see? Hear? Taste? Smell? Touch? Use these as descriptors in your sales copy (and when possible, have your clients express these in their testimonials). 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 Big Miracle weren’t fully fleshed out. There wasn’t a lot of time for that. But the main characters did develop 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. And they have lives beyond just the interactions you might have with them as a service provider or vendor.[/box]

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 bore people. And bored people stop listening.

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.[/box]

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 or your client back on track? Share those surprises with us via a blog post, a case study or even a testimonial.

5. A new reality.

(Spoilers ahead.) By the end of the story, the whales are freed from the ice and the characters all learn that collaborating 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.[/box]

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 stories), and it shows other non-customers why they should support you, trust you, and ultimately give you their money.

You may not have a blockbuster budget, but you can still use a variety of low-cost ways to tell your marketing stories.

Start with a good blog post, and when you’re ready, branch out to video or other media. Here’s a great example of how you might do this on a solopreneur’s budget…

Take a look at a Red Cross holiday marketing campaign:

This video works so well because it was shot by the “customers” of Red Cross — not by Red Cross, themselves. And while they did do the editing, 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. (Note: there’s a whole series of them, if you want to watch more.)

Question: Are you getting testimonials from your customers? Could you ask them to record their story for you on video or audio? There are so many tools out there today to make this easy. If you’d like help pulling your testimonials together, I’m beta-testing a new service and would love to talk with you.

If you’d like help figuring out all of these elements, I invite you to join us for the first annual Story Bistro Marketing Mastermind & Storytelling Soiree. You can attend in-person or via simulcast. And I promise you’ll leave with a much better understanding of how to tell more compelling marketing stories.

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.