It’s February. The month of St. Valentine. And in the spirit of love, let’s talk about love - specifically writing stories that your customers will love to read.

Why? Because if you can get readers, you can get followers. And if you can get followers, you can get raving fans. And raving fans are much more likely to do business with you, than those who are indifferent.

Stories release Oxytocin in our brains

In an article in Harvard Business Review, Paul J. Zak, Director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies and a professor of economics, psychology, and management at Claremont Graduate University wrote the following:

“A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work. More recently my lab wondered if we could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis.”

Paul continues to explain that the video storylines evoked feelings of empathy. As a result, when he is coaching business leaders, he advises them to begin every meeting and every presentation with a story.

People do business with people they know, like and trust

Good storytelling induces emotion and as human beings, we want to feel positive emotions. In particular, when we are conducting business, we want to do business with people who we feel good about, who we feel connected to. People do business with people they know, like and trust.

But let’s face it. Business subject matter can be a little dry sometimes.

Turning factual into fascinating

In an effort to be factual, educational and instructional, we often get caught up in jargon that imparts information but does nothing to inspire the reader. The resulting material is more likely to be skimmed over than absorbed, and in the worst case, get tossed aside without a second glance. As a writer, that is one of my biggest nightmares. For my customers, it can cost untold fortunes if their communication efforts cannot win people over and help them turn leads into sales.

Fairy tales provide a model we can emulate

So, what can we do to capture the hearts of our audience? Tell them a story. Let’s use a familiar fairy tale as an example:

Rapunzel has a problem. She’s locked in a high tower and has no easy way to get to terra firma. In the story we learn she is kind, considerate and a prisoner. We begin to build empathy. Who can she turn to? Not the witch who put her there in the first place. What will Rapunzel do?

Then the dashing prince comes along, and it’s love at first sight. He has the perfect solution to her dilemma! He can supply Rapunzel with enough pieces of silk that she can weave a ladder. We cheer.

But before they can put their plan into action, the evil witch disrupts their intentions. (In storytelling terms this might be referred to as the “test”, one of many obstacles that keeps our heroes from a satisfying conclusion. In business communications we use this technique to educate our customers on what could go wrong if they don’t make the right choice.) Of course, we all know that Rapunzel and her prince eventually scale the wall, declare their love, and live happily ever after.

Using the hero’s journey

Storytellers have been using this formula for centuries. As different as each individual story is, when you break them down, they all follow the “hero’s journey”. In a nutshell, creating a central character we can relate to, facing fears and conquering adversity. Yet every story feels fresh and engaging, as if it’s being told for the very first time.

What does this have to do with writing proposals, pitches, blogs and marketing materials? From fairy tales to business-critical documents, the reader is looking for an emotional connection to the material; if their needs aren’t met, they’ll simply stop reading.

If you can weave an interesting tale that shows the problem your customer is facing (no way out of the tower), how the hero can help (who knew that a few scraps of fabric could be built into a ladder?) and offers a heart-warming outcome, the reader won’t quit until they’ve read the happy ending.

Use these building blocks to write in a compelling manner:

  • Give a little recap of how a problem is preventing a person or company from reaching their ultimate goals. (Pain Point)
  • Explain how they cannot find an answer on their own – they need a hero who can show them the way. (Solution or Industry Trend)
  • Demonstrate how you can supply them with the means and the skills to solve the problem. (Value-add Solution)
  • Wrap up the story with quotes from satisfied customers, or even from internal subject matter experts (SMEs) to add another human element. (Social Proof)

Now that you’ve got the basis for a good story, enhance it with language that people are drawn to. It needs to grab their attention and not let go. It needs to speak to them, make them feel something: the emotional connection.

Five tips to write from the heart

  1. Eschew the mundane for the heartfelt. Stir the emotions. Which sentence invokes emotion for you? ‘Many people like to get engaged on Valentine’s Day’ OR ‘An engagement ring says ‘I promise to love you – forever’.’

    It’s likely that the second sentence painted a more engaging picture than the first.
  2. Begin your story in media res. That literally means “in the middle of things” and it’s where we bypass the throw-away opening sentences we so often see and get to the heart of the matter, where the action is.

    Example: ‘Once upon a time, a girl named Rapunzel was locked in a tower, and hoped to be rescued’, versus ‘Rapunzel had a problem. Six storeys up, and not a ladder in sight. What she needed desperately was an escape plan.’
  1. Avoid passive sentences; show action, decisiveness. Example: ‘You might be thinking it’s time to place your order for new widgets – summer is sure to be a busy time in your store. You can fill out your order on-line…’

    All true, but you might get a better response with this: ‘Summer is right around the corner. Are you ready? Our on-line ordering system will ensure you’ve got the inventory you need – delivered on time, anytime.’
  2. Make it a human story; something the reader can relate to.

    Example: ‘Teleservices are helping hospitals connect to expertise over the phone.” True but dry. A more insightful opening might be, “For newborn Piper McAlister, timing is everything…” Read the full example here.
  3. Bits and Pieces - Connect your dry content together with mini-stories.

    For business documents, the information we need to impart is sometimes so deeply technical, that following the heroes’ journey we have outlined here across your entire document is simply not practical – for example, if you are responding to an RFP bid or are submitting a lengthy proposal or quotation, you may be constrained by templates or specific questions you have to answer in order.

    In that case, embed mini case studies or quotes from customers as side-bars in your document. These small stories will “knit” together your content and help keep your reader engaged throughout.

Build a Lasting Connection

Like Rapunzel, your customers want to feel they are in good hands; they need to know that the hero truly understands the situation, that their best interests are looked after, and that they can enjoy a lasting relationship together. You can believe that Rapunzel won’t take a second look at another suitor if the prince fits the bill AND connects with her at an emotional level as well.

After all, it’s what we want in a relationship – why would our business relationships be any different?

Gail Mercer-MacKay is the founder and Chief Digital Storyteller from Mercer-MacKay Digital Storytelling, a marketing agency that helps technology companies get above the noise. You have a story to tell – are you telling it well? Find out more at www.mercermackay.com