Donald Miller – How the Power of Story Can Grow Your Business

“Storytelling and story are the buzzwords right now in business and I think that’s a dangerous thing,” Donald Miller, the CEO of StoryBrand, began his keynote presentation. Throughout his career, Miller has helped more than 3,000 business leaders clarify their brand message since, without outside help, chances are their marketing message is weak.

Many companies are currently wasting the majority of their marketing dollars on a “bunch of words” with which people are not able to connect. The average consumer simply does not have the capacity to decipher complex advertising pitches because they encounter 3,000 commercial messages a day. Unless a company is able to communicate its message in under eight seconds, it is not going to make money.

Words are everything

Essentially, customers want to buy products after seeing, reading, or hearing words that make them want to engage with a brand’s products. According to Miller, the human brain is hard-wired to do two things:

1. Survive and Thrive: We are “constantly scanning for information” that will help us meet our needs to “survive and thrive.” When we have food and shelter, our needs become more complex but are equally important. Company branding needs to tell the consumer they need you to survive.

2. Conserve Calories: The average person burns between 600 and 800 calories a day just by processing information. This activity is exhausting for the brain, and it will try to compensate in order to save these calories for other primal survival needs. If the marketing language is too complex, the brain may stop paying attention to conserve calories.

“If You Confuse, You Lose!”

That is the mantra Miller repeats in his office. A good marketing message is one that “nobody has to burn calories to understand.”

To illustrate the point, Miller recounted the story of a political candidate who approached him late during the last U.S. presidential election. The candidate campaigned against Donald Trump, and was losing ground. Miller quickly identified the
problem. Although the candidate was extremely qualified and well-informed about political topics, after public events he had no single digestible sound bite to help people understand his political positions.

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s campaign was an exercise in memorization. The slogan “make America great again” became a digestible, universal, and easily recognizable idea.

“Here’s my point,” Miller argued. “People do not buy the best products and services. They buy the products and services that they can understand the fastest. They follow the leaders who invite them into a story, even if the story is fiction. A clear story will win every time.”

To convey a good clear marketing message, it is important to understand that a “story is a sense-making device,” meaning that stories help us make sense of the world. The formulas of narrative structure that make up a good story can help empower business leaders to create meaningful marketing.

Understanding Story Structure

The storytelling framework guides the audience through a simple journey: A character with a problem meets a guide who gives them a plan that calls them to action and results in success or failure. Miller then breaks down each aspect of this concept.

A character… Storytellers and business leaders make similar mistakes: either they are too vague when defining what the character (or customer) wants or they overcomplicate what the character wants. A good story needs to be about one distinct need or one solvable problem.

… with a problem The character, the hero, needs to have a problem. In business, it is vital to never stop talking about the customer’s problems. People store information based on what can solve their problems. If a business does not clearly define what problems it can solve, it cannot expect customers to engage with the brand. There are three levels of problems the story needs to address: external problems, internal problems, and philosophical problems. Corporations exist to solve external problems, but buyers make purchases to solve internal problems and to feel better about their problems.

… meets a guide Once a problem is established, the hero needs a guide (the business) to help them solve his or her problems. The guide is the character who helps the hero win. This character is a capable, competent problem solver.

… who gives them a plan The guide is responsible for giving the hero a plan. Customers want to move toward clarity, so telling them how a business will help them solve their problem inspires them to reach their goal. In business messaging, this should be a series of steps illustrating how the target customer ought to engage with your brand.

… and calls them to action A call-to-action (CTA) engages the hero to solve the problem. In business terms, a CTA is a direct way to inform your customers to engage with your brand and solve their problems.

… that results in success or failure. Finally, something must be won or lost if your customer doesn’t buy the product. In a movie, you need stakes to create pressure and suspense. Businesses need the same thing. Something must be won or lost if a customer does not buy the product.

Make your messaging sing

Noise and music are different but can be difficult to distinguish. Noise is sound waves traveling through the air, rattling your inner eardrum. Music is noise with a story, it registers in the brain differently from noise. Storytelling is like musical chords—they are the rules to turn marketing noise into music. When you finesse your communication through storytelling, you are able to make your marketing sing in a memorable tune.

This article is a summary of Miller’s speech at Nordic Business Forum Helsinki in 2019. If you want to read what the other speakers said at the event, download the executive summary for free.


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