reading a story to a baby
PHOTO: Picsea

One of my favorite books from childhood was "My Side of the Mountain." It’s a powerful tale by Jean Craighead George about a young boy named Sam who gets fed up with his over-crowded life in NYC with eight siblings and runs away to live on his own in the wilds of the Appalachian Mountains after only reading a library book about survival skills. I read it when I was 9 years old and had just moved to the redwoods of northern California with my family. I spent hours in the dense forest around our home, imagining my survival depended on my ability to forage for food and find shelter. One day I stumbled upon the burnt trunk of a massive Sequoia, hollowed out long ago by fire. This became my “home” — it was just like Sam’s. I stored shiny rocks, long multi-colored feathers, and my other most precious treasures in its nooks and crannies. More often than not when my mom couldn’t find me, I’d be curled up inside, suffused with the absolute belief that I was Sam. I didn’t just read that story. I lived it.

In the marketing world, storytelling is just as powerful — and is also one of the strongest tools for developing lasting relationships with your customers. But not every story hits the mark. I think we’ve all experienced a moment of disappointment when we gave up and closed the browser … or put the book down. It’s a letdown because, as humans, we fundamentally want to connect with a bigger narrative.

As a marketer, there are three things you can do to ensure you make that connection.

Mirror Your Audience

Stories have an impact when we see who we are — or who we want to be — reflected in them. The power of storytelling in marketing comes from knowing your customers so deeply you’re able to create stories they see themselves in. My 9-year-old self didn’t care that Sam was a boy from the 1950s actually living by himself in the wilds of the Catskills while I was a girl running around in the trees just around my house. I saw myself reflected in Sam’s fierce determination to be independent and in his unfailing sense of adventure.

When you write stories to connect with your customers, make sure you center your customer, not you. Not your brand. Your product is the forest, there to meet your customers’ needs — shelter for survival or just a fun Saturday afternoon — not to be the hero. When you’re writing a case study, focus on how the customer solved their own problem and that you were there to help. When you’re writing helpful educational content, focus on the problem your ideal customer has and how to solve it using your product, not on all of the features and benefits your solution offers.

At Moz, one of our most powerful storytelling platforms is MozCon, our annual educational event where members of our community get on stage and help educate others by sharing incredible stories of their successes (and sometimes failures) and what they learned along the way. You won’t find Moz on stage talking about Moz. The stories our community present resonate because the speakers are people who struggle with the same problems as our customers, telling their own stories to our customers. Passing down their wisdom.

Related Article: Narrative Is (Customer) Experience

Describe the Pain

One of the most powerful ways to connect with your audience is by making it clear you understand their pain. This is not a surface-level, generic, “you need to grow your business” type of messaging here. This is getting down to the specific, nitty-gritty details of what keeps them up at night. Remember, I was a little girl in my backyard. Sam was a wild boy in the forest. It wasn’t the surface details that made that story resonate.

I’ve reviewed many case studies over the years that sound more like testimonials than stories because the authors are so anxious to be the hero of the story that they gloss over the problem and spend the entire rest of the narrative talking about the solution. Remember, a powerful story — no matter how brief — has a beginning, a middle and an end. Use the narrative structure to reel your audience in during that beginning in which you describe the problem with such specificity that it 1) rings very true and 2) resonates with others who have had the same or similar problems. Your customers will identify with the story you tell because they will see themselves reflected in the way you describe the pain.

Related Article: What Goes Into a Successful Case Study?

Show, Don’t Tell

For any aspiring writers out there, you’ve heard this one before, right? Stories are the most powerful when we see them come to life in our own minds. This means the more specific you are — the more details you supply — the more the story will start resonating in your audience's gut. If I were to simply say that Sam was a boy who lived in the woods, it’s hard to see the story. By describing how Sam feels and how his environment looks, you begin to see the story in your own mind’s eye.

When we’re telling stories to connect with our customers, that level of specificity is even more important. The specificity builds the story on a strong, credible foundation. Your audience is much more likely to identify with the problem — and your solution — if they are not unconsciously (or worse — consciously) questioning the veracity of the story itself.

Specificity comes in many forms. When a customer is involved (as with a case study), include as much detail as the customer is willing to share — company name, industry, contact name, title, the problem they were having and for how long, and solutions previously tried that didn’t work. When you’re writing a piece of educational content, think about it in the same way but with an invisible customer. What type of customer has this problem? What do they typically try that doesn’t work? What are the clearly defined steps they can take to solve the problem (with your solutions)? Even when you’re writing promotional content, get specific! Stay away from generic language that could refer to any solution and think about what specifically differentiates your solution. Details matter.

Related Article: How to Create Content With Purpose

And They Lived Happily Ever After …

In the end, what matters most is that every story you tell is written from the heart with a desire to connect with your audience. When stories resonate, you create connections and change lives. And you build lasting customer relationships.