Start With Who and Why To Tell Your Business Story

Internal Content Marketing: How to Use Content to Build Employee Engagement
April 22, 2015

Start With Who and Why To Tell Your Business Story

I’ve been working on web copy this week for two different clients, and have been reminded of two things:

  1. It’s sooo much easier to write web copy when you’ve got a specific person (or persona) in mind. I think of this person as the Ideal Client.
  2. Your web copy can tell a really great story–in the chunks (specific pages and/or paragraphs), and more importantly in the overall narrative you create throughout the site.

The two points are closely related.

THE ‘WHO’: IDENTIFY YOUR IDEAL CLIENT (OR READER) 

There’s an art and a science to identifying an ideal client — and it can take time.

The best way I’ve found to begin is looking at your current client roster. Sometimes, if you’re damned lucky, your ideal client is right in front of you: it’s that person or company that you’d like to do a lot more business with, or that represents the kind of business you want more of.

 

More often, it’s your favourite client–with just a few amendments. So start there: make a list of all the things you love about that favourite client, then add to that list all of the things you wish they had. 

And all of your clients are so far from ideal that this exercise is fruitless, start the other way around: look at your least favourite client, and itemize why. What are the qualities about that client that are preventing you from growing your business? Do they represent an industry or sector that is already too well served? What does their precise opposite look like? Are you getting any closer? 

I’ll be writing more about developing personas this month, so stay tuned for more details on how to create ’em.

Once you know who you’re writing for, you can really start to get in that person’s head to understand what their needs and pain points are. You have a sense of what they’re looking for, and how they might look for it. Once you’ve got this, you’re suddenly able to see what kind of content will start to answer the specific questions they have.

And that’s the magic moment, when you can transition from writing boring, jargon-filled copy about what you think you offer your nameless audience to sharing ideas and stories you know this person wants, and hopefully needs, to know about.

I think of it as the difference between standing up in front of an auditorium to give a speech on a vague topic, and sitting down with a friend who’s asked me to help them out with a particular problem that I have the answer to.

In the former scenario, I’d be nervous, vague, and probably overly polite–and wind up not saying anything at all. In the latter, I’d be confident, speak specifically to the person and problem at hand, and probably have a great conversation.

In which situation do you think your story would come across as more genuine, and compelling?

The stories you tell with your web copy should start to answer the questions, and respond to the problems, that you know your Ideal Client has. More than this, though, with web copy your small stories should add up to an overarching narrative that gets to the heart of what you want to convey about your brand.

This is your business story.

THE ‘WHY’: HOW TO UNCOVER YOUR BUSINESS STORY

You can uncover your business story in a lot of different ways. I usually start by going to the source: the business owner. To this person, I ask the very simple (and revealing) question: why did you start this particular business?

I ask a version of this question each time I teach a class for aspiring entrepreneurs. For them, the question is: why do you want to start this particular business? They don’t always know the answer yet. And there are a few students whose answer is some version of: “I want to be my own boss.” Or “I got laid off and don’t want to work for anyone any more.” Or “I figure this is a good way to make money.”

These are all valid enough reasons for wanting to go into business for oneself, but those answers don’t at all reflect why they’re choosing the business they choose.

Interestingly, it’s sometimes not that different for experienced business owners. When I ask the question, some laugh, and really have to make an effort to remember. Others explain that it made the most business sense.

The business owners I love are the ones that lean forward and tell me a story. They tell me about their dreams as a kid, they tell me about a devastating layoff, they tell me about how they summoned up all their courage and their savings to take the leap to go into business. They tell me about why they did it. Not just to make a living. But to solve a problem. To help someone. To make a difference.

These are the elements of a business story. Your values. Your humanness. Who you’re helping, and why.

As the wise Simon Sinek has said, just ‘start with why’.  I almost always do. When you ask these simple questions — why did you start your particular business, perhaps combined with why are you still passionate about your particular business — you discover not only a business’ core purpose, but the very human motivations behind it. That for me is always where the story is. And that’s also where you get into the kinds of problems the business solves for its customers, who the customers are.

BUT WHY, MAMA? (A SIDE STORY WITH A POINT ABOUT STORYTELLING)

My three-year-old is a master of ‘why’.

Yesterday, we found a dead bird in our yard, and I asked my son not to touch it while I found some gardening gloves and a shovel.

Thankfully, he listened. (Or did he?) When I returned, he was staring at the bird.

And then the whys began.

Why was I getting gardening gloves and a shovel?

I answered.

Why not touch the bird?

Good question, I thought. I answered, slightly uncertain.

But mama, why might the bird have a disease?

Oh Christ. I simplified.

But why do birds have different germs than people?

I caved. I don’t know. They’re a different species, I answered.

Why are there different species?

I suggested we start digging.

Why we dig a hole?

I answered.

Why we bury the bird?

I answered.

Why the bird died?

I guessed at the immediate cause, leaving aside the larger philosophical question for another day.

Why did Trevor (the cat next door) kill the bird?

I explained that there were predators and there were prey. Just like there were superheros and villains.

He nodded.

Excusing my mostly inane and simplistic answers, what we came up with after this series of whys was a pretty big story about predators, prey, life and death, and the nature of the world. In telling this story, I’m also revealing a little about my ignorance when it comes to avian disease, but also perhaps my understanding of what will eventually satisfy a 3-year-old’s curiousity.

HOW THE ‘ENDLESS WHY’ CAN APPLY TO YOUR BUSINESS

If you’re in business, chances are that you have at least one story that is compelling to your target audience. When you start to get at the reasons you launched your business, the reasons that you’re doing what you do now, the reasons that you care about your customers, the reasons you’re good at what you do — then your story gets more compelling.

And when you get even more human than that–when you start to talk to your customers like you would to a friend over coffee or a drink–the stories get more engaging.

And you can apply all of your stories in so many ways, that go well beyond writing web copy.  

Absolutely, update your About Us page to include photos and personal details. Create a manifesto. Include your beliefs and values in your marketing materials. Find ways to share what you’re passionate about in contexts that are normally stuffy and dull (think Powerpoints). Find someone to interview you, and capture that spark you get in your eyes and voice, on audio or video. Write a blog post where you share your stories about your kids.

After all, you’re probably already telling your stories in one way or another. You’ll know it when you find yourself departing from your elevator pitch to really talk about what drives you.

You’ll know it when your eyes light up–and when you see it in your listener’s eyes too.

Shannon Emmerson
Shannon Emmerson
With 20+ years experience in creating and publishing digital content for a range of organizations, Shannon knows it’s all about stories. Inspired by: small acts of courage.