Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen

Building a StoryBrand: Clarify Your Message So Customers Will Listen

by Donald Miller

Building a StoryBrand is a business guide to clarifying your brand’s message. A story is a sense-making mechanism, and this book gives you the formula to improve your marketing and communication. Your story is not about you, it’s about your customer. Focus on their journey to show them how you help them survive, so they listen to you, and do it in a simple way so they can understand it quickly.

Summary Notes

Clarify your brand's message

“The human brain, no matter what region of the world it comes from, is drawn toward clarity and away from confusion”

You need clarity on your brand’s message. Human brains care about their own story, not yours. So, make your message about something that helps them survive, and make it simple and clear to understand. The enemy of business is noise.

A story is a sense-making device. It can hold the attention of a human being for hours by filtering the noise and distilling random events into the essence that matters. With a story, in a few minutes we should know what it is that the hero wants, what is opposing him, and what his life will look like if he gets what he wants. It is normally structured like this:

  • A CHARACTER wants something
  • He encounters a PROBLEM
  • A GUIDE steps into their lives
  • Gives them a PLAN
  • And CALLS THEM TO ACTION
  • That helps them avoid FAILURE
  • And ends in SUCCESS

With your business, you should identify what your customer wants, define their challenges, and offer a tool to overcome those challenges and get what they want. Within five seconds of looking at your website, the customer should know the answer to three things:

  • What you offer
  • How it will make their life better
  • What they need to do to buy it

Actions to take

Make your customer the hero of their story

“A story starts with a hero that wants something. And then the question becomes: Will the hero get what she wants?”

As soon as you define something your customer wants, you pose a question in their mind: “Can this brand really help me get what I want?”

You open a story gap that demands resolution. Focus on one simple and relevant desire to avoid cluttering the story. Become known for delivering on that promise, as everything else is a subplot.

Connect that desire with the customer’s desire for thriving and survival, like saving money, saving time, finding community, gaining status, accumulating resources, helping others or serving a greater cause.

Actions to take

Find your customer’s problem

“Companies tend to sell solutions to external problems, but people buy solutions to internal problems.”

Start talking about the problems your customers face. When you identify their problems, they recognize you as a brand that understands them. The more you talk about the problems they experience, the more interest they have in your brand.

Every story needs a villain, to give conflict a clear point of focus. The stronger the villain, the more sympathy for the hero. This translates into audience engagement. Position your products as weapons they can use to defeat a villain. The more you talk about the villain, the more people will want a tool to help defeat him. 

There are three levels of problems your customers face:

  • External: A physical, tangible problem they have to overcome. This is not the main reason people look for your services. External problems always manifest an internal problem.
  • Internal: The external problem causes frustration - which is the internal problem. If you can identify this frustration, put it into words, and offer to resolve it along with the original external problem, you increase the perceived value of your products. 
  • Philosophical: Something larger than the story itself. When you give your customers a voice in a larger narrative, you add value by giving them a deeper sense of meaning.

Let’s look at a couple of examples from successful organizations:

  • Tesla:
    • External problem: I need a car
    • Internal problem: I want to be an early adopter of new tech
    • Philosophical: My choice helps save the environment
  • Nespresso coffee machine
    • External: I want great tasting coffee at home
    • Internal: I want to feel sophisticated
    • Philosophical: I shouldn’t be a professional to make gourmet coffee at home

A villain initiates an external problem that causes the character to experience an internal frustration that is philosophically wrong. As all of these are interrelated. When you dig deeper into the problems your customers face, you can offer much more than products. You can offer to resolve an external, internal and philosophical problem whenever your customer engages your business.

Actions to take

Become your customer’s guide

“Customers aren’t looking for another hero, they are looking for a guide”

Every human being is on a transformational journey. They wake up every morning self-identifying as a hero, troubled by problems they know they can’t solve on their own. A brand that positions itself as the hero is a competitor, and may eventually end up as a villain. Always position the customer as the hero and your brand as the guide.

The hero in a story is not the strongest character. They are flawed and filled with self-doubt. The guide, however, has already conquered the challenge in his own backstory. He is the one with the most authority. But the story is not about the guide, it must always be focused on the hero. Turn your focus to the customer and offer him a heroic role in a meaningful story.

There are two things your brand must communicate to position itself as the guide. The first is empathy - every human being wants most to be seen, heard, and understood. When we empathize with their inner problem, we create a bond of trust. Customers look for brands they have something in common with, then they fill unknown nuances with trust.

The second is authority. You need to demonstrate competence, so customers are confident that you can deliver. But do not brag or preach, or you risk turning them off. There are four mechanisms to build the right amount of authority:

  1. Testimonials: Let others do the talking for you. Potential customers will know others have worked with you and attained success.
  2. Statistics: Numbers build trust in what you can do, and also speak directly to the left-brain part of the customer that loves numbers and facts.
  3. Awards: They go a long way in earning your customer’s trust, even if they have never heard of the award.
  4. Logos: If you provide a business-to-business product or service, it helps to show your customers that you have helped others. If they recognize any of them, it also provides social proof.

Actions to take

Give your customer a plan

“The plan is the bridge the hero must cross in order to arrive at the climactic scene.”

Commitments are risky for a customer. They ask themselves: “What if it doesn’t work?”, “What if I’m a fool for buying it?”. A plan does one of two things: it clarifies how to do business with us, or it removes the sense of risk somebody might have.

There are two plans you can use

  • A process plan: describes the steps a customer needs to take to buy your product, or to use your product after they have bought it, or a mix of both. It takes the confusion out of the customer’s journey. There should be at least three steps, and no more than six, so you don’t overwhelm the customer.
  • An agreement plan: a list of agreements you make with the customers to help them overcome their fear of doing business with you. You can make promises that will also help clarify shared values between you and your customers. It works in the background and does not have to be featured on the homepage. 

There are three types of process plans. Let’s take a look at an example that illustrates each type:

  1. Process plan which describes how a customer can buy your product - for example, for an expensive service:
    • Schedule an appointment
    • Allow us to create a customized plan
    • Execute the plan together
  2. Post-process plan which explains what customers do after - for example, for a software company
    • Download the software
    • Integrate your database into our system
    • Revolutionize your customer interaction
  3. Mix of process and post-process plan - for example, to sell a car 
    • Test-drive a car
    • Purchase the car
    • Enjoy free maintenance for life

Now, let’s look at an example of an agreement plan.

  • CarMax solves the problem of not wanting to deal with a used-car salesman, and of being stuck with a bad car. They communicate it with an agreement plan that includes the promise that customers won’t have to haggle, and that they refuse to sell you a car that doesn’t meet their standards.

Actions to take

Call them to action

“Customers do not take action unless they are challenged to take action”

Heroes need to be challenged by outside forces. If your calls to action are soft, they will not be noticed. The fastest way to grow your company is to make the call to actions clear, and repeat them over and over. You have to clearly invite customers to take a journey with you, or they won’t. 

When you try to sell passively, you communicate a lack of belief in your product. Be bold about inviting them to do business with you. It’s your job to pursue your customer. You want to know them and for them to know you, but you are the one who needs to take the initiative.

Two kinds of calls to action:

  • Direct: it leads to a sale. It makes it very clear what we’d like to do. It’s like asking “Will you marry me?”. Examples:
    • Order now
    • Call today
    • Schedule an appointment
  • Transitional: offers something for free, with the idea of eventually getting to a sale. It positions you as the expert and potential guide. It’s like asking “Can I take you on a date?”. Examples:
    • Free information
    • Free samples of your product
    • Free trial period

Actions to take

Help Them Avoid Failure

“Every human being is trying to avoid a tragic ending”

Throughout a story, storytellers foreshadow a potential successful ending, and a potential tragic ending. The only motivations a hero has are to escape something bad or experience something good.

Each scene in a movie must answer the question: What’s at stake for the hero? Every scene must move the character closer to, or further from, that tragic result. In your messages, you have to include elements of potential failure to give your customers a sense of urgency. Most brands don’t bring up the negative stakes enough, so the story they are telling falls flat. If there are no stakes, there is no story.

People hate losing something more than they like winning something. They are more motivated by loss aversion than by potential gains. 

Actions to take

Help Them Succeed

“Never assume people understand how your brand can change their lives. Tell them”

Where is your brand taking people? Foreshadow a potential successful ending to their story, make it clear what life will look like if they engage with your product. This is what your customers want most: a happy ending to their story.

Being specific matters. Nobody gets excited about a muddled vision. Stories aren’t vague, they are about specific things happening to specific people.

You have to talk about the end vision we have for their lives everywhere in your marketing (keynotes, emails, websites, etc). Images are also important, so show them how others happily engage with your product.

The three ways storytellers end a story are:

  1. The hero wins power or position
  2. The hero is unified with somebody or something that makes them whole
  3. The hero experiences a self-realization that makes them whole

These are related to the three dominant psychological desires shared by human beings:

  1. Power and position, or the need for status: This is part of our natural survival instinct. You can offer status by:
    • Offering access: such as a membership card that gives points
    • Creating scarcity: offer a limited number of a specific product
    • Offering a premium: for example, a title such as “Diamond Member”
    • Offering identity association: for example, a Rolex sells status as well as luxury
  2. Union, or the need for completeness: You can offer this by:
    • Reduced anxiety: For example, cleaning products create satisfaction for a job well done. They also provide a feeling of closure about a clean house
    • Reduced workload: Offer people the tools they need to simplify their work processes.
    • More time: For example, a house cleaning service can free up time for your customers to work on other things or to spend with their families.
  3. Self-realization, or the need to unlock potential: This brings about inner peace and acceptance. You can offer it by:
    • Inspiration: many brands associate themselves with athletic and intellectual accomplishment
    • Acceptance: help them accept themselves as they are
    • Transcendence: invite customers to participate in a larger movement.

Actions to take

Participate in Their Transformation

“Your brand is helping people become better versions of themselves”

The greatest single motivation your customer has is transformation. At the beginning of a story, the hero is usually flawed and filled with doubt. The guide aids them in their journey. The conflict changes the character, who is forced into action. The hero summons the courage to engage and defeats the villain, proving they have changed.

Once you know who your customer wants to be, you will have the appropriate language to use in all your marketing messages.

Actions to take

Building a Better Website

“The customer simply needs to know that you have something they want and that you can be trusted to deliver whatever that is.”

Today, your website is likely the first impression a potential customer will receive about your company. Keep it simple, a website full of noise can kill potential sales. There are five things that it needs to include:

  1. An offer above the fold: That’s the part of the screen people see and read before they start scrolling down. 
  2. Obvious calls to action: The whole point of your website is to put a direct call to action button in an enticing place, so people can buy from you. The main places to put it are in the top right corner, and in the center of the screen (above the fold).
  3. Images of success: Don’t put pictures of your office building, images should show happy customers who have had a pleasurable experience by engaging with your brand.
  4. A bite-sized breakdown of your revenue streams: If you have many products, you have to first find an “umbrella” theme to unite them all. The key is clarity.
  5. Very few words: People don’t read websites, they scan them. As customers scroll down it’s okay to use more words, but not too many. If you need more text to explain something, place a “read more” link.

Actions to take

Transform a Large Organization

“Customers aren’t the only ones who get confused when the message is unclear. Employees get confused too”

The Narrative Void is a vacant space that occurs inside the organization when there’s no story to keep everyone aligned. The different divisions across the organization exist in microcosms that can only be understood by the people who live in them. Where there’s no plot there’s no productivity.

Mission statements are not enough. Complacency begins to set in. Companies grow in so many directions that they lose their plot. It’s like when a movie becomes a success and they turn in a sequel. Often, the story feels forced.

A mission is a story you reinforce through every department strategy, every operational detail, and every customer experience. It has the potential to turn entire teams into a sales force: When team members understand the story of the organization and can explain it in short bites that have been reinforced through various modes of communication, they give words to customers that those same customers can use to spread the word.

To achieve this, you must develop a mission and brand that understands the story of their team members. Leverage your branding framework internally can transform the value your employees bring. Think of it like this - the team is the hero and the company leadership is the guide.

With an inspired narrative, ordinary jobs become extraordinary adventures. Not just anyone gets selected for this expedition. Across the organization, people are fully present not just physically, but mentally. Productivity is high and efficiency is a matter of pride. These people are here to serve a customer they love.

Leaders desire to be seen as heroes. However, everything they want comes by playing the guide. Guides are respected, loved, listened to, understood, and followed loyally.

Actions to take

Create Your Marketing Roadmap

“The more you execute, the clearer your message will become and the more your company will grow”

There are five things you need to grow your business:

  1. A One-liner: a single statement that helps people realize why they need your products. Like a movie’s one-sentence description. It will intrigue qualified buyers and invite them to do business with you. 
  2. A Lead Generator to capture email addresses: an email account is one of the most personal things people possess. Email is the most valuable and effective way to spread the word about your business. You need to offer them something valuable to join your email list.
  3. An Automated Email Drip Campaign: A prewritten sequence of email messages that trigger once a person is added to your list (also called “auto responder” or “funnel”). A nurturing campaign is a simple, regular email that offers your subscribers valuable information as it relates to your products.
  4. Stories of Transformation: When you tell stories about how you’ve helped others transform, potential customers understand what you can offer. The right kind of testimonial showcases:
    • Your value
    • The results you get for customers
    • The experience people had working for you
  5. A System That Generates Referrals: Invite customers to become evangelists for your brand, by creating a system that incentivizes them to spread the word.

Actions to take

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