Cut the Clutter from Your Customer Stories


Cut the Clutter

UPDATE:  View Rob Biesenbach’s slides on Unleashing the Power of Storytelling: Build Trust, Win Hearts, Change Minds from the recent FWD:B2B Conference. Rob shares his expertise on what goes into a good story and how you find, shape and tell powerful stories to better represent your brand in the marketplace.

There are few marketing tools as powerful as a customer success story. A well-crafted story resonates with your customers, brings their challenges to life, and points the way to solutions that your company is uniquely positioned to provide.

But as these stories make their way through the corporate approval process, they get dissected, diluted and drained of their humanity. The result is a dry, lifeless case study that buries the essential story elements in a mound of irrelevant detail.

Here’s how to keep your customer stories focused on what really matters.

The Critical Story Elements

There are countless ways to structure a story, but all great stories contain certain fundamental, universal elements:

  • Character. At the literal and figurative heart of every story is a character that people can relate to. For your audience, this could be a fellow customer, or perhaps an employee who goes above and beyond the call to please them.
  • Conflict. Without conflict, there is no drama. The primary source of conflict in the best stories is when the main character’s needs and desires are thwarted. So there must be a strong goal (“quality control,” for instance) and equally strong obstacles (such as outdated technology) in the way of that goal.
  • Resolution. Finally, the story must resolve in some way. The obstacle must be addressed and overcome. Now some stories don’t offer a resolution — think of an independent film, where the central character never quite manages to change either himself or his world. That’s not the kind of story you want to tell in business. Your audience will want a satisfactory ending to your story.

Put these elements together and you’ll have no problem finding great stories to tell. What are your customers’ goals and what stands in the way of them achieving those goals? Can you find a relatable character who has overcome that challenge?

That’s your story.

How to Focus Your Story

Of course, just as important as what goes into your story is what you leave out. Because a perfectly good story can be ruined by a bunch of needless clutter.

Here are issues to watch out for:

  • Extraneous Facts. It’s been said that facts are the enemy of a good story. That doesn’t mean a story is a lie, of course. It just means that not all facts are created equal. Only include those facts that support the point of your story. If your story is about customer service, an anecdote about quality control, while interesting, may be off-topic.
  • Small Details. Precise numbers, exact dates, proper names like job titles, departments and programs — these just create clutter. You can round off numbers (“one out of three” beats “34.2%”) and generalize dates (“the early 90s” works better than “October 21, 1992”). And when it comes to proper names, it’s much better to say “a senior sales rep” than “Executive Vice President of Sales for the Northeast Region.”
  • Clear Turning Points. Life isn’t a Hollywood movie. People and events tend to move and change gradually, in fits and starts. Think of a stock market trend line — the overall direction may be up, but there are lots of peaks and dips on the way. Your story doesn’t need to document every single twist and turn. Pick one, and make that your focus.

Protect the Integrity of Your Story

As your story makes its way through the “approval by committee” process, your job is to preserve the integrity of the story so it still resonates with your audience and achieves your goal. Accuracy is important, of course, and claims need to be qualified, but the basic narrative needs to stay intact.

It doesn’t have to be an adversarial process. Accept the input that makes sense, but push back on those things that interfere with the narrative. Come at it from a perspective of “what CAN we say” versus “what CAN’T we say.”

Keep your eye on the goal: creating a compelling story that showcases your company’s value in a way that compels your customers to act.

About the Author

Rob Biesenbach
Communications Consultant, Actor, Author
Rob Biesenbach

Rob is a corporate communications professional, a Second City-trained actor, a professional public speaker and the author of two books: Act Like You Mean Business and 11 Deadly Presentation Sins.


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