Storytelling in Business: the Devil is in the Details

What drives a great story? The devil does, of course.

Having something interesting to say–what novelists would call a good plot–is essential, but a great story hinges on its minutia. Details matter. Generalizations are boring. Unfortunately, minutia can also be as boring as hell. Too much of it, that is. That’s the devilish pitfall in the art of storytelling; figuring out what to put in, and what to leave out. This blog is going to focus on what to put in to write an utterly compelling business story.

Stories, stories everywhere

Business storytelling happens to be the It Girl right now. There are the many TED talks. Dozens upon dozens of Medium articles and blogs to link to. There’s even a Business Storytelling for Dummies, that signals the trend might have reached that dubious pinnacle that Gartner calls the Peak of Inflated Expectations in its famous hype cycle.

Because of this, there are many, many frameworks and guidelines–even academia has jumped into the game–that lay out “rules” on business storytelling. Patriot Software CEO Mike Kappel offers a very solid model in Forbes. We’re going to use that to demonstrate how putting the right–and right number–of details in a business story is critical to that story’s success. But we want to emphasize that this is just one of many such models. Our examples about detail can be used to illuminate other storytelling frameworks as well.

Kappel asserts that there are five aspects to good business storytelling:

  1. Set parameters
  2. Be authentic
  3. Establish a connection with your audience
  4. Be consistent
  5. Focus on outcomes

Let’s tease these out with regard to detail, shall we?

Set parameters

When writing brand stories, Kappel says, you need to establish the parameters. That’s the Who, What, Where, When, and Why of a story. But a big mistake that many marketers make is defining those parameters too generally. The art is to focus on the specifics. Finding the details that will resonate with customers.

Here’s an excellent example from eyewear company Warby Parker on choosing the details that define its brand. Here’s how it tells its story:

Every idea starts with a problem. Ours was simple: glasses are too expensive. We were students when one of us lost his glasses on a backpacking trip. The cost of replacing them was so high that he spent the first semester of grad school without them, squinting and complaining. (We don’t recommend this.) The rest of us had similar experiences, and we were amazed at how hard it was to find a pair of great frames that didn’t leave our wallets bare. Where were the options?

From these details, we get a vivid picture: backpacking and grad school evoke the brand’s distinct identity as a young, hip, and innovative company while establishing the other basic parameters of the story. And it feels relatable, which brings the next essential factor for delving into detail.

Be authentic

Snapchat, Instagram, and Facebook all offer stories now. Marketing strategies are built around appealing to the human experience. But here’s the catch. It has to be authentic. relatable. The “open book” approach of messy fallibility and humble details are the brick and mortar of good storytelling. When we feel like we can identify with someone–especially if we see how they are vulnerable–we instantly connect.

Steve Jobs, Founder of Apple, on getting fired from his own company in 1985:

I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

Jobs developed Pixar and NeXTSTEP operating system. He also fell in love and started a family before returning to Apple in the late 1990s. The details he included about admitting all these things publicly makes him much more authentic than if he’s just tried to keep a stiff upper lip.

Establish a connection with your audience

Connecting with your audience goes hand-in-hand with authenticity. You have to assume a stance that they can identify with. This often means precisely naming a particular problem or challenge that your customers might have, using the right details.

Here is a clear example of how a story connected with its audience to launch a billion-dollar brand:

SPANX founder Sara Blakely was getting ready for a party when she realized she didn’t have the right undergarment to provide a smooth look under white pants. Armed with scissors and sheer genius, she cut the feet off her control top pantyhose, and the SPANX revolution began!

We all can relate to this moment; it puts us literally in Blakely’s shoes.

Be consistent

There are careers built around keeping the details of a brand consistent. You have to do this when telling your stories, too, by providing details that align precisely with your messaging. Be consistent with verbiage, clear about your ethos, and keep your logo, fonts, and all visual elements consistent. And then focus on the details in your language to make sure you provide a similar experience as you tell your stories.

Kickstarter, a for-profit crowdfunding platform, uses very specific and emotive language to describe itself. Notice the choices of details it makes in its mission statement–particular the repetition of variations on the word create.

Our mission is to help bring creative projects to life. We believe that art and creative expression are essential to a healthy and vibrant society, and the space to create it requires protection. We don’t want art world elites and entertainment executives to define our culture; we want creative people—even those who’ve never made anything before—to take the wheel. We help creators connect directly with their communities, putting power where it belongs.

Focus on outcomes

Put simply, the outcome is the moral of a story. Here details matter too. Indeed, Fashion label Everlane’s Radical Transparency campaign is an extreme example of this. It decided to provide all the details to its customers, with the idea that they would add up to a compelling argument to buy from the brand.

We believe our customers have a right to know how much their clothes cost to make.

We reveal the true costs behind all of our products—from materials to labor to transportation—then offer them to you, minus the traditional retail markup.

The question to ask yourself

So there you have it, five pillars of storytelling, as crossed with the need for the right details.

The key takeaway from this blog: always ask yourself, am I revealing enough? Or am I generalizing and summing up too much? Most companies err on the side of not giving sufficient details when trying to tell stories. Many are shy about revealing too much. They fear their competitors will seize advantage, or their customers will think less of them.

That’s simply not true. Providing sufficiently detailed stories will bind your customers’ loyalty to you in many ways that you couldn’t achieve with any other marketing technique. Yes, you can insert too much detail, and weigh down your story. But that’s a topic for another blog.

ABOUT Alice LaPlante

Alice LaPlante was a Stegner Fellow and Jones Lecturer at Stanford University, and taught writing at Stanford for more than 20 years. She is the award-winning New York Times best-selling author of four novels, and wrote The Making of a Story, the best-selling textbook on writing published by W.W. Norton. Alice also is also a sought-after content writer, strategist, and story consultant for leading technology firms.