Need client engagement? Use storytelling.

Michelle Hunter by Michelle Hunter

Storytelling is powerful. Leverage it to connect with your clients.

Storytelling builds client engagement.

We are naturally wired for story. Society was built on shared verbal histories which were really just a collection of stories passed down from one generation to the next. 

As children, we learned a bunch of fairy tales and myths from previous generations. Most of those stories were born out of an effort to communicate the equivalent of “street smarts” to young children in a way that would entertain rather than frighten. 

Most of us have warm memories we tell as stories around a campfire or while traveling together with family. Other stories are shared when we get together with friends or attend some kind of reunion or significant event.

Why are stories so powerful? They are sensory, using descriptions of smells, sights, and events to connect us with emotions. We remember how we felt OR we find ourselves falling into our perception of how the people in the story felt at the time. 

Once the connection is made, we… 

  • share the remembered experience. 
  • learn the lesson illustrated.
  • understand the concept revealed.

We enter into the story in a small (or sometimes big) way and we are impacted by it. We laugh at the gaff, empathize with the mistake, cringe from the embarrassment. We connect with the human aspects of the story and we are changed. 

Storytelling is powerful. It creates community and connects us. 

Let’s unpack how to use storytelling to make complex marketing simple and effective for your business. Let’s talk about how to use shared experiences to connect with your potential customers and create client engagement for your brand. 

Identify the emotion you want to engage for your clients. 

Storytelling is a powerful way to connect people around an emotion. To leverage this power, it’s important to clearly identify the emotion you want to engage before thinking about the story itself. 

Let’s circle back to the marketing conversation – the foundation of talking about your work and attracting potential clients and customers to your business. The framework for the conversation is this: 

  • Connect with the pain your potential client feels. 
  • Agree with him/her/them on the problem causing this pain. 
  • Agree with him/her/them on the general solution to this problem. 
  • Present your work as the best version of the solution you’ve agreed upon. 

Use your story to engage emotionally at some point in this framework.

You can use storytelling anywhere inside the marketing conversation, but I find it to be most effective at the beginning. We naturally attend to stories… leaning in with anticipation to hear what happens next.  Use a story early to capture attention and make an initial connection. 

Want to take your storytelling to the next level? Refer back to the same story at the end of the conversation. Tie the benefits of your work to the conclusion of the story. 

Not interested in emotion? Identify the concept you want to illustrate and help your potential client understand. 

Stories don’t just connect around emotion. They also illustrate complicated issues and make them easy for people to understand and accept. Little Red Riding Hood is the perfect story to illustrate the dangers of talking to strangers without frightening a child, for example. You can use stories similarly in your marketing. 

Perhaps your product or service is a bit complex and difficult to understand. Yet, in the marketing conversation framework you need to bring the potential client to a point of agreement about the general solution and also an awareness of your solution as the best. 

Sometimes potential clients need to understand complex solutions. Use storytelling! 

Identify the concept you want to illustrate by reducing your solution to the most simple version possible. Then look for patterns that repeat in life and nature and use them to build client engagement.

For example, an airplane flies. So does a kite. So does a bird. I don’t need to understand how aeronautical engineers create lift. The complex concept of flight mechanics can be illustrated using these examples. 

Select (or create) a simple story and build client engagement. 

Now that you’ve identified the concept or emotion which will be the focus of your story, start brainstorming. You want to find a story (the simpler and easier to tell the better) which conveys the same emotion or concept.

Sometimes a story will come immediately to mind as soon as you identify the emotion or concept. Maybe you want to engage feelings of desperation when in a difficult situation or illustrate how innovation can change the odds and give someone an advantage. In both cases, you can refer to Bruce Willis and the Die Hard movies.

However, there are times when you can’t find a story that makes the right connection. In those moments, building client engagement means you must draw on your own creativity or an experience from your life. 

Once, when I was a young adult, I experienced a moment of disappointment, embarrassment, fear, and panic all at once. When? The night I discovered at 2 am –  after working my shift at an off campus Taco Bell in a sketchy neighborhood – that I had locked myself out of my car. This was before the age of cell phones, and I faced a lonely (and potentially unsafe) walk alone to a pay phone so I could wake up a friend to bring me my spare set of keys.

I was disappointed in myself, embarrassed to make the call, afraid to walk alone, and slightly panicked at the circumstance – all at the same time. 

It was incredibly memorable… and it illustrates how catastrophic failure of a critical system can make a business owner feel:

  • Disappointed in the his/her own leadership or the team, 
  • Embarrassed to share the failure with stakeholders, 
  • Afraid of the ripple of impact cascading through the business, and 
  • Slightly panicked while wondering what will happen next.  

See what I did there? I pulled a story out of my experience. Was the story true? YES. But I could just as easily have made it up and attributed it to someone else or used “this is like…” to introduce it as hypothetical.  It’s a common enough occurrence to be very relatable. 

Modify or edit the story to align with your purpose. 

Let’s go back to the last example I shared… the one about the late night walk to the pay phone. There was more to that story, as I’m sure you’ve guessed. 

I could have included a characterization of my shift that night. I might have told you about the drunken college students who come into Taco Bell after the pubs close. Perhaps included a bit about the weather (it was snowing) or about the amount of gas in my tank and the irony that I’d filled up that evening and yet the car wasn’t available to get me home. 

I could have shared all that stuff, but I didn’t. I stuck to the bits that were most useful to connect with you emotionally. Nothing extra, nothing bloated. 

The story you tell needs to be modified (as in shortened) to fit the context. It needs to be edited a bit to align with your purpose. That’s what makes storytelling effective…and what keeps your potential client engaged. 

You know the person at the party who begins every story with ancient history (such as their childhood) or adds a ton of uninteresting facts about minor and irrelevant points? Don’t be him or her. Keep it short, keep it punchy, and keep it relevant if you want great results. 

Familiar stories are best for client engagement. 

In my humble (and experienced) opinion, the best stories are familiar. They are so well known that you can tell just a snippet and make the connection. Your potential client doesn’t have to think about the story too hard to catch your meaning or respond emotionally. All the examples I used here – even the car keys* – were likely quite familiar to you.  Using a familiar story simplifies the process… so consider it a best practice. 

*Be honest… you’ve locked yourself out of your car or know someone who has. It’s a familiar story. 

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