The Extraordinary Craft of Story Building

This post is part of a creative marketing series sponsored by HP

One of my favorite Mister Rogers quotes goes like this: “It’s hard not to like someone once you know their story.” I love this idea because I think it delivers a powerful business lesson.


Image Salim Virji via Flickr

People connect with stories that move them and most every business can and should tell a story that helps prospects and customers connect at a deeper level. I truly believe the Internet, while making it easy to find information, has left us craving real connections, with real people, and the companies they serve.

Your marketing story should be one of the primary messages communicated in your printed marketing materials and throughout your web presence. I had a plumbing client years ago that printed his marketing story on the back of his invoices because he wanted remind his clients of the role his entire family played in his business.

A carefully crafted marketing story is a tool that can serve any organization trying to break through the clutter and connect with new markets.

However, most of the advice written about the use of a personal marketing story revolves around creating and telling compelling stories and while I ,do believe that the best leaders are great storytellers, I believe the new reality of marketing asks us to become great storybuilders.

The difference may seem subtle, but it embraces that fact that we must involve our customers and influencers in the creation of our business and our story.

  • We must include our vision for the future, but that vision should be a shared vision.
  • We must know everything we can about the goals, hopes and dreams of a very narrowly defined ideal client. (Super big bonus if you’re the client ie: I am a small business owners trying to take my business to the next level, I target small business owners trying to take their business to the next level.)
  • We must frame our story with a message that addresses the desires, challenges and unmet needs of this market.
  • We must involve customers in the finishing of the story by making their real life experiences central to the character development.

If you want to take this next giant step in evolution of your marketing in a way that turns your customers and prospects into collaboration partners and storybuilders sit down with a handful of your ideal customers and ask them the following questions with an eye on developing an extraordinary marketing story.

  • What do you know about where this business is going that no one could know?
  • What is your industry’s greatest flaw?
  • If your business could choose a new identity, what would it be?
  • What is your favorite customer story?
  • What is your secret wish for your business?
  • What is the greatest challenge your business must overcome?
  • What is your greatest fear for your business?
  • What is your greatest achievement/disappointment?
  • What about your childhood shaped you for this moment?
  • What choices have you made that you regret?

It may take some guts to pose questions like this to your best customers, but do it and you’ll be on your way to builder a relationship that can’t be penetrated by a competitors low cost offers.

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  • Bobby Cintolo

    Great recommendations. These suggestions can help marketers and sales reps push the envelope with their client relationships.

    • ducttape

      I really like the idea of sales reps charging ahead with these question – talk about a great way to build or at least establish trust.

  • Justin Popovic

    Story building is a great term. Your advice here is powerful because it forces us as business owners to think more about our customer and the role they play in our overall vision. Most business owners are in business to solve a particular problem and fill a need so how can this be done in the absence of a customer who fits that bill?

    If our stories include that customer as a main character, the connection made can be extremely powerful and this can be the difference between landing a new client and having a great prospect walk away and never come back.

    Thanks for the insight.

    • ducttape

      I think it just reflects the new world of collaboration that even our customers have come to expect.

    • Nick Carter

      Making the customer the character is an interesting twist. As I was reading this article, I was recalling how many times a week I recount the story of how our company got started. But then reading your comment, I feel challenged to perhaps reconsider the tale a bit and put the customer at the center, not me.

      • ducttape

        Hey Nick – why and how a company got started can be the foundation for many a great story so don’t drop that idea if it engages, just think about the role the customer, maybe your first customer, played in the start.

  • Pcolpitts

    Thanks for your perspective John. I completely agree with the role of storytelling in successful marketing, having been fortunate enough on several occasions in my career to learn from masters. Sadly, like the dying arts of reading and writing, storytelling seems to be at risk as well, if the decibel level of one-directional marketing (particularly B2B) is any indication. If marketing is indeed at an inflection point as you suggest, finally ready to embrace the role of the customer in corporate success, perhaps storytelling will again claim its rightful place. I don’t believe this is truly a ‘new reality’ but rather a renaissance. The best marketers have always known this.

    Pat Colpitts,

    Director, Corporate and Marketing Communications
    Hoover’s Inc.

    Note: The views expressed in this posting are my own; they do not necessarily represent the positions, strategies, or opinions of Hoover’s.

  • JohnMcNally

    Good insights John. The most important person in any story is always ME, so it’s a great idea to incorporate the customer’s desires and needs into the business description. The customer now has an interest in the success of the enterprise. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. 8)


  • MediaMentions

    You know it’s really cool how small businesses are continually receiving more and more emphasis and recognition while the former giants seem to be slowly eroding in their grips of commercial power. I find this to be a definite “light,” if you will, for economic growth and stability, and incidentally, a post I came across today seems to confirm the observation. Anyway, if you’re interested, it’s somewhere hereabouts ( Of course, difficulties for small businesses are a bit of an inevitability, but overall, I believe it’s a brighter picture.

  • Joel Granoff

    Excellent points for all marketers.

    Asking questions is the trait of a good listener. Good listeners make the best salesmen. When marketers become story tellers, our marketing will sell better.

    One of the best, in my opinion is Bill Gates. I’ve always admired him for an innate ability to weave vision into remarks; he does so while paving the way to set up and close the sale. This is truly “thought leadership marketing” and he does it today with the Gates Foundation in his quest to enroll business leaders the world over to help solve the biggest challenges facing humanity.

    Read a Bill Gates speech, like this one from 1999 to see his story telling abilities


    Then read his commencement address to Harvard graduates in 2009 @

    I think you’ll agree, Bill Gates embodies the essence of story building.

    Who are some of your favorite story tellers?

  • Cindy Jones

    Every great company has a story. People connect with people not corporations.
    When you think of the following successful Corporations you think of their founders and you feel like you “know” them:

    Apple – Steve Jobs
    Microsoft – Bill Gates
    Wendy’s – Dave
    Motel 6 – Tom Bodett
    Dell – Michael Dell
    Google – Larry Page and that other guy
    Ford – Henry Ford
    Samuel Adams – Jim Koch
    Nike – Phil Knight

    Even though I don’t know Bill Gates, Henry Ford, or Phil Knight I feel like I have a connection with them because I know that they started out as average guys with a vision. I know their story so I feel as though I know them. This relationship makes me more likely to do business with them than XYZ Corp.

    • ducttape

      Love that list – I just wrote an expanded post for AMEX OPENForum on this story building theme where I included this idea of Leader as Storyteller – I think it’s the master leadership skill.

  • Sue Melone

    John,I love the action-forward “story builder” concept. There is certainly value in telling stories that share ideas, vision, examples of success, etc. to engage others. Beyond that, engaging team members and customers in building a story that defines success next is, in my view, the path to breaking records and achieving the “impossible”. Thank you for the brilliant, succinct call to action.

    • ducttape

      Thanks Sue – I think collaboration with customers and communities is the watch tactic for the future

  • Laura

    Great article. As a small business owner (and I mean small– it’s all me), I am often asked about how I got started. I see people get excited when I tell them. There have been times too when I knew someone didn’t have much money but we had developed a rapport because of my story and they bought something anyway because “I just have to!”. Those moments mean a lot to me as a business owner and an artist. It’s a pretty powerful thing.

    • ducttape

      It’s funny but sometimes as busy owners we want to gloss the story up and make sound more important when it’s the unfinished wood they want to admire!

  • Tim Rueb

    Thanks for the great podcast the other day with the authors of “Content Rules”. It inspired my post “You 2.0 – The Storymaker”. I wish I would have seen this post before putting mine out there, I would have referenced some of it as well. Thanks for all you do.