Stories build commitment. They allow us to go on journeys in search of our best self. They entertain, simplify, and inspire. They are easy to share. Great leaders are often great storytellers.

Sugar Pond via Flickr

The power of story as a business building and marketing tool is undeniable. A simple story can draw upon our emotional desires in ways that reams and reams of logical data never will.

While an uplifting story or even a tragic story can capture the listener’s interest, the real power of storytelling in business is that it permits a business to illustrate values and beliefs in action.

It’s one thing to say we’re trustworthy and quite another to share a story about the day your employees went without a paycheck because they so believed in what you were building and trusted you would make things right when you recovered from this unforeseen challenge.

I believe that every business must find and tell their core stories over and over again and then they must invite their employees, customers and networks to help build these stories into journeys worth taking over and over again.

Below are four core stories that must live in every business

The Passion Story

The is often the owner’s story, a tale of why they started the business, how the business serves their own personal mission or purpose in life. Why they get up and go to work, why they love what they do or what happened in life that set them on their current path.

The interior of the Grand Jury hearing room was anything but grand. It consisted of a handful of plastic chairs arranged in a way that made the jurists feel more like an audience than a court appointed arm of the United States Justice Department. Although I distinctly remember the lights, maybe it was me, but they seemed awfully bright.

What could I possibly have to offer as a witness in a hearing determined to bring federal charges upon one of my clients? As it turned out I was very boring witness with nothing to offer the case, but it was a turning point in my business and perhaps my life.

In the effort to build my business I had taken on a client that I knew was doing things I couldn’t support, that were counter to my own values, and I knew also in that moment that I would never again do business with a customer I didn’t respect.
And that’s part of my passion story. (To get the rest you need to buy the tell all book. Well, not really.)

The Purpose Story

This is mostly the story about why you do what you do in business and not at all about what you do. For many people this can be a story about mission or higher calling, but it can also be about who you serve and why.

When I was just starting to dream up the concept of Duct Tape Marketing I was operating my business as a traditional local marketing agency and doing work for organizations large and small – although I had already determined that I loved working with small business owners the most.

I had completed a very small amount of work for a very large organization and sent them in invoice for $1,525.00. When they paid the invoice, 90 days later, I opened the envelope and found a check for $152,500.00.

While there was a moment of temptation, I knew I had to return the check. I called and was directed to the five forms I needed to complete in order to return the check if I was to have any hope of getting my original bill paid.

That was the day I determined I was going to work with small business owners exclusively and set out to figure out how I could do that. There’s something equal parts gratifying and terrifying about doing work directly for the person paying the bill.

And that’s part of my purpose story.

The Positioning Story

This is the story that illustrates how you want the market to perceive your brand. Of course, perception is partly a goal and partly a measurement because some things are out of your hands. A true positioning story, however, is one that authentically captures your purpose in action – it’s how purpose is packaged in a way that allows the intended market to connect.

And, the best positioning, the best positioning stories can usually be summed up in one word.

Early on in my marketing consulting business I was invited to be part of a pitch for a very large piece of business. It was a national firm that wanted to hire a national ad agency, but also include a local marketing support company for the local branch.

The New York ad agency sent five people, all clad in black head to toe and armed with a 100-page deck filled with research and recommendations.

When it came time for me to offer my two cents I said something like – I don’t know, why don’t we just talk to some of your current customers? The meeting ended and the next day the VP that was conducting the search called and said he wanted me to do the entire project without the New York ad agency. To this day I can hear him say why – “you were the only one that said anything that was practical.”

And that’s part of my positioning story.

The Personality Story

This is the story that gets at how people experience your purpose or brand. This is the story that illustrates the traits that are on display in every action, product, service, decision, hire, process or promotion.

There’s a story behind how I came up with the name Duct Tape Marketing, but the real reason this name has served my brand so well is the association that people already have with all things duct tape. This allows them to connect their own personal stories of simple, effective and affordable use of this cuddly gray sticky stuff. (Okay, cuddly might be over the top, but you get it.)

The name comes packaged with its own personality traits and the only trick is to make sure that people experience the brand and the business in that same way.

And now for where the name came from . . . with apologies to my daughters.

My wife I decided to take a little mini vacation and figured the two oldest girls (high school sophomore and junior) could act as babysitters. You probably know where this is going and you’re right.

The party peeked at about 100 people I’m told. One of the guests decided to take my car for spin as well and bumped it into something just hard enough to knock a piece of plastic bumper off. In an effort to hide the damage my daughters duct taped the piece masterfully back in place.

There is a chance they would have gotten away with it too, but they carelessly left the role of duct tape sitting on the car hood, creating immediate suspicion when we arrived home.

The thing is, that’s when I knew Duct Tape Marketing would be the perfect name. If a sixteen year old could recognize the simple, effective and affordable use, then it might just be universally true as well.

And that’s part of my personality story.

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John Jantsch

John Jantsch is a marketing consultant, speaker and author of Duct Tape Marketing, Duct Tape Selling, The Commitment Engine and The Referral Engine and the founder of the Duct Tape Marketing Consultant Network.
  • John,

    You’ve used some fantastic examples of story telling.  (I love where the actual name of Duct Tape Marketing came from!) Reminds me of Godin’s book, “All Marketers are Liers/Tell Stories.” 

    The story really is the intangible that sets one business apart from another. 

    • I’ve been talking about using personal stories in marketing for years now and it’s funny but I used to get push back from people who didn’t think their story had any business in, well, business. Now I find people totally get this and realize they have to let the world know there’s a person in there.

      • This is one of the great advantages of a small businesses; They can bring the personal touch, via these stories, and strike a chord with customers that larger, more impersonal businesses cannot. Just like your anecdote about the NY marketing firm with loads of data, but without the common sense personal touch that can get lost under the reams of generic statistics and spreadsheets.

  • doncampbell

    Fantastic – I really like your stories John. I’ve been exploring how people connect with stories, and true to your positioning 🙂 you’ve really put this out there in a practical way by providing real-world examples of each of the four core stories. 
    Thank you!

    • Thanks Don – it actually takes a bit of courage to expose yourself like this, but I do think it’s worth it.

  • AJ

    Nice post John, it hits home! I hope other can find the greatness in it.

  • Great examples and tips here. Great post!

  • Well done.  Thanks for sharing a couple of your stories and for pointing out the different types of stories a business should think about.  Love the photo as well.  That dog looks awesome!

    • I kind of thought that image was perfect too

  • Hi John,
    Thanks for this great post. Really loved reading it. You always are on the edge of thinking outside the box and very clever.

  • The idea that the best leaders are great storytellers  is spot-on. The personality story is the hardest one to tell because consistency is required.

  • This gave me so much to think about.  I just wrote my own four stories. Thank you for the great examples!

  • Um, where’s the value story? You know, the one that’s all about the customer and explains how their use of your product or service creates amazing value for them. While all the stories in your post are interesting, they’re all about you; when I’m talking to prospects and customers, I make it all about them.

    • Um, here’s my contention – until you build these stories for yourself you’ll never fully understand how to build the one that’s all about the customer . . . here’s the money quote you may have missed – “and then a business must invite their employees, customers and networks to help build these stories into journeys worth taking over and over again.

  • Great post. I always look at company’s mission statements.