I told my friends that they needed to make up an imaginary friend named Bob.

People could relate to a big guy named Bob.

My friends own a small dance studio in downtown Tacoma, WA and their students were slow to commit to anything more than a few classes at a time, so money was tight.

We all sat down one afternoon and talked it out. They were doing a lot of things right; they cared about the long term relationship over the transaction, they tried to cultivate those relationships, they strove to give more than their customers expected, they wanted to connect with their students.

But they missed the stories.

Stories Matter to Everyone

People need something to connect to, and their clients needed to see themselves in the overall story. That’s where Bob comes in.

Since my friends only had a few very specific customer stories, I told them to create a composite story and name him Bob. Their studio has a large 12×7 picture window facing the street that was perfect for telling Bob’s story of social outcast turned dancing star and ladies man. If they wanted something for the ladies, I told them a story about “Cindy” would do just fine, relating a similar situation for our dance-challenged heroine.

The drawings didn’t need to be fancy, stick figures would do. And long winded prose should give way to quick concise sentences. It’s the story that matters, and how much it resonates.

Too Few Stories Out in the Wild

I can only speculate why, but too many small businesses avoid stories in favor of marketing speak and persuasive writing. Such a mistake.

Your stories can be the premier way people decide to do business with you.

Three reasons stories are worth investing in:

1) They Highlight the Problem

People only care about their problems, not about benefits or advantages. Good stories naturally begin with a problem and work towards it’s resolution.

The good use of story allows you to focus the customer’s attention on the problem first, but lead them to a solution. So instead of having to figure out all the reasons why your product is great (benefits etc) you can focus on customers and relationships.

2) Stories Transport

When someone hears a good story, they transport themselves through the misty void into the world you create. The process is called simulation and it’s extremely valuable. Here’s why.

Everything is competing for your customer’s attention these days and gaining their attention, even for a moment is a challenge, and a triumph. Stories make that process much easier because when a human being runs into a well told story they automatically start imagining the story. You have their attention, and once you have that you can start building a relationship.

3) Stories are Shareable

The right story at the right time is magic, and people love to share the magic. Not every story you tell or your customer’s tell is going to be magic, but stories get listened to more than marketing messages or slogans. Why wouldn’t you cultivate more?

So what’s next? How do you make up these stories?

The best stories you can tell are not made up, they are found. I’m speaking here of testimonials. But even if you get someone to give you a story about their experience, it has to follow a story format.

1) Problem – What was wrong? What did they expect would be wrong?

2) Decision – When they decided to act, how did that feel? Why?

3) Hardships – What were some of the things going through their head? Did they try to talk themselves out of this?

4) Victory – How did the outcome feel?

This is obviously a different format than your usual “Mr X is so wonderful, he paid attention to all my needs and made me so happy. I will certainly tell all my friends about him and his great service. I couldn’t be happier!” Puke.

Instead, create a hand out with the outline from above (tweaked for your needs of course) and ask your customers for stories. Those stories will be real and believable, which translates into more business.

“But I’m just starting out, I don’t have customers”

That’s where Bob comes in. Nothing is going to work like a well told story from one of your ecstatic patrons, but in a pinch you can tell a  tell a good story without them. Just use your imagination.

Good storytelling is an art, a science, but mostly it’s a habit. As a business owner it’s one you should cultivate soon.