5 Ways to Become a Master Storyteller

To develop a good brand, you have to be a great storyteller.

learn more about Julie Cottineau

By Julie Cottineau


Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

A great brand is a story well–told. Whether you're a high school student, intern, CEO, entrepreneur or job-seeker, you need a good brand, especially in this climate. And to develop a good brand, you have to be a great storyteller.

Here are five tips to make sure your brand (and your business) become a best-seller.

1. Real, relevant and rich.

Despite what your mother might have told you, we do judge a book by its cover -- and definitely by its first sentence. That's why you need to pay more attention to the opening of your story than any other part. Whether you're speaking in front of a crowd of 500 or across the table with just one key potential client, you need to grab their attention and bring them into the story from the get-go. What's the best way to do this? Make it real, relevant and rich. Instead of the usually blah, blah, blah of the year your company was founded, bring listeners directly into the moment you created the idea for your business. Fill the story with specific sights, sounds, smells and emotions. Make them feel like they were right there with you.

Related: The 5 Elements of Storytelling Every Entrepreneur Needs to Know

2. Be twisted.

To become a great storyteller, it helps to think about your favorite stories (TV, movies, print) and what they have in common. Chances are they all have a great plot twist. Something unexpected that happens, that keeps your attention.

I define the "twist" as the key ingredient in creating a unique brand story. It involves identifying the tangible and intangible differences that you bring to your business, knowing what sets you apart from other companies that offer the same basic products and services and how your personal experience and personality bring your brand and business to life.

I was fortunate to work as the VP Brand for Virgin Management for five years, during which I was exposed first hand to the power of the twist. Virgin founder Sir Richard Branson is the king of twisting. Branson was originally a record company executive in the 1970s with absolutely no experience running an airline. Bored with the staid flying experiences of traditional airlines, he conceived of a "party in the sky" experience complete with a disco ball and a full-service cocktail bar in the cabin. Virgin Atlantic Airways was born. Branson has been twisting ever since in industries as varied as mobile telephones, transportation and even space ships. In all this business creation, he looks for the twist that creates a better experience, a better brand story for the consumer.

Related: Storytelling Could Bring Your Brand to Life and Strengthen Your Marketing Impact

3. Share the "ugly."

We learn most in moments of failure. When things go wrong, there is often a positive unexpected twist of something going right.

One failure story I love is about Steven Spielberg's making of Jaws. They were having issues with the mechanical shark. They couldn't get it to work as well as they wanted and it was supposed to be a very prominent character in many of the scenes. Time and budgets were tight and they couldn't afford to stop shooting and fix the shark every time it malfunctioned. Their adjusted plan was to show less of the shark and more of the water, while hinting at the shark through a dramatic sound track. Who can forget that dunt-dunt, dunt-dunt, dunt-dunt? Spielberg later admitted that this "failure" resulted in a more impactful story. The threat of the shark was much scarier.

4. Have conflict, heroes and resolution.

The key component of my own brand story began when I was just a little girl growing up in a seaside suburb of Boston. While I was a happy little girl, one thing was missing. I desperately wanted a pet: a dog, cat, hamster something fuzzy to call my own.

Related: From Bedtime to the Boardroom: Why Storytelling Matters in Business

Unfortunately, my older brother was allergic, so it was out of the question. Being eight, I went into our backyard garden, got a rock, put it in an empty Cool Whip container with a few blades of grass for nourishment, poked a few holes in the lid for it to breathe and…voilà, instant pet rock. My parents wouldn't realize I was a branding genius until a few years later when Gary Dahl, a copywriter in San Francisco, became the official inventor of the Pet Rock and made millions of dollars from this "fad." He came up with the idea one night in a bar after he was tired of seeing his friends get up and leave one by one to walk their dogs or feed their cats.

On the surface, Gary and I have nothing in common: we were different ages, had different occupations and lived in different parts of the country. But actually there was one big similarity to our stories: we were both trying to solve a consumer problem. Mine was for a non-allergenic pet, his was for a low maintenance one. We both twisted to think of a unique solution to an old problem. Rather than work within the traditional pet category to come up with our solutions, we looked elsewhere -- to a rock.

Great storytelling presents obstacles, and then delivers new and different ways to surmount these challenges.

5. Give them a memoir, not a biography.

An effective brand story is not a biography. It's a personal memoir. Leave out the bits that don't help the listener "get" you right away. Focus on "what's in it for me" for the listener right away. Story telling is not soul-baring. Leave that for your therapist.

Include personal details, but make them relevant to your business and most importantly to your audience. Cate, a Brand School graduate, runs a successful research moderation business. In her personal brand story, she mentioned that she was the oldest girl in a family of 10. She linked this to her business by saying: "I guided kitchen table conversations, was driven to understand the why behind my siblings' actions and my parents' decisions and I strove to solve problems each night at dinner. Today, I've built a career on uncovering the why."

Julie Cottineau

Founder and CEO of BrandTwist

Julie Cottineau, author of Twist: How Fresh Perspectives Build Breakthrough Brands, is founder and CEO of BrandTwist, a brand consultancy, and creator of Brand School Online. Prior to aunching her own business, she was vice president of brand at Richard Branson’s Virgin Group.

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