The most engaging stories and brands don’t tell people what to think. They paint a picture with words, images, narratives, and sounds, so customers feel the resonance of their story.

Here are seven steps to unearthing a brand story

  1. Start with hunches

Before the interview, based on early research, I may have hunches about their story.

For example:

  • When I developed a brand story for a school on an island, I wondered how its location shaped its purpose and identity.

  • When I spoke with an illustrator who moved from China to New York, I wondered what drew her there and what aspects of life in China she wanted to leave behind.

These hunches are useful places to explore that may deliver gold or not once you get deeper into the process.

2. Be fully present at the interview

When most people tell a story, they have a collection of moments they want to share but don’t know why. They present fragments that are clues to the bigger picture.

When I listen, I’m listening to what they say and also what they don’t say.

For example, if they say, “I also had a lot of problems with my mother/ partner around that time, but that’s another story.” I immediately want to know that other story because I suspect it’s not a separate matter. So they’ve dropped a clue.

The interview is a mix of deep listening to what people say and digging into what they gloss over. Then I make connections between those two elements.

Your own life can be a useful mirror or jumping-off point but try to avoid imposing your narrative onto others.

How do you get people to open up to you?

The key to getting people to open up to you is both simple and profound. The answer is to care deeply about them, and they sense it.

When people feel safe, they open up. This is partly about being fully present and making a connection with them.

3. Look at the precise words used

Fifteen years in documentary-making taught me deep listening skills. There were days on location when my job was only to listen and to check we got the ‘grabs’ we needed to make our narrative flow. In television, that means having a clean moment to edit in and out, comments delivered in full sentences and with emotion.

When I interview a client, I listen with complete focus.

Usually, I’ll get a sense of those ‘aha’ moments as they happen, but I also rely on transcripts. I go back over what people said and look the exact words they used. I listen again to remind myself of the emotion behind the words at the time.

4. Start to spot patterns

I’m programmed to look for storylines or patterns in behaviour. If someone says something happened for the first time, I wonder whether actually, it’s a pattern that’s been repeating over time.

Or if someone tells me about past behaviour or a pattern they’re now finished with, I’m likely to wonder whether it will recur.

When I see the possibility of patterns, I raise them as a question and listen to the response.

5. Figure out the story beneath the story

When you’re crafting a story, you need to know the underlying tension you’re exploring, but you don’t need to reveal it. The same is true for a brand.

Some examples from my past work:

  • A documentary about a famous boxing rivalry is really the story of destruction and resurrection.

  • A documentary about the Goth subculture is really looking at how outsiders build community.

  • A school exists to provide protection and nurturing in nature

  • An art dealer exists to offer people beauty to transform their lives

There are endless possibilities.

I like to find the story by asking myself, what’s at stake?

Ask “What’s at stake here?”

6. Harvest stories in two stages

To find stories, we need to harvest information. We do this twice. First, we do it in an open non-judgmental way, this allows us to see the patterns and through lines.

The second time we see the customer as the protagonist, working to achieve an outcome. The brand is (you are) the guide who helps them reach their goals. How does the brand affect the customer through the interaction?

What’s the practical, emotional, or status transformation that your customer goes through?

We draw from interviews, testimonials and feedback to develop customer research. Then we align their experiences with the role of the brand.  This helps identify a through narrative.

7. Shape stories to bolster your underlying narrative

Once you have the overarching narrative clear, you can look for other stories that illustrate and bolster it. These could come from staff, customers, partners or your community.