Updated: Oct 3, 2022

Since moving into marketing six years ago, I’ve been fascinated by how storytelling is how applied in the field. There are lots of frameworks and different definitions of what a story means.

To me, a story can be both an underlying core message and an external narrative that lives on an about page.

Stories In. Stories Out.

* There are the stories that live INSIDE the business that bring everyone onto the same page

* And the stories that live OUTSIDE the business and invite people in.

I like to think of it as a tree with a root system. Stories go into the business like a root system. We shape them according to your strategy and decide what to share. The branches of the tree are the stories you share with the outside world.

A word on story frameworks

Before going further, a word of caution: there are many great frameworks, but none of them fits every situation. Truth is, it’s tricky to construct your own brand story.

Most of us find it hard to categorise ourselves and boil things down. There’s a saying, “It’s hard to read the label of the jar when you’re on the inside.”

That’s why you might want to work with someone like me to tell your story.

TOOL 1: Generate story ideas with a timeline

A timeline is a great way to organise events that happen to a character. When you are the main character, it’s a useful exercise, too, for jotting down major life events and changes.

I’ve seen a few layouts in my time, but I found my favourite from Carol McKay, who has a design background.

It’s a simple grid, with positive and negative emotions on the vertical axis. Dates are on the horizontal axis.

In the example below, Steph Clarke, a leadership consultant, plots her life events, from when she left school until now.

My trade secrets revealed

This exercise identifies key life events. Looking at each event in turn and you can illuminate your experience, skills, values and traits.

Digging and distilling these details gives you a sense of what makes you distinctive.

Take each event and list what you were feeling, thinking and doing.

Consider what you learned from each experience and what steps you took next as a result.

What values were at play or challenged in each event?

TOOL 2: Use StoryBrand to clarify your message

StoryBrand is the classic book on telling a brand story by Donald Miller.

Before the book, Robert McKee had codified the structure of Hollywood movies. Donald Miller was first to use that structure as a simple framework for marketing.

StoryBrand to Clarify your message

When I first read StoryBrand, I was very excited. I told anyone who’d listen about it.

But once I started to put it into practice, I found scenarios where the rules didn’t always apply. So my enthusiasm for StoryBrand has faded a little.

In the end, this is what is most useful about StoryBrand:

  1. Position the brand as the guide, and position the customer as the hero.
  2. Put yourself in the shoes of the customer and imagine how the world looks from their perspective.
  3. Consider the challenge the hero faces. Break this down into an external problem, internal problem and philosophical problem.
  4. Personify the “villain” as a physical entity, like those ugly germs in detergent ads.
  5. Explain how the guide can show their authority (their credentials). And how can they show empathy for the hero?
  6. Make an offer to the customer and a transitional offer for people who aren’t ready to go ahead yet.
  7. Craft a clear call to action. This message should drive your customer towards the successful state they desire and away from a failure state.
  8. Make sure you craft a simple message that’s easy to repeat.

One of the most useful aspects of StoryBrand is looking at the world from the customer’s point of view. Consider the challenges they face in practical, emotional, and philosophical terms.

To do this, Miller includes a customer transformation grid, which is the next tool I’m going to outline.

TOOL 3: Walk through the customer transformation

The third tool we’re looking at is Ryan Deiss’ customer transformation grid.

Here we look at the customer before and after your product.

Answer the following questions, considering the before and after state to complete the table below.

  • What does the customer have, or not have? What are the surface-level problems and struggles your customer is facing?
  • What do they feel? This question takes you deeper into the emotional landscape experienced by your customer.
  • What does an average day look like for them in practical terms – what are they bumping up against? What’s it like to walk in their shoes?
  • What’s their status in the world? What is their identity – how does your customer see themselves in relation to others?
  • Bonus question: What’s an ‘evil’ that’s plaguing the customer in the “before” state? How does your prospect conquer it and bring more good to the world in the “after” state?

Building a Brand Story

PRO TIP: When I work with clients who offer transformative experiences (my ideal clients), I add a column to examine each of these DURING the service.

TOOL 4: Write your seven stories and mine them

My next tool is one that I get excited about. I take this to the next level when I work with clients.

It’s called Seven Stories, and Louise Karch, author of Word Glue, recommended it to me.

It’s an exercise from the book “What Color Is Your Parachute?” a long-standing job-hunting book from Richard N. Bolles.

It invites you to look at 5-7 stories of things that happened in your life. This exercise identifies your transferrable skills and the ones you enjoy using most.

There’s a grid of skills to measure and then categorise each one relative to the others.

It’s a time-consuming but satisfying activity. You’ll end up with a comprehensive inventory of your skills.

This is a great exercise if you’re feeling uncertain about your abilities. Or if you feel like your skills have changed. It’s also a great starting point if you want to build a personal brand around your skills.

PRO TIP: I like to expand the possibilities of this exercise. So, besides examining skills, we mine each story to examine your values and traits.

These stories provide “stories in” that shape your core narrative for your brand. Some of them can become “stories out” for your brand. You could use them in a pitch, interview, or on social media.

Prompts for finding your stories

If you have difficulty identifying stories to analyse, you can look at your timeline (tool one) or use one of the following prompts.

Think about:

  • A situation when you felt connected to something bigger than yourself.
  • Something you did, which other people didn’t expect you could.
  • A time when you felt most alive.
  • An experience that stands out because you’re proud of what you accomplished.
  • Helping someone or making someone else’s life better.
  • Something that was exciting or inspiring to you.
  • An experience you look back on fondly.
  • An experience that taught you something, even if it wasn’t fun at the time
  • An experience that required you to take a risk.

The framework for analysing your stories

Take each story in turn ‌and write about it, answering the following questions:

  • Your goal: What did you want to accomplish?
  • What kind of obstacle, limit, hurdle, or restraint you had to overcome before you could meet your goal?
  • Outline what you did, step by step, as far as you remember.
  • Describe the result – what did you achieve?
  • List any measure or quantities to prove your achievement

Once you have your results and your stories written up, you categorise them using a grid.

As you fill in the grid, you’ll see patterns and priorities. You then prioritise them further in this grid.

Once youv’e field out the grid you can then put them into building blocks to see what skills you enjoy most

TOOL FIVE: Use the Pixar Story Spine to tell your story

OK, we’ve covered a lot of ground. If you’re still here, congratulations! You’re a serious story junkie, like me.

Here’s the last tool I’m sharing today. For obvious reasons, Pixar gets a lot of credit for its story powers.

I have summed the Pixar story grid up in several ways but one of the most useful is here, outlined by Kenn Adams.

The Story Spine

According to Pixar, there are a few important questions to ask about your story:

  • Why must you tell THIS story?
  • What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of?
  • What greater purpose does this serve? What does it teach?

I like the Pixar story spine, but I suspect it’s more useful for fictional stories, or a customer journey. I’m less convinced it works for brand stories.

Let’s try it out with my brand as an example.

Firstly, I’ll ask the three questions above and answer them.

  • My brand story is about realising your full potential, not settling for the life laid out before you.
  • My burning belief is that people deserve to navigate towards the future they desire.
  • My purpose is to help creative business owners overcome blocks and share a story that strategically guides their future.

If I map the Pixar story spine to tell my story, it would look something like this:

Once upon a time there was a woman called Sara who loved to tell true stories.

Every day she went to work making documentaries. She met interesting people and shaped their experiences into engaging storylines for television.

But one day, Sara’s job at the BBC ended. She looked around and realised while she’d been telling other people’s stories, she had neglected her own.

Because of that, she travelled to Australia, following her intuition, with no plan.

Because of that, she had to build her reputation from nothing and re-establish her career. Then she started a family and found her career didn’t fit with being a caregiver. So she started again in marketing.

Because of all these reinventions, Sara was scared she wouldn’t realise her potential.

Until finally, she launched her own business, telling stories for businesses. She tried and tested every storytelling tool she could lay her hands on. None of these frameworks worked perfectly, so Sara gradually tweaked them to make them her own.

And ever since then, she’s been helping creative business owners tell strategic stories. She also nurtures her clients to overcome mindset blocks, the kind she’s had to overcome herself.

Her goal is to give them stories they feel they can own. So they can shape the life they’d always dreamed of.

What do you reckon? This story is a little clunky, but you get the gist. If you like this tool, have a play with it yourself. I’d love to see what you come up with.

If you’ve caught the bug and become obsessed with story frameworks, Pixar offers a free storytelling course at Khan academy, where they share some of their secrets and frameworks.

If you enjoyed this article, make sure you’re on the list to be the first to know about storytelling workshops.