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Five Types Of Stories You Can Use In Marketing (And How)

Sitting around a fire and telling stories at night time.

This must be one of the most ancient, enduring and comforting of all human past times.

As Barry Lopez put it in his book Crow and Weasel – “Sometimes a person needs a story more than food to stay alive.”

As the old Scottish traveller Duncan Williamson put it in his book The Flight of the Golden Bird “… schools were not valued by the Travelling community. Instead, stories were told and retold and passed on. Stories were the education which gave you the lessons you needed to grow up to be a good person.”

I could go on.

But you’re here to learn about marketing.

It’s worthwhile asking: why do humans have such a hard time remembering abstract ideas, theorems and theories, concepts and categories but have such an easy time remembering stories?

Perhaps, as Stephen Jenkinson put it, it’s because the human mind is in the shape of a story.

It’s the difference between content and context.

Ah… but I’m already doing it aren’t I? I’m going into abstract jargon.

In a way, you could say there are three things a story in marketing needs to convey: The Problem, the Premise and the Promise.

So, let me tell you the five main types of stories you can use in your marketing.

Story Type #1: The Problem – Their Story Before They Met You

I did that when I crafted The Story Of Jane The Holistic Practitioner based on the stories I kept hearing from participants of my live workshops. I can’t tell you how many practitioners I’ve met who’ve read this and said, “It’s actually frightening how accurate that story was.”

You can also write little ‘micro stories‘ that will have your ideal clients saying, ‘That’s me!’ not ‘That’s nice…’

A micro story is a way of taking a generic symptom (e.g. sore feet) and bringing it alive by putting it in the clothing of a particular situation (e.g. “Have you ever gone travelling with all your heavy luggage and your feet ended up hurting so much that you had to find a bench and stop walking for an hour?”) That second one is much better.

I often hear people say, “I want clients that are generous.” But that’s not a story. You could turn it into a micro story by saying, “You’re the kind of person who always tips at least 20% when you eat out and, if you judge people’s character by how they treat the server.” You’re saying the same thing but saying it better by putting it into storied form.

Stories are powerful in marketing. In fact, they can do a lot to make marketing feel less contrived, ‘try hard’ and gross. They’re engaging without you trying to be convincing, if that makes sense.

A few days ago, I shared with you an example of how you can express your product through story. And months ago, I shared an example of what a common story of a holistic practitioner might be.

Here’s an example of a ‘micro story’ (from a colleague Milana Leshinksy) but one that is still incredibly compelling and hits the nail on the head.

Four important things to note about this story:

  • It’s in the third person. Which I love. In the marketing world, there’s a sense that everything needs to be in second person. Meaning, “Are you overwhelmed with things?” Using the word ‘you’ a lot. This can be powerful. It can also feel contrived and extremely leading. It can feel warm at times but it can also feel like a feigned, faux warmth. It can be experienced as you trying to create a sense of intimacy vs. actual intimacy. You likely see this on ads where they say, ‘are you struggling to make enough money? are you overloaded with debt? are you stuck in a job you hate?‘ And sometimes it feels really ‘salesy’. Or worse – invasive. Some people have such immense shame about their situation that to name it and speak to it directly or invite them to identify themselves directly is too scary. But a story in the third person, about another person is like a safe invitation. It lets you connect where you see the fit. A story is an offering – it doesn’t demand anything.
  • It nails it. This story is so common! This story demonstrates a keen empathy and understanding of the situation of many of her clients and potential clients. Now this one is about money. But the same thing could be written about relationships, health of spiritual angst. So many people would read this story and say, ‘wow. that’s so me!’ Could you do this with you clients life experience?
  • What else have they tried? I love this question. Ask yourself, ‘what other tools, routes, strategies and approaches have my clients tried before coming to me? And how do they feel about that?’ If you can acknowledge the road they’ve already been on . . . well that feels really good.
  • It’s so short! I love how short she made this. I’m not very good at short. I want to coin the term ‘micro story’. Coined!


The Story:

Once upon a time there was a business owner who wasn’t making any money.

She tried to publish an e-zine, submit articles, learn about search engines, and host teleclasses.

Her colleagues told her to do more free consults with prospects, but she had very limited time and, frankly, wasn’t really good at it.

Her coach told her to get out and speak to networking groups, but she had two children at home and didn’t want to travel.

Her husband told her to lower her rates, but that only attracted “nightmare” clients.

Nothing she ever did generated much business, so she continued to struggle.

Then one day she discovered a marketing strategy that changed her life. She started selling thousands dollars worth of her coaching products and programs, top industry leaders wanted to work with her, and  she no longer worried about money.

You can also check out the interview I did with her about Online Summits here

Below are some videos that might help you do this.

Story Type: #2: The Promise – Testimonials

A testimonial is where your clients testify to how it was to work with you.

The worst kind are the ones that say, “Awesome!” – KJ.

But who the hell is KJ? And why was it awesome?

The best kinds of testimonials are when your clients tell the story of how they came across you, what their problem was that brought them to you, what it was like working with you and what happened in their life as a result.

If you liked that video you might also enjoy reading How To Get Great Testimonials (Without Pressuring or Badgering).

Story Type #3: The Problem, Premise & Promise – Case Studies – Their Story After Working With You

What is a case study?

It’s you telling the story of what happened.

“This client came to me with __________ (issue). It was really awful. I sat down with them and we spoke about it and it became clear that what was really going on underneath the surface was ________ (diagnosis). Based on that, I prescribed the following protocol and then it was better.”

That’s the crass version of the thing.

A case study conveys the before, during and after.

A case study shows how your fancy, articulate point of view worked on something in the real world.

They came in with a problem, I had the following premise about it and that resulted in a certain promised land being reached. Problem. Premise. Promise.

Example #1 – Art College:

In 2012, I was in London, teaching some people about marketing. The topic of case studies, another word for stories, came up and one woman raised her hand to share about how her daughter had been trying to choose which art college to go to and was having the hardest time.

So she did what you or I would have done: she spent a lot of time on their websites.

Three of the websites were all about the colleges.

The fourth was all about what their students had done with their education. The website was full of stories of the amazing art projects their students had gotten into since graduating.

That’s the college she signed up for. The art college told stories of the Promise.

Example #2 – My Mentorship Program:

Three years ago, I created my Mentorship Program. My initial sales letter was very bare bones. Like a letter typed quickly on an old type writer. It was my best attempt to convey this new idea I had. Something I’d never done before.

“Here’s what I’m thinking of doing and how it will go and how much it will cost.”

That’s basically what it said.

And that wasn’t bad.

But, recently, I got up thirteen case studies of alumni onto that sales page. And it’s made it come alive. 

Example #3 – Verge Permaculture:

Years ago, the good folks at Verge Permaculture (Rob and Michelle pictured above) decided to spend $10,000 on marketing videos. But not videos about them. No no. They made ten videos about their grads and the amazing things they’d done with their education. You can watch them here.

It’s a brilliant idea. Don’t tell them how great you are at teaching. Show them what your students have done with what they learned. Don’t tell them your intent. Show them your impact.

Example #4 – Stories For Networking: In my eBook Crystal Clear (linked to below), I lay out a five step process (that I learned from Robert Middleton) for articulating what you do, even when it seems impossible.

I’ll give them to you here:

  1. “You know how __________ (kinds of people)
  2. Struggle with ___________ (the nature of the problem)
  3. Well, what I do is help them to _________ (name of the result you offer them).
  4. For example, ________ (tell them a story of how you’ve helped others achieve this result).
  5. And the way I do that is (tell them the practical details and nuts and bolts).”

Those first three steps are the basis of the niching work I help people with and it’s vital.

But step #4, the story, is where it all comes alive.

I’ve led workshops where I had people spend two days articulating those first three to each other over and over, getting feedback each time, and then, finally, one of them told a story of a client they worked with and I’d hear people say, “Oh! Now I get what you do!”

They had just spent two days articulating what they do to each other.

But one five minute story is better than two days of jargon.

Stories take all your ideas and theories and locate them.

They give them a stamp of time and place.

Stories give your content a context.

Stories bring your ideas to life.

Stories help your people understand what the hell you do in a way that jargon and concepts never will.

Remember this always: the confused mind says ‘no’.

And nothing is clearer to us than a good story.

Story Type #4: The Problem, Premise & Promise – Your Bio – Your Story Of How You Got To Be Able To Help Them

And, of course, your story will show up in your bio (which is much better than a resume). Your bio is your story and is a big part of the reason why people might choose you over someone else. This kind of story is about building credibility in their minds that you can solve their problem, that your premise came from somewhere trustworthy in the real world and that you can deliver on what you’re promising. 

And, of course, this is why, for those in the healing or helping arts, this next video is so important.

As Ellen Shapiro wrote in the comments,  a more refined question here might be: ‘Around which wounds have I had the most healing/growth?’ (to most confidently guide, teach and lead others).

Story Type #5: Premise – Stories of Similar Things & Themes

Matthew Stillman (pictured here) has one of the best email newsletters out there.

His business Primal Derma is simple enough: it’s a beef tallow based skin care product. It’s the only skin care product I use. Nothing else I’ve tried even comes close to it. But if you sell such a product, then what do you put in your newsletters? The latest science on the bioavailability of rendered beef fat for human skin (which is incredibly high)? Articles about cows? Videos of him rendering? Okay. Sure. But what then?

Well, each email Matthew sends out tells a story of some other remarkable something connected to living a hand made life (or that which compromises it). Here are three titles to whet your whistle:

Zoom: A Wondering About the Consequence of Speed, Roads, and Trails

On A Swiss Approach To Funereal Times: The Culture and The Biome

The Necessary Slowness of Making Meaning: Phaethon, Tunguska, and Coronavirus

You can read them all on his blog

And, after each story, Matthew tastefully ties the story and its themes into the remarkable work he does with a reminder that he is still, indeed, selling Primal Derma and how to get it.

Each email is a reminder about his product that I love getting.


If you want to read those thirteen case studies from my Mentorship Program, and see if it’s a fit for you, you can do so here.

And, if that’s not a fit, you might consider booking an hour of my time to work on some thorny problem area of your business to see what we can do (if you’re struggling with your niche – this hour could be especially useful). You can book that hour here.

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